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If your life seems like a multi-ring circus, with you in the centre, trying to balance a series of spinning plates, productivity author Laura Vanderkam has some practical, if at times unexpected, suggestions for achieving greater tranquillity.

“The plates are not going to magically stop spinning, and because we don’t truly wish for fewer plates, we need to learn to calm the chaos and find joy in busy days,” she writes in her book Tranquillity by Tuesday, the title chosen because she views Tuesday as a typical workday, and if we can achieve tranquillity that day, we will have upgraded our lives tremendously.

She tested her nine techniques on 150 people, who added one to their repertoire in consecutive weeks. In a follow-up survey, their agreement with the statement “yesterday I was happy with how I spent my time” jumped by 20 per cent. She recommends you follow the same add-one-a-week (or one-a-month) process:

  • Give yourself a bedtime: You need proper sleep. You probably can’t change the time you wake up so you must be firm on a bedtime that allows you to awake refreshed, with adequate energy for the day, rather than draggy. It’s vital to set an alarm 15 to 30 minutes before the designated bedtime to prepare. “Going to bed on time is simple. But it is life-changing,” she insists.
  • Plan on Fridays: To calm the chaos, set aside 20 minutes on Friday to plan the next week – including its weekend – and to review plans for the coming weekend. Some productivity counsellors recommend this activity for Sunday night, but she says you’ll enjoy the weekend better if you have completed this chore. Because you can’t start much new on Friday it’s an ideal day.
  • Move by 3 p.m.: Exercise is a natural stimulant. So commit to some form of physical activity for at least 10 minutes in the first half of every day. Any type of movement counts: Walking, push-ups, chasing kids around the yard or pushing a stroller. Can’t find the time? She counters: Doing so is proof you are in reality in charge of your day.
  • Three times a week is a habit: Brushing your teeth and moving before 3 p.m. should be carried out daily, but most habits you commit to can be adequately served by completing them three times a week. That’s regular, and it is also doable, easing pressure and giving you flexibility.
  • Create a back-up slot: Things can go wrong in your schedule. Create a back-up time for the things that matter – the equivalent of a rain date – to accommodate such complications. It can vary, depending on your work, from an hour every afternoon to one morning a week. She keeps Fridays open and plans the rest of the week tightly.
  • One big adventure, one little adventure: Our life requires novelty. Each week plan one big adventure of a few hours and one little adventure of an hour or so, doing things you really want to do. “This habit builds regular doses of anticipation into our mental landscapes,” she says, as well as providing happy memories afterward. Participants in her study planted trees, took the children out for ice cream and enjoyed a sunrise walk around the city harbour. They also rated this rule highly.
  • Take one night for you: Committing to one night off for you to pursue your own interests – or the equivalent time during the day – can change the rhythm of the week. This should be fun and ideally not flexible, so it’s not contingent on whether other people want you to do something else. Work out the logistics with a partner or friend, covering for each other, or hire help.
  • Batch the little things: Designate a small chunk of time to tackle things that must be done, but aren’t priorities. This stuff usually doesn’t take much time, but weighs on our minds and we move slower on them than we should. Crunch them together.
  • Effortful before effortless: Commit to a few minutes of fun that requires effort – reading or working on a puzzle, for example – before checking e-mail or turning on the TV for effortless fun. “It is absolutely as easy to open the Kindle app on your phone as it is to open Facebook, Twitter or a news app,” she proclaims.

Her study found each rule came with complications, but had benefits for those who committed to them. And while it seems like together it adds to your burden, when you are already living a chaotic life, the participants found in combination it gave them more control and tranquillity.

Quick hits

  • Social pressure can keep us from pursuing career options and limit the way we lead our lives. But entrepreneur Seth Godin argues more often than not social pressure comes from within – it’s something we invent. The people we imagine are busy watching and judging us might not even know we exist.
  • Maximizing one thing minimizes other things, says consultant Wally Block. To maximize something, you are taking time, attention and budget away from other things. There are no solutions, just tradeoffs, and that something else could be important.
  • Begin your advertising with a statement that triggers more questions than it answers, advises consultant Roy H. Williams. If your opening line reveals what is to come, change it. Bridge quickly from the first sentence to your narrative arc – the plot.
  • You need to balance success with failure, suggests Atomic Habits author James Clear. Eight or nine times out of 10, you should be succeeding to accumulate advantage, build momentum, and feed your desire to do more. But one of two times out of 10 you should be failing, as you push yourself beyond your current grasp and try uncomfortable things.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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