Stress Savers
September 12, 2013 5:54 AM   Subscribe

I'm entering what I expect to be a very busy year: busy full-time job with frequent evening and weekend work, graduate classes one night a week (plus homework), and a large writing project due next year. I find that I can get really overwhelmed and stressed when my schedule gets locked in and deadlines line up. I'm trying to find ways to simplify and ease my daily life so that I don't add additional stressors. What are your best time- and stress-saving tips for getting through intensely busy times?

I've noticed that when I'm already preoccupied with work deadlines, dumb things like running out of toilet paper at home or having laundry pile up can send me over the tipping point into feeling like everything is about to fall apart and I'll never be in control again ever. I've worked out a few things I think will help, like:

-grocery shopping once a week and getting an abundant enough supply of everything that I don't need to make extra runs for milk or cat food or whatever
-using a rotating supper meal plan and bringing similar things for lunch every day, so I don't have to spend time planning or wandering the aisles looking for inspiration
-keeping the gas tank full to avoid last-minute pit stops

But what would be some other good structural solutions I could try? More ideas like that are most welcome, for home or work. Also interested in any practices you might recommend, like quick meditations, setting aside "me time" hours, etc.

posted by Miko to Human Relations (27 answers total) 103 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, also - while I appreciate suggestions like "get a cleaning person" or "have regular massages" (and would love to do those things if possible), I also don't have a ton of disposable income so I can't always solve the problem with money.
posted by Miko at 5:55 AM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Amazon's "Subscribe & Save" has been great in helping us not run out of the really important things (baby stuff, mostly- diapers, wipes- but they have a lot of personal care items, too). I find online shopping in general a great way to save energy & time- I don't have to visit 5 different stores to find the right whatever.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:02 AM on September 12, 2013 [10 favorites]

When I'm busy, I often think of a ton of things last thing at night that I need to do the next day, which keep me awake thinking about them. Then I don't sleep and the next day sucks. My solution: keep a small notepad and pencil by your bed. When these things pop into your mind, write them down, close the book and give your brain permission to forget about them.

Foodwise: solve breakfast/snacks by making a batch of cereal bars at the weekend and freezing most of them.

Another thing that plays on my mind when I'm busy is keeping in touch with people. Set aside a time one evening a week to make phonecalls, and have stuff ready to do while you're on the phone (chop food, wash up, fold clothes).
posted by greenish at 6:05 AM on September 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

My wife and I love to cook, but for many, many of our meals we make soup and freeze it for easy use in the week. In the winter, we heat the soup up. In the summer, we serve it still chilled. Soups (and stews and pasta sauces) take a while to make, but can be left largely unattended while you're doing other stuff at home--good for weekends, bad for weeknights. It saves so much time, is cheap, and delicious.

Good luck!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:06 AM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Buy toilet paper and paper towels in bulk, and get multiples of other household supplies every time you shop (laundry detergent, soap, contact solution, etc).

Have enough underwear/socks/towels to go about 3 weeks without doing laundry.

Paper plates/plastic silverware if you don't have a dishwasher.
posted by ella wren at 6:06 AM on September 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sleep becomes especially important, and when I'm really working intensely on something during the day it can be difficult to disengage my brain from the work at night. I have a podcast app on my iPhone, with subscriptions to several podcasts on topics that are interesting but not exciting and completely irrelevant to my everyday life. If my mind is racing, I slip in one earbud and redirect by brain with the soothing murmur of Backstory, Diane Rehm or the like.
posted by jon1270 at 6:10 AM on September 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

Seconding the laundry thing - maybe even keep an extra, unopened, multi pack of underwear and socks around, for surprise missed laundry days?

Set out clothes the night before and prep your bag or whatever you'll need - I am always amazed at how much time is lost when I'm staring blearily into my wardrobe at 6am.
posted by kalimac at 6:13 AM on September 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

One thing that helps me is to practice something like "therapists' hours" (this works best for the school stuff but I managed to make something like it work at my job, too) - focused work for about 50 minutes straight and take a 10 minute break. Just building in breaks has probably saved me a ton of stress. It feels paradoxical and backwards and dumb to stop working when you're in the "go go go" mode, but it can be really helpful to take a few breaths when you're overwhelmed.
posted by sm1tten at 6:22 AM on September 12, 2013 [12 favorites]

