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Advice for the Overworked and Overwhelmed

7 steps to simplify your routines — and your life

When executive coach Scott Eblin was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the summer of 2009 at the age of 48, he was shocked. An accomplished athlete, he thought of his health as exceptional.

He had been a runner, but his MS diagnosis made running increasingly difficult — as 2009 progressed he could barely walk around the block and had to use hand railings to pull himself up stairs. Soon his thinking got foggy, too.

When drug therapy caused Eblin serious liver problems, he turned to yoga. Not only was he amazed he could do it, he was stunned by how much it helped his symptoms. His strength and flexibility improved — and so did his thinking. Eblin marveled at how much yoga changed his perspective and brought calm to his life.

Today he practices yoga six or seven times a week and has completed 200 hours of yoga teacher training. His experience also inspired his new book, Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative, which Eblin wrote for anyone who feels trapped in an endless loop of busy-ness and information overload. He stresses that the goal of the book isn’t to turn anyone into a Buddhist monk, but to help people adopt routines that will make the most difference in their lives.

Here’s an adaptation from his new book on why routines matter — and how to make them work for you:

You Are What You Repeatedly Do

Just about everyone has routines in their lives. You probably wake up at more or less the same time each weekday. You may have a routine of skipping breakfast, or perhaps you eat the same thing every day. If you go to an office every day, it’s likely that you take the same route. Your calendar probably has some routines embedded in it, like standing meetings or conference calls. You get the idea.

Human beings make an almost countless number of decisions every day. The range I’ve read online starts at 612 on the low end and tops out at 35,000 on the high end. Whatever your actual number is, when you stop and really break down everything you do in a given day, you realize it’s a lot of decisions.

It’s a good thing that we have a lot of routines because if you actually had to stop and consciously think about every decision you make in a day, it would lead to a literal case of paralysis by analysis.

So routines are a good thing, until they are no longer a good thing. You reach that tipping point when the routines you have no longer serve you. When was the last time you stepped back and took a look at the routines you go through most days to ask if each of them is really in service of you showing up at your best? Chances are, it’s been awhile.

(MORE: You Don’t Need to Reinvent Yourself for a Second Act)

Here are ways to make routines work for you:

1. Strive for rhythm, not balance Balance, at best, is a temporary and fleeting state. The reason is that the world and life are both fast moving and ever changing. By focusing on rhythm, you acknowledge there are times when your pace is going to be much more oriented to work, home or community, and there are times when the other aspects of your life come to the fore — and that you have permission to quit seeking that holy grail of perfect balance. That applies to your routines as well. Some days you’ll be able to spend an hour or more on those healthy routines; some days, 15 minutes or less. There may even be days when you miss them completely. On those days, take heart. One day does not a rhythm make.

ACTION STEP — Create a list of the 20 percent of the things in your life that make up 80 percent of your rhythm. Notice how your focus shifts between them over the course of a week.

(MORE: How Women Can Find More Time For Themselves)

2. Start where you are Your routines have to work for only one person — you. As you choose your routines, be okay with starting where you are.

ACTION STEP — Look for three opportunities each day to take three deep breaths.

3. Feed your sweet spot Look for routines that help you keep the strengths that represent you at your best in the sweet spot. The goal is not to underserve or overserve your strengths but to keep them in an optimal state. For example, if, when at your best, you are really energetic, you may want to incorporate some routines that also help calm you down a little bit.

ACTION STEP — Play with fine tuning how you show up in your relationships. For instance, if you typically show up at a “7” on the energy meter, play with dialing it back to a “6” or up to an “8”.

4. Choose what is easy to do and likely to make a difference As you pick your routines, think of an x-y graph where the vertical axis is labeled “easy to do” and the horizontal axis is labeled “likely to make a difference.” You want to choose routines that are in the upper right hand corner of the graph — relatively easy to do and likely to make a difference. You’ll master those soon enough, and the ones that were more challenging will seem easier at that point.

ACTION STEP — Set your phone to remind you to move your body (it could be as simple as shoulder shrugs or rolling your neck) every hour. Notice the difference it makes for you to take easy-to-do mini-breaks

5. Ditch the dogma There are best practices and then there’s dogma. You’ll know the best practices because they’re backed by proven results. You’ll recognize the dogma when you pick up on a rigidity or a condescending attitude about how you’re doing things.

ACTION STEP — Make a short list of how you know yourself to be at your best. Stay away from how others think you “should” be.

6. Take baby steps Through the experience of coaching others and observing myself, I’ve learned that baby steps can make a big difference. Sometimes the progress that comes from those small baby steps is so slow and incremental that it’s indiscernible. And then, suddenly and without warning, one day you’re doing it — and it’s all those baby steps that got you there.

ACTION STEP — Take a moment each day to notice and celebrate one positive step you’ve taken.

7. Remember that less is more There might be 10 new routines you want to incorporate into your life. Ignore eight or nine of them — at least for now. By choosing only one or two new routines to start with, you raise your chance of success and the motivation to keep going. As long as those few new routines are relatively easy to do and likely to make a difference, it almost doesn’t matter which ones you start with. You’ll be surprised at how much of an impact those few routines have on your life.

(MORE: How to be More Productive at Work in Less Time)

ACTION STEP — Look for and start on one routine that would make a difference in two or more of these domains — physical, mental, relational or spiritual. For instance, a weekly walk in an inspiring place with a friend could check the box on three or four of those domains.

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