You’ve started a home meditation practice, shelled out for a silk pillowcase (or four), and even tried infusing your H20 with lavender for an extra splash of Zen. But no matter how many stress-fighting tools you add to your belt, there’s always room for one more. And there’s a scientific reason why “chilling the eff out” should be a top priority. A 2011 survey by psychologist and author Robert Epstein, PhD, found that 25 percent of human happiness relies on our ability to manage stress. The study asked 3,000 participants in the U.S. and 29 other countries to rate their level of agreement with statements like: “I frequently use breathing techniques to help me relax.” Then, researchers asked them to evaluate how happy and successful they felt in their personal and professional lives. By connecting the dots between the happiest responders and their habits, Dr. Epstein and his team could decipher which stress-busting techniques are the most affective.
A 2011 survey found that 25 percent of human happiness relies on our ability to manage stress.
The results are a dream come true for the Type As among us: The survey found that planning is actually the best approach to relieving your anxiety. With a quarter of the happiness pie at stake, you just might want to crack open the spine of a new planner, whip out some highlighters, and get down to business. Cathryn Lavery and Allen Brouwer, self-described “performance junkies” and the co-founders of the organizational supply brand BestSelf Co, recommend overhauling your go-to scheduling methods in favor of a zero-based calendar. What does this mean exactly? Your planner should have no blank space. Every hour of your day (from your morning sweat sesh to your nightly journaling) should be accounted for. “Without a clear start and finish time, tasks will eat up way more time than necessary,” says Brouwer. “This creates a backlog and puts you behind schedule, which can create stress and frustration.” So just how do you adopt this stress-banishing technique?
Below, Lavery and Brouwer share how to slay your to-do list by setting up a zero-based calendar.
1. Pencil in your “me time”
You may think a full calendar equals no free time for all your cherished self-care activities (like taking a luxurious soak in the shadow of your new bathroom-friendly plant). But, according to Lavery, adopting a zero-based plan doesn’t mean skipping out on your favorites; you just need to give them some surface area in your planner. “How many of us push off the stuff we enjoy because we’ve run out of time? A zero-based calendar helps to address this,” she says. Ready for the advanced level? Pencil in your social media breaks. “Instead of ‘just taking a look’ and emerging hours later, schedule a specific time block so you stay in control,” Lavery advises.
2. Be picky about the things that make it on your to-do list
“High productivity isn’t about doing lots of things; it’s about doing the right things,” explains Lavery. She recommends pinpointing your three most important goals for the day in order to stop yourself from hopping from task to task without seeing anything to completion. “These tasks should be your biggest levers—the to-dos that move the needle. If you do nothing else [but these three], you can still end the day feeling accomplished,” she says.
3. Block similar activities together
How often do you start one project only to be swept up by another? Like, all the time? (Same.) Lavery and Brouwer argue that constantly switching gears leads to less productivity and more stress. You can think about it in terms of your gym routine: If you pinball from the weight room to the cardio machines, you’ll waste a lot of time. But if you block out a time limit for each activity, you’ll be out of your sweaty clothes in a jiffy. “One strategy we’ve found really beneficial is to allocate certain days for calls and meetings. So, we will only schedule calls or meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for example.” says Brouwer. “That way, we can [schedule] back-to-back calls and meetings. With a fixed timespan to work within, we have to cover the main points rather than getting sucked into a time drain.” And on the other days, you can really hunker down without getting interrupted by a meeting.
4. Plan your days based on your weekly goals
“If you want to maximize every week, start with an overview of what you want to achieve,” says Lavery. While it may seem obvious that productive days lead to fulfilling weeks, it’s not always easy to keep the big picture in mind during the daily grind. To make sure you’re actively working towards your macro-goals, Lavery suggests starting your week by listing off the most important tasks for the seven days ahead, then assigning them each a low, medium, or high priority level. Make your best guesstimate of how much time each task requires, schedule them into your planner (preferably with colorful pens), and bam—you have one seriously thorough action plan for the week ahead.
5. Learn what works best for you
As with all #lifehacks, the goal is to find the rituals that fit you just right. As Brouwer explains, “Having no free slots in your day doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Remember, you can schedule in time blocks to do nothing!” But if you do find that you crave that ain’t-got-nothing-to-do feeling—you’re not alone. A series of studies conducted by Washington University in St. Louis found that participants tended to look at planned leisure activities as more of a chore than a break (even if they were for fun things). Sound like you? Then skip the uber-specific categorization of your down time and try labeling that block with something more titillating and mysterious, like “tomfoolery” or “25 percent.” Need some me-time inspiration to plug into your calendar? Try Shameless star Emmy Rossum’s self-care musts or queue up these #bossbabe Netflix picks.