Cooking one day a week in bulk and freezing - I bring my lunch to work every day. Often have the same dinner a few nights in a row. And I rotate my breakfasts (oatmeal, cereal, buckwheat). Soups, casseroles, homemade burritos (make all the filling, wrap and freeze).
posted by anya32 at 6:24 AM on September 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

When I was a stage manager I regularly was working about 16 hour days (8 hours at day job plus 6 at the theater plus about 3 hours' commuting hither and yon). I had a couple of recipes for different soups that were cheap, easy, and made a freakin' ton; whenever I got hired for a theater gig, I'd make up a couple pots of those soups, and then would dole them out into single-size tupperware and freeze them. I'd also make a batch of simple biscuits, dole them into baggies (two to a baggie) and freeze those. And then, when I came home from rehearsal and work and everything, all I had to do to make dinner was grab a baggie of biscuits and a tupperware of soup, and heat them both up. That helped a lot - I had no mental energy to cook whatsoever, but I was still getting something healthier than "a bowl of cereal" or "an entire bag of Cheetos", which is what I'd been having for dinners before I'd figured out this hack.

I also made up a "sleeptime" CD (see this Askme) which helped chill me out really well.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:25 AM on September 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

Create processes and rituals that enhance your life.

For example, have a cleaning and laundry schedule. Decide that you're going to spend 20 minutes a day on cleaning. Figure out what can be done in 20 minutes. Write it down on an index card. Put the cards in a file and every day, after dinner, pick one out and do it, then file it behind the cards to keep everything in rotation. That way every day you're doing a little bit to keep your environment clean.

As for tidy, do this. Put a trash can where you sort your mail. Have a couple of trays there. When you get your mail, open it up, toss the trash, put bills in one tray and anything you need to keep in the other. Try to get as much stuff to come to you on-line and get a service that reduces junk mail.

Where you can, set up automatic payments for your bills. Utilities, rent/mortgage, etc. Now you have one less thing to worry about. Once per month sit down and pay whatever you need to do manually.

Laundry is always one day per week. If you have a washer/dryer in your home, great! Just do your laundry while you're home studying on the weekend. (I do my laundry on Sunday, fresh clothes for the week.) If you don't, head for a laundromat. Off peak hours, like Wednesday at about 7 is best. You can do 7 loads at one time, and be in and out of there in a couple hours. Bring your homework.

Get your outfits sorted out and together for the upcoming week. That way you just grab and go.

Don't have any clothing that needs ironing or dry cleaning.

Once a week figure out what your meals are going to look like. I brought a toaster into work so that every day I can have a toasted gluten-free bagel for breakfast. I don't fool with breakfast at home, I just make it when I get to work. Ditto lunch. I just keep the fixings for quick sandwiches in the fridge at work. Or I get some frozen stuff from Trader Joes. Dinner, I make at home, but it doesn't have to be fancy. Grilled cheese and tomato soup, beenie-weenies, etc. I can make a bunch of marinara sauce and freeze it, or buy one you like and always have it on hand. Instant pasta!

You can buy frozen brown rice (at Trader Joes or your regular supermarket) it's an inexpensive time saver and it's healthy for you. Throw a chicken breast into the oven with some veggies (frozen or fresh), line the pan in foil and voila! You have a hot meal, that's tasty, healthy and easy to clean up. Very little prep.

You do have to be organized, but once you get in the habit it will serve you well for the rest of your life.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:34 AM on September 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

I wouldn't normally suggest starting to pay for something you already do yourself, but having your laundry done at a wash 'n' fold might not be a bad idea. It's a lot cheaper than a massage or a cleaning lady, but makes a huge difference time and labor-wise (and it feels very luxurious to open up a package of perfectly folded clothing).
posted by oinopaponton at 6:43 AM on September 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

I find that daily exercise is key for keeping my head on straight. I get up early and walk for 45-60 minutes. I live in a walkable city with a mild climate. When I didn't live in such a place I did an hour of exercise with a video first thing in the morning. You may think you don't have the time to do this but you will find that it helps you to stay focused and get more done in a shorter amount of time, and it will help you to get enough sleep.
posted by mareli at 6:54 AM on September 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

I find that daily exercise is key for keeping my head on straight. I get up early and walk for 45-60 minutes.

