If you've clicked on this article of your own volition, I'm going to take a wild guess and assume you are one of two people:
1. Your life is dictated by a litany of lists outlining your year, your month, your week, your day. You're terrified by the possibility of forgetting something important, or even something small like "clip your nails," so everything is written down. Over time, you start to feel obligated to complete everything on your Today List, otherwise you've been unproductive and pathetic.
2. You'd rather use a post-it note as an emergency tissue than as a canvas for your daily itinerary. You find yourself missing things here and there, and it's starting to stress you out a bit, especially as deadlines come and go without your knowledge. How do you start a sustainable habit to keep yourself and your schedule in check?
First of all, determine which one of the above people you are most likely behaving as, and say clearly in your head what it is about your daily schedule that you'd like to change. Now say it out loud. Yes, out loud. Muttering counts. Just make sure you can hear it.
Personally, I'm the first (Type A) person; I'm addicted to scheduling and listing everything, and I get a little thrill when I get to cross several items off a list at once. In retrospect, it has kept me organized and on top of my commitments, but it has also caused an undue amount of stress. I feel like I can't do anything "fun" if I still have stuff to do on my list. Even the "fun" stuff become items on the list, making leisure feel portioned and compulsory. With schoolwork, I feel the need to complete the "lesser" homework assignments first, which often pushes the important or more brain-heavy work until later in the night, when I'm too tired to care.
Let me state that yes, I am aware that some people wake up to the sound of explosives hitting their neighbors' houses. But if you can't keep your own head in check, how are you going to go about setting anything else straight?
[Click on the image for a link to a page of to-do list templates and suggested apps to boost productivity]
While it may help to chip away at an assignment or reading each day, you don't have to hold yourself to that daily commitment. The same goes for other things like exercise -- in fact, it's really not that good for you to exercise every day. Letting your body rest is just as important as giving it a good stretch. For example, I use Saturdays as my "off" day. I assign myself some light work, but without the expectation that I'll finish it or do anything I might consider substantial. Accept that you're never going to have a day where you accomplish everything you set out to accomplish.
A productive day can mean different things to different people. Getting two or three things done -- a page of reading, a paragraph of writing, and washing your sheets -- can be enough. Our capitalist society has led us to think that not being constantly engaged with our work means that we're slackers, undeserving of a break. Fight capitalism! If you can take 45 minutes to stare at a document, you can take 10 minutes to meditate -- I recommend the app Headspace to get yourself started, regardless of experience level.
Now, in terms of specific solutions:
1. Too much - Start listing things by order of priority; do the most important things first before you run out of steam. It's tempting to knock off the smaller things so your list is the shortest it can be, but there's another word for it: procrastination. Just do the big thing. Just do it. If it saps all your energy, good thing the smaller list items don't require a lot of brainpower!
2. Not enough - If you're feeling overwhelmed, start with smaller actions. Put your phone aside or plug in to a podcast and get yourself on a roll by doing housekeeping things like cleaning and laundry. During breaks, glance over readings and brainstorm ideas for written assignments. Let thoughts marinate as you do mindless tasks like folding and sweeping. Finally, open your laptop or journal and dump all of your thoughts onto the page. Spend subsequent hours rearranging your word vomit into an appropriate format. Let yourself take breaks, but time yourself to 5-10 minutes. It's okay to get distracted at first -- self control is, like many things in life, a skill to be exercised and refined, not unlike a muscle. If you have a ton of tasks that require leaving your immediate home, block out several hours of your day and get them all done at once. Reward yourself, minimize distractions, and have patience with yourself.
Final reminder: beware the Superwoman Syndrome -- it is okay to put yourself at the highest priority. If you find your anxieties and responsibilities snowballing into a heap of "AH", take a step back, ask for an extension, and really reevaluate how important this list is to you. If nobody's going to die or be seriously injured if you don't complete a task, it's probably okay to take a break. After all, the sum of one's life are all the moments that make you feel alive, not a tally of how many to-do lists you completed.