Sometimes the smallest things can drain our energy. Trying to find something you can’t find—a document, an email. Remembering a recipe. Wrangling a crowded to-do list. Checking and rechecking our phones. Prioritizing tasks (and totally overthinking it). A routine-less morning.
That also means that the smallest things can make a big difference in our energy and stress levels.
As Alice Boyes, Ph.D, writes in her latest book The Healthy Mind Toolkit: Simple Strategies to Get Out of Your Own Way and Enjoy Your Life, “very small changes in workflow can make previously effortful behaviors effortless.”
In other words, we don’t need to overhaul our lives to feel significant benefits (and ease). We can think (and do) small. Below, you’ll find tweaks, tools and approaches to help your days run smoother and your stress levels to go down.
Start with your needs. Entrepreneur Gregg Carey has four essential components to his morning routine: energy, body, mind and soul. For him, this includes eating breakfast, working out, playing the piano, connecting to his purpose, focusing on gratitude, feeding his cats and kissing his wife.
While these details sometimes vary, the components, he tells Benjamin Spall and Michael Xander in their book My Morning Routine: How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired, “are constant and critical to my happiness.”
Reflect on what you need first thing in the morning. Maybe consider what you need to feel calm, energized and fulfilled. How can you add or subtract certain activities from your days to meet these needs?
Create a master list for tasks. “Master lists save unnecessary thinking and prevent forgetting,” writes Boyes in The Healthy Mind Toolkit. She suggests writing your master list after you’ve completed an activity, such as writing down what to take on a trip as you unpack. You might consider: the items you’re glad you took; what you wish you would have brought; and what you wish you’d left behind.
Boyes also notes that your master list can be as simple as snapping a photo with your smartphone. For instance, she writes, you might snap a photo of your grocery receipt for Thanksgiving dinner. You might snap a photo of your work wardrobe, or different business cards you need (and tend to lose).
Go with simple habits. Sometimes, our days are hectic and hurried because we unwittingly complicate them. “The biggest complication we noticed while interviewing people for our book is that so many of us are trying to do too much at once,” said Spall, also co-founder of the website My Morning Routine.
This is true for everything from work to morning routines. Which is why Spall always suggests keeping your daily habits, including your a.m., short and easy to accomplish. For instance, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone starts his mornings by playing with his 5-year-old son for an hour. Before the sun rises, author Jenny Blake lights a candle and reads non-fiction books for one or two hours. Then she meditates for 20 to 45 minutes.
Write a how-to for infrequent tasks. We tend to think that we’ll remember how to do tasks that we do infrequently (e.g., every few months, seasonally or once a year). But we usually forget. Which means we have to figure out how to perform the same task. All over again. Repeatedly. Which means we waste time and energy and likely get frustrated.
This can happen with everything from cleaning the printer to making a certain meal. For instance, Boyes keeps a saved email she wrote herself with instructions and the subject line: “How to Clean Printer Drum.” She’s also taken a few minutes to jot down recipes she’s perfected.
Boyes suggests reflecting on these categories to see what might require writing instructions down: computer/technology; home/garden maintenance; holiday-related tasks, or any equipment you forget how to use.”
Have rules for good enough decisions. This is really helpful if you tend to overthink or avoid. Boyes has created these guidelines for herself:
- If she’s spending a ridiculously long time writing a particular section, that usually means she needs to delete it instead of reworking it.
- She works on tasks that are worth over $100 before tasks that are worth less than $100.
- She only interrupts what she’s doing if forgetting a task will stress her out in the future, such as putting something important in her purse.
- When she’s overwhelmed by her to-do list, she asks herself, “Would I pay someone to do this?” to see if a task is worth doing. “If the expected return from doing a task is so low it wouldn’t warrant paying someone to do it, that’s a good indicator it’s not worth doing myself.”
She also uses a travel tip from Chris Guillebeau: “If paying more, but by less than $10, saves stress, that’s an automatic yes.”
Boyes’s friend uses this strategy: If she’s having a tough time finding what she wants, such as an apartment for a getaway, she removes one of her criteria. “She says this helps her prioritize and makes her realize that what seemed necessary may actually just be desirable.”
Think super easy and convenient. For instance, Boyes keeps a paper-recycling bin and her mailbox next to her front door, so she can toss junk mail directly into the bin instead of bringing it inside her house. One of her friends lives in a two-story home with an upstairs bathroom. She has her kids undress downstairs where the laundry is before going up to take their baths, saving herself a step. Where can you simplify? What systems can you put in place to make certain activities easier or even effortless?
Keep smartphones outside your sanctuary. Our bedrooms are our sanctuaries. It’s where we go to unwind and savor restful sleep. It’s also where many of us bring our smartphones. Many of the people Spall and Xander interviewed struggled with technology every single day.
Spall noted that because of how disruptive smartphones can be, we can dramatically reduce our stress levels by keeping our phones outside of the bedroom overnight. Then pick up your phone in the morning only when you really need to, he said. “Better still, keep it on airplane mode overnight, and only turn it off airplane mode when you leave your home.”
The tiniest things can become bothersome, and thankfully, the tiniest things also can boost our days. Think about what’s been irritating you lately, and brainstorm the systems and processes you can implement to help things run a little bit smoother. Give yourself the opportunity to get creative, and even entertain playful solutions. Just be sure to think small and simple. Often, it’s where you’ll find the biggest benefits.