This is true for me as well. I view exercise like medicine which helps me from having it drop off the to do list because I'm too busy. It is one of the things I do like eating and brushing my teeth, not one of the things I do like seeing a movie. Similarly find a way to build in social time even if it's abbreviated "let's get a coffee" social time because hanging out with other people is really therapeutic and can keep you out of your own head a bit which is helpful for me. The main thing I talk to myself about is asking "If someone else was watching how I spent my day, what do my priorities LOOK like they are based on what I am doing...?" i.e. I may say "Oh man I am so busy I can't even find time to do X" but if I'm spending time mucking about on the internet and then complaining that I can't get to the food store, I have a prioritization problem, not an actual not-enough-time problem and that needs to be dealt with differently.

Other things I do when it gets busy.

- make/freeze meals like soup/bread/burritos and buy other stuff in bulk
- lay out clothes/plan meals beforehand so I can spend less time in the morning thinking about clothing and eating
- stack tasks, combine unfun with fun - I always brush my teeth when I am making coffee and tell myself I don't get one without the other
- have conversations with my partner about who does what and find ways to stick to that. You both need to be responsible for toilet paper and laundry in a shared household, make sure jobs are allocated fairly.
- have transition routines to get you out of one place into another. Think Mr Rogers putting on his sweater. Have some triggers that are like "now is home time" "now is meal time" "now is sleeping time" "now is partner time" so you can shift gears. Some people are bad at this. I am bad at this
- consider only having work clothes and pajamas/knockaround clothes for the most part, skip the set of casual clothes (and yes buy extra underwear and socks)
- this is what I tell travel people but make sure you have enough water to drink, moisturizer and stuff for your skin and charging cables so you are not always scrambling for them. A small up front cost but worth it in lack of hassle factor. Also a cable bag for your cables to travel with
- be rigorous about writing. If you know you have this much writing to do in a certain time, set incremental goals and try to stop writing/researching when you are at an UP period (i.e. still excited about the topic) not when you've hit a wall. Find writing software that you like (I am a huge fan of Scrivener)

And lastly, say no more than you think you should. You may need to dial back outside commitments in order to stay sane and get enough home/family/cat/work/school time> That's totally okay and in the short term it's actually an appropriate response. People may still tell you it's not, they are wrong. Draw a line between the helping work you do because you think it's important and the helping work you do because it's enriching and try to focus more on the latter and less on the former. Best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 7:43 AM on September 12, 2013 [23 favorites]

Was also going to say exercise. I sincerely regret not making more time to exercise when I was in grad school, as I would have done much better and have been better able to cope with the stress that was inevitable. Exercise definitely shouldn't be viewed as a waste of time or something that is an expendable part of your day: it's really not.

Otherwise, I'd say not to cut corners so as to introduce stress into other areas of your life, particularly money-wise. Things may be more convenient if you pay more - like, say, buying a cup of coffee every day - but they can spiral out of control and create a new kind of pointless source of stress if you're not vigilant.

For grocery shopping, my favourite no-think, no-stress method of ensuring I get what I need is using the iPhone (and online, and maybe other platform) app Grocery IQ and maintaining all of my stuff store-by-store and in the organisation of the aisles. Great for meal planning, great for ensuring you can just throw something on the list whenever you happen to think of it, great all around.

And finally, if it pertains to your field, keep a bibliography as you go rather than at the end of a paper. It is not worth having to scramble on at the end of finally finishing the paper to have to start your bibliography from scratch and remember your sources when you just want to submit the bloody thing.
posted by urbanlenny at 8:48 AM on September 12, 2013

To get more done in the same 24 hours, you have to be extra-organized. That requires an initial time outlay, but is effective. Lists help me a lot. When I was cooking for 3, I kept a standard grocery list in my bag, in a clear sleeve (now I'd keep it on my phone). I could review it and quickly check to see if I had toothpaste, toilet paper, milk, bread, etc. For things that last forever, like tampons, if I was at the store and couldn't remember if I had any, I'd buy extra. Have a specific routine, and develop habits to support. 1st thing in the morning, check your schedule, and last thing before leaving work, check tomorrow's. Have a specific place to put your keys and be religious about keeping them there. Set a day every week (every other week) for doing laundry and another day for doing 30 minutes of housework. 30 minutes isn't enough to clean the house, but it's enough to tidy up and to identify tasks that are critical, and think of a day when they can be done. Do you drive to work, school, etc? Get in the habit of always, always, plugging your phone in the car. Always plug in the phone before bed. If you don't have a smartphone and evernote or a similar program, now's the time to get one. Make sure your personal and work calendars are either synced, or you have an excellent method of managing both.

