• Faced with seemingly never-ending to-do lists, it's easy to become overwhelmed, though sometimes we don't realise how stressed we are

  • Coach Louise Lloyd breaks down how to manage your commitments and diary for better stress management

Before I get into hacking your busy schedule, I want to first say that sometimes life is just crazily busy and there isn’t much we can do about it. Whether it’s crazy busy because of taking care of kids and parents or an intensely busy period at work, there are times when every last ounce of time and energy is being squeezed out of us. When our to-do list is out of our control, how we address it is the bit that is in our control. It is especially important during these times that we take the day one moment at a time. 

Do your best to be in flow with being busy rather than wasting any of your energy fighting the fact that you are. Acknowledge that you’re busy, but do so lovingly with yourself. Acknowledge that you might be stressed about being busy, but do so lovingly. Don’t fight it all. Don’t resist it. You can look after yourself in the process. You can, for the time being, accept that this is your current reality, if there really is nothing you can do about it. You can breathe just a little bit more, even amid the chaos. Every time you get overwhelmed at how much you have to do, take a deep breath. One step at a time, you will get things done. One day at a time, you will move through it all. All things pass. 

Now, all that said, extremely busy going totally out of control is another matter altogether. You have to start owning what you choose to spend your time and energy on. Somewhere along the way you need to look at whether all of what you are doing is absolutely necessary, or if it just seems that way. 

Dividing your time

First of all, let’s split the hairs between a must do, should do and could do. A must do is non-negotiable use of your time and energy, like I must feed the kids or I must do the work I have agreed to do if I want to keep this job. A should do is where we feel obliged to do something, like I should go to the family lunch or I should stay late to finish this assignment. A could do is a guilt-free choice where we don’t feel obliged, like I could go to a friend’s reunion or I could go for a walk at lunch. 

The trouble is that we mistake many shoulds and coulds with a must do, when in reality they are not. If you want to take charge of your diary then you have to get ruthless about what you choose to do and what you choose not to. You have to become clear about what is totally non-negotiable use of your time, and what isn’t. 

If you are a people-pleaser, you need to get comfortable with not pleasing everyone. Trust me when I tell you that your sanity and health need to come above the guilt you feel when you think you have annoyed a few people. Seriously, take it from me to give yourself permission to look after yourself in the process of all that you are trying to fit in. It’s not selfish – it’s sustainable. Nobody can tell you what you have to be doing with your time and energy. There are no right or wrong choices here; there are just the ones you decide to make. Are your choices reflecting quality use of your time? Is what you are spending your time and energy on in alignment with who you are and how you want to live? Where are you wasting your time and energy? Look at your schedule for tomorrow, the coming week and the next month or so – what is a must? Should do? Could do? Be ruthlessly honest. Own what you decide to do or not do. 

If you are living an intensely busy life, are loving it and totally thriving – then you go for it! Enjoy it and ride that wave of energy. If you are busy, stressed out and on the way to burnout – then do not wait for the wave to take you down. You need a radical overhaul of your diary. 

Remember, if you are stressed about having too much to do in not enough time then there is a gap between what you are trying to do and what is currently possible. How can you close that gap? What help do you need? What can you cut out of your todo list? Remember, you can only do what you can humanly do. No more than that. 

Another quick tip is on when you say yes, no or maybe in response to a request. Often when we are put on the spot and asked a ‘can you?’ or a ‘would you like to?’ question, we feel pressured into saying yes when we mean no, or we delay a no with a maybe response. I encourage you to get into the habit of using the single-breath practice before you reply. Give yourself enough time to say no when you mean no. To say no when you say maybe but mean no. And of course to say yes when you mean yes! As simple as this sounds, it’s life-changing. You won’t believe the freedom you feel from learning to be succinct and honest in your response to requests. Try it and see what happens.

Louise Lloyd is a mindset and wellbeing coach, and the author of Stresshacking.

Further reading

What is burnout?

Giving yourself permission to say no

3 things that contribute to workplace stress

Lockdown stress: why it's different and 5 ways to manage it

Work-related mental health issues: how therapy can help