Authored by Andrew Evans, ACE Health Coach at Hilton Head Health
Do you ever feel like your life is a little stressful and chaotic? Wouldn’t it be nice to feel in control and be able to accomplish the things you want to every day? Of course it would! This day and age we are constantly bombarded with distractions from TV, social media, the news, the weather, family, something the president said and the list goes on and on. Not to mention our own mind wandering and daydreaming. I’m totally guilty of it myself too. I’ve put off tasks to spend “just 5 more minutes on my phone” or to watch “just one more episode on Netflix”. I’ve even stopped right in the middle of a project because I found a loose screw on a drawer and decided to take the screwdriver and check every screw in the house. Unfortunately, the distractions won’t end but there are some things you can do to stay more focused and organized. Below are 5 tips you can use to create more structure in your day.
Before bed each night, think about what you’d like to accomplish the following day. You likely already do this to some extent but what you might not do is take it a step further and write down all of those plans you come up with. How many times have you wasted part of your day because you forgot what you had planned? Writing down your intentions helps your brain commit it to memory and eases your mind before bed.
Here are some examples of actions you can take to be prepared for the next day. You can lay your clothes out, pack your lunch, pack your gym bag, fill your water bottle, or take a look at your calendar to make sure you’re not missing anything. Thinking about your intentions, writing them down, and even taking some action is all part of mentally preparing for the next day.
There’s something magical about the feeling of crossing something off your to-do list. Is it really magic though? It has to do with the fact that we are motivated psychologically to complete unfinished tasks due to something called the “Zeigarnik effect”, which is, that you are more likely to remember the tasks you have not completed than the ones you have. Once you cross a task off your list your brain is free to focus on the next task. This is why creating a plan for your day increases focus and decreases distractions.
I’ll purposely put things on my to-do list knowing that I will immediately cross it off, giving me instant gratification and filling me with a sense of accomplishment. The best part of crossing things off your list is the boost to your self-confidence which will motivate you to complete the next item.
So how is creating a to-do list helpful? By listing all the things you want to accomplish you are giving yourself a guide to follow. Before you jump right in, you need to prioritize your list by deciding which items are important. If you could only choose one item on your list that needed to be completed what would it be? That item should be prioritized as the most important and therefore should be completed first, ensuring that if it’s all you complete for the day, then at least you got the most important thing done. You may find that some tasks can be grouped together to increase efficiency. Making an organized and prioritized list is an essential way to create a structured and productive day.
Sleep is one thing that we must all do. Whether you enjoy a good night’s rest, or you find it a burden to have to get some shut-eye, it’s an essential part of each day. Sleep improves alertness, athletic performance, mood, metabolism, and higher cognitive functions. It also improves immune function and can decrease the risk of certain diseases. Our bodies are biologically designed to have a sleep schedule. It’s called circadian rhythm aka our sleep/wake cycle. Circadian rhythm is our 24-hour internal clock that goes through cycles of sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals. Staying up late or sleeping in can throw our circadian rhythm off. Research suggests that disrupted sleep schedules, even differences between workdays and non-workdays, can lower HDL cholesterol, which is our good cholesterol, increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes, and increase body fat. Sticking to a sleep schedule not only helps in creating a structure for your day, but it is also good for your overall health.
Mornings set the tone for the rest of the day, so aim to make them positive and constructive. Look to perform a small task that you are confident in achieving each and every morning. The task should be simple but meaningful.
My daily win each morning is making my bed. It only takes a few seconds, but it makes me feel organized and believe my room is clean even if there are clothes on the floor. Some other examples of small ways to start a positive and healthy morning are having a glass of water when you wake up, meditating, writing in a gratitude journal, doing cardiovascular exercise, or eating a healthy breakfast. You should look to avoid things that distract you from your first small win, including your phone, social media, or answering emails.
The benefit of creating structure is that it allows us to develop healthy habits through consistency. The challenge is that life throws us curveballs trying to derail us off course. At Hilton Head Health we refer to these challenges as high-risk situations. We can meet and overcome these challenges using the concept of “structured flexibility”. Structured flexibility is all about creating a plan with the understanding that we do not have to be perfect to stay on track.
For example, let’s say one of your goals is a 20-minute walk on your lunch break but your boss gives you a task that needs to be completed by the end of the day. Is it possible to still do your 20-minute walk and stay late at work; or walk 20 minutes after work; or walk 10 minutes now and another 10 minutes later? Instead of throwing your hands up in defeat when a high-risk situation arises, think of the options you have to stay on track. Even doing part of your goal is better than skipping it completely. If you accept pushing it off today then you are more likely to accept pushing it off again tomorrow. As you continue to find ways to meet your goals despite these high-risk situations you may find more ways to meet your goals than ever before. The key to remaining consistent is not focusing on what you couldn’t get to yesterday but what you can do going forward.
Not all high-risk situations are unpredictable. Many times they are life events that we can plan for. A few weeks ago I was nervous about being invited to a friend’s wedding. The food options did not necessarily follow my nutrition plan and I was also concerned that consuming alcohol could affect my decisions around the cake and other desserts. Instead of focusing on what I couldn’t control I focused on what I could. I decided to intentionally put less food on my plate and eat mindfully as to not overeat. When I did have alcohol, I followed every drink with a glass of water and when the cake was served I split the piece with my date. Even though that high-risk situation was out of my normal routine I was able to manage it and stay on track. Remaining consistent depends on our ability to be flexible when these high-risk situations arise.
To recap, the 5 Tips for Creating Structure are:
Following the tips above can help you implement structure to create consistency toward achieving healthy habits that make you feel less stressed and more in control of your life. The best way to get better at living a more structured life is the same way you get better at anything; it takes practice and perseverance. There’s no one way to get the structure right. It’s different for everyone. The key is to find out how these tips can work best for you, but I suggest starting with one of these tips and slowly adding in the others. I sincerely hope you find the tips useful.
ACE Health Coach