Lay out your clothes before bed. If laundry is a recurring problem, buy at least 1 generic work outfit that you always wash, and keep for emergencies. I have a perfectly nice khaki skirt I seldom wear. It goes with everything, and gets worn mostly when I'm out of my preferred clean work clothes. Buy extra underwear because you can re-wear a shirt, pants, skirt, etc., but no, not underwear.

While cooking dinner, prep the next day's breakfast. You can hard boil eggs, make baked oatmeal squares to grab on the go, or put tomorrow's smoothie ingredients in the fridge in the mug you'll be drinking it from, ready to throw in the blender. When planning meals favor nutrition and ease over "Jeez, haven't had lasagne in ages."

Two-fers. Exercise with your sweetie or a good friend you want to catch up with. While waiting for an oil change, review notes. When you go grocery shopping with your sweetie, buy a special treat to share at breakfast the next morning, for 5 minute or re-connect time.
Put stuff off or give it up. Instead of a hair cut every 6 weeks, go 8 weeks. Much as you want to hear that new local band, will it take a big chunk of time? Don't totally deprive yourself, but remind yourself that the reward of finishing the degree will feel great, and prioritize like crazy.

Talk to other students and to faculty about how they manage their school, work, life.
posted by theora55 at 9:01 AM on September 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

If you are a "send cards" person, stock up on a bunch of birthday, congratulations and thank-you cards for the whole year. Saves you from having to Fed-Ex someone a birthday card.
posted by xo at 9:06 AM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you're not an Amazon member it is really fabulous! Even if you don't use subscribe and save, it's just so easy to get stuff and so much less stress to not have to run to the store. You can probably use your student email address to get the student price.

Definitely definitely stock up on underwear and socks!
posted by radioamy at 10:04 AM on September 12, 2013

My favorite approach to laundry is different. I prefer to do small loads almost everyday. Because nothing is more discouraging to me than a dryer shoved full of (now wrinkled) clothes needing to be emptied. I like a tiny load (fewer wrinkles even if its been sitting) and it can be emptied while I'm waiting for my coffee to percolate, or my meal to be heated in the microwave.

I'll often take my dirty clothes off in the laundry room and throw them directly into the washer, so they don't have to be hauled down from my bedroom later. When I dont, i keep a small laundry basket in my room. I hate carrying an awkward, overstuffed, heavy laundry basket through narrow hallways and stairwells. A small one is easy.

Nothing is less motivating for me than staring at a large pile of laundry. 3 minutes per day of quick work? I can handle that.
posted by vitabellosi at 10:43 AM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you do have about $70-80 to spare every couple of weeks:

Isolation (floatation) tanks.

Those two things are key for keeping my stress level manageable whenever it spikes.
posted by 3FLryan at 11:21 AM on September 12, 2013

And just read your first comment - "massages" isn't helpful because you don't have a lot of disposable income. Sorry for the mis-read. But, if you have never taken a float in an isolation tank... I REALLY recommend trying it.
posted by 3FLryan at 11:32 AM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think everyone already mentioned what I would say but I just wanted to add: I've found that when I'm going through a crazy busy time, I need a cheat day. You know when you're on a diet and you get that one day a week to eat whatever you want to stay sane? It's kind of like that. I call it an "emotional cheat day". I even schedule it on my calendar and if I'm REALLY ballztothewallbusy,can just be one weeknight after work.

What does this entail? Nothing! I get home, take the dog out, tell everyone that they are on their own for the night, take a hot shower, flop down on the couch in comfy pjs, read, order takeout, put my feet up and watch smut tv. Absolute bullshit nothing; and then go to bed at a reasonable hour. It doesn't sound like much, but man, it really, really helps.
posted by floweredfish at 3:49 PM on September 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Designating specific times to do specific chores helps me a LOT. Thursday night is admin night (pay bills, balance checkbook, catch up on email). Dishes time is right before I go to bed. This way, undone stuff doesn't nag at my brain. I know there's a specific time when I'll do it - I don't have to do it right now.

Getting away for a bit (like an afternoon, a day, a long weekend) is like medicine for me. It gets me out of the whirlwind of work and to-do's and gives my brain some breathing room. Plus being in a totally different space can help me get some perspective (e.g. being in someone else's house makes me think of ways to better manage my own). Don't bring the work with you when you go - try to leave laptops behind and smartphones turned off. Otherwise you just feel like you're still in that busy whirlwind.
posted by cadge at 4:20 PM on September 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

Making a flexible day plan before bed/every morning really helps in managing your stress over the course of day. Thinking about how you are going to fit everything in is therapeutic and keeps you sane.

