When you’re doing the same things day in and day out, when your to-do list is a mile long, when it feels like there isn’t a spare minute, it’s easy for every day to blend into the next, and become a blur of work, chores, and email.
It’s easy to feel resentful. It’s easy to feel like everything is out of your control, and you’re being pulled by some—really frustrating—mysterious force. And it’s hard to see past the drudgery.
However, while it’s understandable why you’d feel this way, you can absolutely move beyond the daily grind. The below suggestions include practical tips to sharpen your productivity so you feel less overwhelmed and frustrated, and realistic tips to help you savor the day to day.
Spot the subtleties. “When we pay attention to the subtleties of our experience, we can more appreciate what’s unique about the moment we’re in,” said Keely Clark, a licensed clinical social worker who offers supportive counseling and coaching to moms as they navigate the transitions of motherhood at her private practice MotherBloom Wellness PLLC. We also can feel more grounded and more connected to the positive elements in our daily lives, she said.
After all, every day is different, and we are different, too—the weather changes, our feelings shift. Maybe the sun is shining right now, and yesterday around the same time, there was a rainstorm. Maybe you feel proud of a project you just submitted, while yesterday you were upset because it didn’t seem like anything was going your way.
Clark uses the following sensory exercise at her practice, which helps to direct attention to our bodies and physical experience, which again changes all the time: Pause several times throughout the day to notice five things you see; four things you feel (to the touch); three things you hear; two things you smell; and one thing you taste.
Add bits of self-nourishment. These are small activities that are solely for you, said Meghan Coltrane, a licensed professional counselor in Asheville, N.C., who specializes in perinatal mental health and reproductive trauma. For instance, she said, this might be anything from taking a walk after work to using a visualization to saying a nightly prayer to journaling to taking a morning yoga class. Small acts can feel incredibly significant and soothing. The key is to incorporate them into your daily routine, and to use your senses to savor these moments.
Design your workday. “If you’re able to tap into what you’d like your week to look like, it will make you feel more fulfilled,” said Paula Rizzo, author of the book Listful Thinking: Using Lists to be More Productive, Highly Successful and Less Stressed and the forthcoming book Listful Living: A List-Making Journey to a Less Stressed You (September 2019, Mango Publishing).
For example, Mondays are Rizzo’s “connection days,” which is when she schedules lunches, introduction calls, and check-ins. Fridays are for writing, being creative, and getting in the zone (so she doesn’t schedule any trainings or calls).
This is likely easier to do if you’re an entrepreneur and have a flexible schedule, but you probably have some control over your days when you work at a 9 to 5, as well. How can you design your workday so it’s most fulfilling for you?
Shake up a monotonous routine. Routines help us to thrive, but too much repetition can render tasks and activities meaningless, Clark said. She noted that this is especially true for moms, and moms of young kids, who can feel like their days are endless and mundane, and resemble “Groundhog Day.” When we get locked into the same patterns, she said, it sometimes doesn’t occur to us that we can change them.
Clark suggested focusing on tiny tweaks: Take a different route (like the scenic route) to and from work or school; go outside during a break at work and listen to a podcast, or take a walk; have breakfast for dinner.
Assess your coping skills—and replace unhealthy ones. Sometimes, life can feel like drudgery and a daily grind because we aren’t coping well. Maybe we’re completely ignoring our emotions, pretending the sadness doesn’t exist. Maybe we’re numbing our emotions with a few glasses of wine. Maybe you don’t even realize you’re doing it.
Coltrane suggested first noticing when you’re “seeking something external to change or replace the feeling inside.” Maybe every time you feel stressed, you think, “Man I need a drink!” or you grab your phone and start scrolling. This is when it’s helpful to pause and ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?” Coltrane said. It’s also helpful to ask yourself why you’re feeling this way, and what it might remind you of, she said.
Once you realize what you’re doing, you can do something different. As Coltrane noted, “Just taking away a maladaptive coping skill is not enough.” It’s important to “replace it with something more helpful in that moment.” That is, instead of scrolling social media, you take a walk. Instead of reaching for a drink, you call a friend. Or you set a timer for 5 minutes, close your eyes, and feel the feeling, focusing on where the feeling resides, and what sensations you’re experiencing.
Be realistic. Many of us don’t set realistic expectations or goals for ourselves, said Rizzo, who teaches an e-course called Listful Thinking Masterclass, which covers everything from sharpening your focus to finding time to do the things you love. “And then they feel like a failure when they don’t cross the 345 things off their to-do list for the day.”
The key is to put the right things on our plates, and just enough of them. According to Rizzo, that means doing tasks that we actually have the time and resources to do on a given day.
This requires knowing yourself. For instance, reflect on when you prefer to do certain tasks during the day, and when you feel most productive and energized. Maybe you feel more creative in the mornings, so you schedule writing tasks before lunch, she said.
Rizzo also suggested using a timer so you know exactly how long tasks take (since we tend to both underestimate some tasks and overestimate others).
Rethink your mindset. Clark regularly encourages her clients to change their mindsets from “a sense of responsibility and obligation to one of opportunity and gratitude.” For instance, you might change “I have to send all these emails” to “I get to communicate with clients about important projects.” You might change “I have to put the kids to bed” to “I’m glad I get to be with them for the last few minutes of their day,” she said.
Be strategic about your to-do list. Instead of dumping a bunch of tasks onto your daily to-do list, be “super detailed and specific,” Rizzo said. Instead of jotting down “write emails,” write, “reply to Linda, Brenda, and Jennifer,” she said. Similarly, separate big projects into smaller tasks, and write those smaller tasks on your list.
And “sometimes you need to cross tasks or goals off your to-do list for good,” Rizzo said. This is especially true for tasks that keep popping up again and again. Determine whether you really want to do a certain task, and whether you’re the best person to do it, she said. “You might find you can outsource it or free yourself of the guilt of not doing it by deleting it forever once and for all.”
Ultimately, Coltrane suggested asking yourself these questions: What would I create if I knew the universe fully supported me, and I could not fail? What do I really want out of life? What am I doing currently to create that for myself?
If it doesn’t feel like you’re doing anything, that’s OK. Because you can change the course of your day at any time, in any moment. Think of one tiny step you could take right now, and start there.