A Little Bit of Structure Helps the Day Run Smoothly

man on sofa
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If you don’t know where you are going, then any road will get you there.

paraphrased from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland

In our last Men in Captivity call, the idea of the importance of having a schedule or structure to our day came up. Though individual experiences are different, many of us are finding that the routines of our pre-lockdown life have gone out the window and it can be easy to allow ourselves to free-float through our days. This attitude is not bad if you’re taking some vacation time and want to just “do nothing” for a while, but this hedonistic reprieve wears thin quickly, giving rise to boredom and unhelpful habits taking root.

Living between your best & worst

Without some boundaries for your time and activities, you are relying on the comfort seeking and “old habits” part of you to direct your day. If you think of yourself as a collection of behaviours or selves – with you as your best self leading the way towards your ideals and your worst self coming at life from your base emotions and impulses – you mindlessly floating through your day, doing what comes naturally, is going to most likely be unconsciously pulling ideas from much lower down the food chain of your best-worst self.

Then, as you persist in these less helpful habits, it will tend to affect your mood. You might feel bored or be annoyed that you did not get done what you had hoped. This then triggers more unconscious behaviours (dig into more junky, comfort foods and watch another season of something on Netflix) and the cycle continues.

Don’t get the idea that if you are not operating as your best self that things will go to hell. Similarly, if you have really “let yourself go” and feel you are off track, it doesn’t mean that you are beyond redemption. It is a spectrum. Just as your best self is an ideal you can look to and move towards and your worst self is a move towards Darth Vader impulses, how you show up at any given moment will be somewhere between the two extremes. The point is to not focus on what “perfect you” could be doing or on how bad things could possibly get, but to mindfully inquire where you’re at now and see what one step better would look like.

Finding your way out…

While the solution to this problem doesn’t need to be scheduling every moment of your day, at least some boundaries around how and when to use your time will go a long way to making you feel more accomplished. It will also ensure you are looking after what is important to you.

I came away from the group call with a few key points that I have been trying to put into practice this week. Maybe you will find them helpful too:

  1. Be easy on yourself. You might be feeling only at 60% of what you used to feel like before the pandemic. Recognize this and understand that this might be where you need to be right now. If you want to up your game, ask yourself what 65% might feel like and make some small steps today to do it.
  2. Plan ahead what you want to do. “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail”. Loosely plan out your day with a few key things you want to get done. This can be done on a calendar or even as a simple pen and paper to-do list.
  3. Complete tasks, not projects. A single project can have many tasks, but we often start a project with the goal of finishing it now. Instead, break the project down into manageable task chunks and pick one of those tasks to work on. If you finish it, pat yourself on the back and decide if you want to take on another one or leave that project for another day.
  4. Know what is doable. Don’t schedule yourself like a robot. Be realistic about how long each task should take, considering the time you have, your energy levels and motivation that day. Again, if you are not feeling like you are operating at 100% that day, then decide what a reasonable goal is for you to accomplish. You will benefit far more by completing a smaller task fully than struggling to complete something that feels too big or you are quickly losing motivation for.
  5. Plan transitions. Don’t butt all of your tasks up against each other. If 45 minutes seems like a reasonable time to work on a task, then give yourself 15 minutes to take a break or organize things before doing something new.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
  1. Plan in breaks and fun. This may sound like a suggestion from a productivity madman, but the point here is not to forget to add some fun into your day. Get some work done and then go for a walk, read a book, talk to friends, consciously choose to watch that Netflix show. Don’t be puritanical about your work. All work and no play really does make Jack a dull boy. (If you don’t know this movie reference, then you need to take a break and watch The Shining. If you have been repeatedly writing that phase for the past three hours on your manual typewriter, then you really should stop working for a while and possibly seek professional help.)
  2. Mindfully choose what you do. It’s often mindlessly “choosing” to do unhelpful things that gets you off track. Find ways to “wake up” and mindfully choose your next steps. One handy tool is to set a timer to go off several times per day (even every hour) that will remind you to check-in and see if you need to redirect yourself.
  3. Forgive yourself when you get off track. Merely acknowledge the slip and make your next choice one you consciously want. Repeat as needed.
  4. Have filler tasks ready. You may find you have a few extra minutes to work on something, but don’t want to take on another project. Make a list of “filler tasks” of tiny jobs that need to be done that will only take 2 to 5 minutes. Pick one of these off of the list, get it done and then cross it off. Very satisfying…..and now no one will complain that the garbage wasn’t taken out!
  5. Plan shutdown. Once you have completed the tasks that you’ve set out for yourself, wind down your day and put things away for tomorrow. Spend your evening doing non-work tasks and resist the urge to check in on things or do “just one more thing”. It will be there tomorrow. Practicing not working is important for your healthy boundaries. You will find you have more motivation to get back to your work next time if you have been diligently practising not working.
  6. Appreciate yourself. No matter how small the gains you have made today, pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Little steps are still steps and you will feel far more like doing this again if you focus on what you did well rather than missteps.

So much more can be said on this, but this isn’t meant to be a lesson in productivity. The point is to become aware of what you are up to during your days of the lockdown and to mindfully make choices that you will be proud of yourself for making at the end of the day.

I strongly encourage you to not get excited about this and try to “change everything”. Start from where you’re at and make small steps to shift that. Doing 10% more tomorrow will feel far better than doing nothing. You will also feel more encouraged to do that much or more again the next day, rather than pushing to be 50% more productive and only getting half of that done. This may seem like you are still getting more work done (25% is a lot more than 10%), but we are not concerned here with work output and you are not a machine. Considering your mood and motivation is vital to keep the ball rolling here. So, be mindful of where you’re at now, where you want to go, and then choose a next step that will make your “best self” proud.

Try out some of these suggestions and see what you notice. Reach out and let me know how it goes. I’m interested in hearing about your successes or if you have any questions. Consider joining us on our next group call if you would like some support or talk about this further with other guys going through the same stuff.