In 2014, I went to Philadelphia to present my research findings at the Infectious Diseases Society of America Annual Meeting. I remember sitting in the audience listening to a speaker talking about modern diseases. As I write this passage, his words echo in my ears: most of our ailments are manmade, caused by curry, hurry, and worry.
We touched on hurry in Chapter 5, “Live Simply,” where we discuss how to slow down and appreciate what is meaningful to us. In his presentation, the speaker explained that curry is a representation of too much indulgence in food that doesn’t serve us. We addressed the issue in Chapter 17, “The Food Truth.” Now let’s take a look at excessive worry.
How often we neglect to care for our bodies until they fall apart. Whenever I talk to working moms about self-care, the first thing they say is usually, But I just don’t have time for it. When I ask if they worry a lot, they tell me they worry all the time.
Does it make sense that we spend all of our time worrying but no time taking action? Worrying doesn’t protect us from disasters and disappointments. It clouds our mind, making it difficult to see the steps we should take. As a result, we let problems dictate our actions.
Have you noticed that you can hardly recall what happened yesterday? Everything blurs into an undifferentiated mass with no clear separation of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Everything becomes automatic without a higher level of engagement. I call this zombie living. We must learn to be engaged in our daily lives so we don’t miss the important things. Trimming down the extra weight we carry, in mind and body, will help us live a productive life.
How to better use time? Some techniques you can try are eliminating distractions and focusing on what’s important, multitasking the smart way, and optimizing your time.
Eliminate, then Prioritize
As crucial as it is to figure out what to do, you also need to decide what not to do. Because we have limited time and energy, we want to eliminate distractions and focus on essential things. First, automate time-consuming routine tasks such as buying household supplies by setting up monthly deliveries online. Next, delegate age-appropriate chores to each of your kids and set up a weekly competition to reward your best-performing “employee.” They’ll gain essential life skills, and you’ll have time for the important stuff.
Sometimes we have trouble deciding what is important to us. Remember, time is money. Think about your end goal when examining the list of responsibilities. What are the action steps that can get you closer to that goal? If something serves your purpose, keep it; if not, eliminate it.
After the elimination round, it’s time to prioritize tasks to maximize the gain on your time investment. This is a two-step process.
First, evaluate the urgency of each task. Rank them from the most urgent to the least. You should always do the most pressing one first.
Second, prioritize the less-urgent tasks by estimating the ratio of reward/time requirement. The higher the ratio, the higher the task ranks.
For example, on my day off, I have the following tasks to do:
Research a summer internship opportunity for Ethan
Proofread the chapter I wrote the night before
Buy milk and eggs
Label the holiday greeting cards and mail them out
Pick up Chu from the airport at 10:15 a.m.
So my ranking process will look like this:
Based on the urgency level, picking up my husband should rank first on my list. Researching for an internship opportunity has high reward but will probably take hours, so the reward/time requirement ratio is average. Proofreading my book chapter only takes fifteen minutes and will award me with great satisfaction, so the reward/time requirement ratio is high. Buying groceries and labeling and mailing cards take about the same amount of time and give me the same level of satisfaction. But buying milk is more urgent because if I don’t get it done, Ethan won’t have any milk that night. I can mail the cards any day before Christmas, thus not as urgent. Because the post office is on my way to the store, I can drop off the cards before buying milk.
Here’s my final ranking of tasks:
Pick up Chu from the airport at 10:15 a.m.
Proofread the chapter I wrote the night before
Label the holiday greeting cards and mail them out, then buy milk and eggs
Research a summer internship opportunity for Ethan
The New York Times best-selling author Gretchen Rubin wrote in her book Better Than Before that she experienced joy and relief after decluttering her apartment and giving away those material processions that no longer served her. 64 On the show Tidying up With Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizing consultant illustrates her methods of organization. 65 Take a look, it might inspire you to take action.
Most experts are against the notion of trying to do more than one thing at a time, citing research findings that multitasking is counterproductive. 66 Our brains can’t switch back and forth between different tasks efficiently like a machine. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton Business School conducted a study on “the malleability of multitasking perceptions as well as how these perceptions impact performance.” They found that “[a]lthough previous literature found that engaging in multiple tasks may diminish performance, … holding the activity constant, the mere perception of multitasking actually increases engagement with the task and improves performance.” 67
Multitasking can work if the different tasks are synergistic (helpful) to each other or involve different parts of your brain. Take the example of walking: you can listen to music, an audiobook, or a podcast. Neither activity affects the other. In fact, you’ll walk farther without realizing it because of the auditory entertainment.
The same thing applies to listen to something while doing housework or driving. In the past few years, I have finished twenty audiobooks while driving and walking. The idea of this book came after listening to Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. 68 I thought I should write a book for working moms who had been in the trenches so long they had forgotten who they were meant to be.
Other examples of multitasking include doing a few similar tasks at the same time. When your attention wanes, switch to another task. When you become bored again, switch back. This is one of the productivity hacks I tried when studying for three different life science classes while working full time. I’ll tell you more about that at the end of this chapter.
Optimize How You Spend Your Time
There are three ways to optimize your time: through saving time, minimizing distractions, and breaking tasks into ministeps and getting them done during your wait time.
Lumping similar activities together saves not only time but also gas. For example, earlier I mentioned grouping grocery shopping with mailing cards on one trip. With gas prices at $4.50 per gallon (at the time I’m writing), every extra mile driven is money we could have saved.
