HBR article helps us keep it simple to maintain sanity…
by Jackie Coleman and John Coleman
Eight months ago, we welcomed our third child. In the past, we’ve written about how to navigate careers, stress, and even “annual planning.” You’d think we’d be prepared for wonderful but disruptive life events like these, but as Mike Tyson famously quipped, “Everyone has plan until they get punched in the mouth.”The past year has been a time of radical prioritization for us. We’re constantly optimizing — identifying our most essential priorities and activities while reluctantly and painfully cutting things that are important but not urgent.
Maybe you’re facing a life event that forces this type of radical prioritization. Whether it’s changing jobs, taking care of a sick parent, relocating, or facing a diagnosis, disruptions in life can make it hard to maintain moment-by-moment focus and well-being, much less think months or years in the future. Long-term goals remain important. But in the fog of life’s most intense moments, long-term focus can be hard.
Daily or weekly habits aligned with your long-term goals can keep you on track even when it’s hard to think ahead, and they can add stability in an otherwise unsteady time. Each of us have regular practices we try to maintain to give our lives structure, to remain mentally and physically healthy, and to assure we’re approaching life consciously. These habits, important at any time, are essential in our busiest and most chaotic periods. So what do these habits look like?
The first step in maintaining regular habits is to articulate and track them. We find the key is to keep this simple. What are the 5-10 things you need to do daily or weekly to keep life on track? Once you’ve written them down, track them. The Momentum app, for example, is an easy way to set daily and weekly habits and be reminded of them. There are many others. If you’re more old-fashioned, you can use a simple Excel sheet or paper planner. The important thing is to reflect on the right habits, write them down, and stay accountable.When setting habits, we’ve found the most critical are clustered in four key areas.
The first is personal reflection. This can look radically different depending on the person. For us, as people of faith, this involves prayer and scriptural study. It also includes religiously agnostic habits, like keeping diaries, documenting the funny things our children say, and crafting gratitude journals in which we can record what’s happening in our lives and what we are grateful for multiple times per week. Studies have shown that these kind of practices can help us better process life events and remain joyful about the good we experience.
Relatedly, we need time for professional reflection. For years, John has maintained the same professional routine. He sits down on Sunday night with a weekly Moleskine planner and maps out his most important meetings and priorities for the week. This helps him assure he’s focused on not simply what’s most visible or immediate, but what’s actually important. And it offers structure so that when new demands arise he can more easily prioritize them. Then, each morning, he inserts a note card into the planner where he prioritizes what needs to be done that day. Simple, daily reflection on priorities and to-dos can make a meaningful difference in productivity and focus.
A third category of activities is building and maintaining relationships. Social science is crystal clear on the centrality of relationships to personal well-being. It’s important to prioritize and manage relationships. For us, right now, the primary relationships we’re focused on are with our kids and with each other. Each day, we structure a bedtime ritual with the kids where we all get together and spend time together, reading and talking about our highs and lows. As a couple, we try to make time to speak every day, and we try to get out of the house together, without the kids, once per week. We also each try to make at least some time to spend with a friend or two once a week. These sound like small things, but they can be critical to maintaining positive relationships and emotional well-being.
Finally, we all need to maintain habits that encourage physical and mental health. Studies show that people who get at least two days of exercise per week are happier (with each additional day boosting happiness further) and as little as 20 minutes of exercise can boost mood and 11 minutes of lifting weights can boost metabolic rate. For mental health, daily meditation can be a lifesaver restoring some order and balance in disordered and imbalanced times. Apps like Headspace and Calm have made practices like this more accessible than ever and easier to track and maintain. For both of us, the simple act of reserving 30 minutes each day for reading or writing can also promote mental health, a task that seems to be backed by science.
Everyone’s life looks different. But we all have periods of life which are busy, disordered, and stressful. In those times, short-term habits —weekly or daily practices — can trump long-term goals as a way to focus, survive, and thrive.
Jackie Coleman is a former marriage counselor and most recently worked on education programs for the state of Georgia.John Coleman is a coauthor of the book, Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders.