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Take the Crazy Out of Busy: How to Live a Balanced Life

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Reframe Your Schedule

Now frame your day.

One reason a hectic feeling overtakes us is that we rarely distinguish necessary tasks from those that aren't. Give yourself some structure by looking at a weekly calendar. Fill in your top nonnegotiable daily items first -- work hours, a sit-down family dinner, and eight hours of sleep, for example -- then consider your energy flow to schedule the next must-do: an exercise session. Are you a lark or a night owl? "Claim the time that works best with your natural energy cycles for a workout," says Julie Morgenstern, a productivity consultant and the author of Time Management from the Inside Out. And be sure to enter it in your phone or work calendar. "If it isn't scheduled, it isn't real," says Melissa McCreery, PhD, a psychologist in Bellingham, Washington, and the creator of "A vague thought like, I'll get to the gym and do something for 40 minutes later today, just doesn't cut it." Also, try to limit your to-do list to no more than five concrete items to avoid being overwhelmed, concentrate on one task at a time, and finish the chores that you want to do least early in the day.

Time out
Morgenstern suggests taking a few minutes at the end of each day to prepare for the next three days. That way, you can forecast potential obstacles: Is that 4:00 p.m. meeting on Tuesday going to interfere with my workout? Do I know where that Pilates DVD I'm going to use on Thursday morning is? "By looking forward, you're more likely to honor the structure you've already set and to handle any surprises that pop up," she explains.

Just say no.

When you boil down your life to the areas that most deserve your time and focus, Vanderkam says, you usually end up with three: relationships, which can include both family and friends; self-care and nurturing; and career. Next time you're asked to volunteer or give your time to something or someone, ask yourself if the task falls into one of those three categories: Will it foster a relationship you want? Will it help you become the best person you can be? Will it build your career? If not, think twice about it. "That doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't do it," Vanderkam says. "It just means, don't automatically say yes."

Time out
If you're a people pleaser and the idea of saying no makes you a little queasy, Farmer recommends that you be as nice as possible but firm. "Say something like, 'Thank you for thinking of me, but I'm going to have to pass this time. Good luck finding someone else,'" she says. "You don't have to overexplain."

Don't set your workout bar too high.

"Exercise makes you mentally sharper, more creative and efficient, and better able to cope with stress," McCreery says. "The busier you are, the more important it becomes." Even so, workouts can easily be shoved aside on hectic days because they can seem so onerous. "Many people think, I have to run five miles or it doesn't count," Farmer says. "Not true." Doing walk-run intervals for two miles is much better than no workout at all. Similarly, consider whether you have a setup that will help you succeed: Is your gym a reasonable distance away and not a 25-minute commute? Do you have space to exercise at home?

Time out
In order to embrace the exercise you have scheduled, Farmer recommends that you start with an activity you love -- running, biking, a Zumba video -- for a duration that feels "almost ridiculously easy," even 15 minutes. Stop before you feel exhausted, so that you come back wanting more the next day, and slowly increase workout length once you're in the groove.

Enjoy your free time.

Nobody says you have to be scheduled down to the nanosecond with productive tasks, workouts, and relationship building. In fact, if you don't factor in downtime, your hamster wheel is only going to spin faster, and you're eventually going to fall off. "If you keep pushing and pushing, you become more and more inefficient and depleted, when all you truly need is a break to reboot," Farmer says.

"Consciously choose when you are going to have downtime, then embrace it," Vanderkam says. "Our temptation is to fill empty moments with low-value activities; you could be sitting in your backyard and truly relaxing, but instead you're deleting e-mails from your in-box." If you're watching a Real Housewives marathon, don't have another screen in front of you. If you're reading a book, try not to let your mind wander to what you have to do tomorrow. If you're eating lunch, the only thing that should be in your hand is a utensil, not your phone.

Time out
You don't need hours to relax, nor do you need to wait until the end of the day or the weekend to do it. Intentionally take a break after you check two or three things off your to-do list: Indulge in a 20-minute power nap; grab a cup of tea and just sit and savor it; call a friend and catch up. You'll return to your tasks with new energy. "If you wait to reward yourself until you're all done, you're likely not to do it," Farmer says. "Something else will demand your attention."

Status Update: Control Digital Distractions

"Up to 40 percent of a person's time is stolen by invisible time thieves like social media and not making deliberate decisions about how you will spend your day," says Julie Morgenstern, a productivity consultant in New York City. Here's how to stay on track.

Be mindful when you read your e-mail. Otherwise, you'll read some messages twice, forget to answer others, and end up just wasting time. "When you open a message, be prepared to answer it or file it to be answered later at a specific time in your schedule," Morgenstern says. "Go in with a purpose; don't be checking it constantly."

Set timers for social media. A few minutes on Facebook or Pinterest can easily turn into more than an hour. Give yourself what feels like a reasonable amount of time -- say, 15 to 30 minutes twice a day -- to catch up on social media, and then stop. Try the online tools at or if you need help policing yourself.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, June 2013.


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