Summarize your findings or conclusion in words right after the completion of the day’s task. Write them down in a notebook and date the entry. Don’t type on your phone or laptop. Writing triggers brain signals that promote memorization. 69 When working on a large project, make sure you take notes daily, recording the items completed and items still to be done. This makes it easier to keep track of the details within the project, saving you the frustration of digging through old files to find out where you left off.
Schedule a time slot for checking emails and web browsing. Turn your device off once outside of the allowed time. You might experience withdrawal symptoms, such as excessive worries that something terrible might happen while you are “offline.” Don’t panic; no one has died over this.
Set a timer for intense work, then relax once the time is up. Don’t worry if the task isn’t complete. You can always go back to it when your mind is fresh. This way, you’re always at the top of your productivity.
Break Down a Task
Break a large task into ministeps and get them done during your wait time. I usually schedule Ethan’s appointments on the same day as mine so I can get everything done on one trip to the medical office. While we wait, I’ll answer emails and Ethan will do his homework. Don’t underestimate fifteen or twenty minutes here and there: you can get a lot of things done within that time frame.
When Ethan was in middle school, the campus opened late on Tuesdays at 9:30 a.m. Since he usually arrives around 7:50 a.m., I checked out books he liked from the library and asked him to read while he waited for the school to open. For the three years he studied there, he finished about ten books just by optimizing that wait time.
Proper planning is essential for productivity. It keeps us on track and minimizes waste of time and resources. With so many distractions around us, we need to know where we are heading at all times. Having a well-thought-out plan gives you a sense of purpose and control. It also allows you to assess your progress and make room for improvement.
I’m a list person. I make a to-do list at the end of each day. As a pharmacist, working in the intensive care unit is stressful. The patients’ conditions could change at any minute, and I need to constantly adjust my tasks to meet the care team’s needs. It’s crucial for me to reflect on the day’s events and jot down the items to follow up on later. Without the list, I’ll struggle, trying to recall what exactly happened the day before. If I miss anything, it could impact patient care. List-making is the core of my professional life.
I do the same at home. Whenever I receive an invitation or make an appointment, I record it right away on my calendar. This way, I always know how my week or month looks and can easily rearrange if something comes up.
One Day at a Time
Many moms face the challenge of balancing career and motherhood. Many of my friends are tempted to quit their jobs to be full-time moms. I encourage them to stay on the job, even if they have to cut back the hours or switch to another position to accommodate their child-rearing responsibilities.
The world is changing so fast, and we have to keep on learning. Otherwise, we’ll feel outdated and irrelevant. Although children are our future, and we must take care of them the best we can, staying in the workforce is essential for our professional growth. It’s tremendously difficult to go back to work five years after you leave the job. Your mindset changes; you aren’t keeping up with the industry trends, which can make you feel inadequate and out of place. Stay on your job if you can. It not only helps to balance the mind-numbing routine of mothering young children, but also provides you the connection with the outside world. You’ll have more to share with your children, and you’ll light up their growing minds with infinite knowledge. Never give up learning, even when knowledge seems unnecessary.
For those whose jobs aren’t flexible or family friendly, a career change might be in order. It’s a daunting task to learn new skills while taking care of your family.
When I decided to become a pharmacist in 2001, I faced significant obstacles. UCSF had been the number one pharmacy school in the country for decades. It was close to home, but the competition was fierce. Other schools were not as competitive but were far away from where I lived. My husband wanted to stay close to his family, so UCSF became my only option. Most of the applicants had majored biochemistry or molecular biology in undergrad, as pharmacy is a chemistry- and biology-focused field. I had only one semester of chemistry and biology in high school. The program prerequisites included general chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, microbiology, and physiology. I was still working full time then. It would take me years to complete the prerequisite if I only took evening classes. Could I do well in these lab sciences after majoring in business and engineering? What if I didn’t get accepted after spending all the time and effort needed to learn? I debated back and forth, calculating my odds of success. My desire to be a pharmacist was so strong that I proceeded with my plan.
I enrolled at a local community college and took general chemistry, physiology, and microbiology classes in the evening. A year later, I talked to my boss about working in the evening so I could attend the summer intensive organic chemistry class. The course typically took a whole semester to complete; the intensive class had only six weeks of instruction. On most days, I spent three hours in the lecture followed by three hours of lab, then went to work in the evening.
Soon I received an invitation for an interview at UCSF. One question they asked me was to describe a challenge I faced and how I overcame the difficulties. I talked about my experience at the community college while working full time. I explained how, to make the process less daunting, I divided the big goal into monthly, weekly, and daily goals. Instead of worrying about climbing a steep mountain, I focused on making a small step each day. Before I knew it, I had reached the top. “I suppose that was how a mouse swallowed an elephant,” I said.
Two months later, a small envelope with the UCSF logo arrived in my mailbox. I remember feeling the thin paper inside the envelope with my fingers and concluded it must be a rejection letter. I put the envelope away without opening it. My husband had been so supportive and hopeful about my career change that I didn’t want to tell him the bad news. When he opened the envelope two days later and rushed downstairs to the laundry room to find me, he hugged me and said, “You got in! I’m so proud of you!”
Nothing is as difficult as it seems. All we have to do is to finish each day’s task. Mark it off your calendar and never break that chain.
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