Agree with exercise!! It IS like medicine. Work in little walks and stretches if fitting in a proper workout + shower is impossible.

Also, this is free and I always forget it-- but air and water. So make sure you always have a full jug of water and take a few swigs every few hours, and whenever you feel stressed make sure your airways are clear and take a few slow, deep, breaths everytime the stress is so high it is palpable. It helps centre you so you can proceed on a surer footing on the rest of your hectic day.
posted by dinosaurprincess at 11:10 PM on September 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Where you work (whether that's in a real office or your home office), keep a rubber mat that you can easily roll out and lie on for a few minutes for exercise or meditation or just to have a quick rest.

And play around with your calendar to set hourly reminders to jump up and stretch, etc.
posted by pracowity at 6:35 AM on September 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Here are some things I do (and try to do):
1. When I clear the table after a meal, I set it for the next meal. The makes meal preparation a bit easier.
2. I put out my clothes the night before.
3. I try to shower before going to bed - shortening the morning routine.
4. I try to put dirty clothes (darks) directly into the washing machine. Whites go into the hamper.
5. Cook (or at least prepare meals) in advance. I try to have a bunch of meal type things frozen or ready. (There are millions of things on the internet about this). Hamburgers, Chicken etc... When I make salad or salad dressing, I make enough for a two or three days - I don't dress the whole salad. We have a kitchen in which we can program our oven to have rice, noodles or potatoes ready when we get home.
7. Schedule the week in advance. What are you going to do when. Who is resp. for chores or errands etc...
8. Buy a ton underclothes. Matching black socks, so you never have to spend time matching your socks, underwear etc... So you can go a month without needing to wash them and don't have to spend time sorting socks.
9. Buy a ton of non-perishables before the year starts: personal grooming items (soap, shampoo, deodorant, toilet paper, toothpaste), household cleaning items (dishwasher soap, laundry soap, kitchen and bathroom cleaner) and food.
posted by jazh at 1:32 PM on September 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Hi all,

Thank you so very much. I think all these answers are best in one way or another, and will be useful for anyone finding this thread. Just thought I'd report back as to which ones I'm putting into play immediately:

1. Set aside a time to keep in touch: Sunday nights are designated family phonecall night, for an hour around 8 PM.
2. Buy in bulk, get multiples when you shop: This is a massive stress saver. Having backups of the vital stuff means you never have to make a special trip, nor deal with the stress of running out of something like coffee, milk, or TP. Also using Grocery IQ on the iphone, which is great also for a rotating menu because it simplifies matters to just reuse the same list items.
3. Cook in bulk and freeze I was already pretty good about this but had let it slip. I now make pizza dough and something I can lunch on during the weekend, and it's ready for the week.
4. Have a cleaning and laundry schedule We now have one. Sunday: Laundry. Monday: Trash and Recycling. Tuesday: Grocery shopping. Wednesday: Off (I have class). Thursday: Sweep and pick up, pay bills and balance accounts. Friday: Off. Saturday: Bathroom.
5. Once a week figure out what your meals are going to look like We had already started the rotating menu and it's working out well. Monday: big salad, Tuesday: homemade pizza (we vary the toppings), Wednesday: forage for yourself, Thursday: pasta (varying the preparation), Friday: eat out or tostadas/tacos, Saturday: eat out or tostadas/ tacos (whichever we didn't do Friday); Sunday, some kind of big Sunday dinner which will yield leftovers.
6. Exercise Keeping up with this. It's very much worth it to make the time, as it keeps me calmer and also somehow always helps me think and make decisions while I'm running/walking.
7. Make sure you have you are not always scrambling for them Great advice. There are certain things that can derail your day if you don't have them so I'm getting better at always checking for them and packing them: water, a granola bar, gum/mints, change for parking meters, subway card, charging cable, etc.
8. Always plug in the phone before bed Yep, haven't run out of juice in weeks.
9. Making a flexible day plan before bed/every morning This is such a great tip for avoiding all-or-nothing thinking ("My whole DAY got ruined because of that sudden meeting getting called!") and acknowledging that things change around you constantly.
10. Picking out your clothes in advance So simple, makes a huge difference, especially because I can't think in the morning anyway. Shoes too.

Thanks everyone!
posted by Miko at 8:53 AM on September 30, 2013 [6 favorites]

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