4 steps to creating a schedule that balances to-do's with self-care

At the beginning of stay-home measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, schedules were the highly touted strategy from astronauts, parenting experts, productivity columns, and even beauty magazines as the key to staying sane.

But when sleeping in or eating at all hours feels like the easier choice, it can be hard to remember why keeping to a schedule is important. "Schedules provide some predictability and control, which can minimize stress,” says Alicia Walf, a senior lecturer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and neuroscientist who has been studying stress. “Well-tuned schedules may even provide you more time to enjoy yourself, which is a major help as some of our biggest sources of stress are deadlines and limited time.”

So, if you’re finding yourself with an unfinished to-do list at the end of the day and no clarity on exactly how you spent your time, a schedule can help. A successful schedule is all about choosing the right items and setting it up in a way that will help you feel accomplished with these four steps.

Step 1: Start with must-do items.

Blocking time to get your work done at home can ensure you’re working regular hours so it’s not taking away your pre- and post-work personal time. If working during the day is tough with everything going on at home, set aside time in the evening, but not too close to bedtime.

But building your schedule isn’t just about putting work meetings on your calendar. Make sure to set aside time for doctor’s appointments and other to-do’s as well as events like drive-by birthday parties. If you’re trying to tackle working from home while managing distance learning for your kids, plan time to help them with their schoolwork and have them save up all their questions for that time.

The biggest scheduling mishap: Packing too much into it. “Having a schedule can combat the feelings of disruption to our balance, but self-awareness is key,” says Walf. “A jammed-packed schedule that leaves us no room to feel, think, or move is not good for our well-being.”

Step 2: Set aside time for yourself.

It’s important to schedule your “me time” and the time you need to help maintain your flow, says Tiffany Grimm, director of recovery at EXOS. This means making time for yourself, family time, or recovery, in whatever form that might take.

“Although you can’t avoid all stressors, you can try to minimize stress that may come from not meeting your basic needs,” says Walf. “Try to balance your work schedule and other responsibilities with what you need for your body and mind. For example, not waiting until you’re so hungry that you’re now ‘hangry’ reduces unnecessary stress.”

The key is to plan ahead. If you’re strapped for time, prepping some simple meals over the weekend can help you fuel your body consciously instead of choosing foods that are convenient but not the right choice for boosting your performance. Or if you want to go another route, you can add daily meal prep time to your schedule.

Step 3: Customize for your needs.

There’s no hard and fast rule for the best schedule. “Schedules are unique to the individual — what works for you may not work for others,” says Grimm. The best schedule is the one that works for you, and it may take some time to find it.

Try breaking up your day into hour-long blocks to accomplish your tasks, or if that’s too long try something like the pomodoro technique. Use your breaks to get a snack, stretch, or do a five-minute meditation after an intense meeting.

Step 4: Test and adjust as needed.

“Some people work best with a strict schedule at least to start with,” says Walf. “But if the schedule that you made is causing stress, it’s important to re-evaluate it.” Make adjustments as you see fit, but don’t throw the whole schedule out the window.

And be sure to leave some wiggle room. Walf recommends building in buffer time and assuming that something with disrupt your schedule, or else you’ll be behind schedule and just get more stressed out when something pops up.

Looking for other ways to be more resilient? Check out these six ideas for a building a mindset to get through tough times.

About the Author

Kelsey Webb

As an editorial assistant at EXOS, I'm eager to help others improve every aspect of their lives through healthy living. I enjoy bringing effective strategies and information to light by working with experts in all fields.

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