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Creating space in a packed schedule

It feels like it’s been a very busy week (month, year, decade…) and if your schedule is anything like mine, you probably don’t have enough time for being creative, taking breaks or anything else that injects a little bit of joy into the routine.

There are many strategies for tackling this problem, and one approach I have been experimenting with is pairing habits.

What’s pairing and how does it work?

I first came across the concept in Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before and basically this strategy is about pairing a new habit you want to adopt, such as doing a short meditation session, with an established behaviour, such as getting up.

There are two ways in which pairing can work: in positive ways (for example listening to an audiobook whilst walking the dog to create extra time for reading) and also in negative ways (buying too many snacks in the cinema).

Finding focus

I found for example that I associate standing at my desk with being responsive on chat and email. That focus on being available and the consequent constant interruptions made it very hard to focus on tasks that require space to think.

Although I was still productive and got a lot done, I was putting off tasks that would need more focus and started on other things that I could fit around communicating.

The solution was to pair tasks that need more focus with stepping away from my desk. Now I take my laptop with all email or DM apps closed to a table and write away from my inbox. When I sit down, even though I am physically less than 3 feet away from where I usually stand, I find it easier to focus on the task without distractions.

Lunchtime reset

Another example from my own experience is a negative pairing: I was good at taking lunch breaks but I was bad at actually resting. Instead, especially on days when I work from home, I started doing chores or life admin or watched things on my phone. I stopped working but I still kept going.

Over time, I found that really exhausting and I was craving a break that would help me reset. The start of my day may be four hours of stressful meetings, so I wanted to find a way to help me break the negative pairing of lunch with getting things done.

I identified things I wanted to stop (doing admin, chores, screen time) with things I wanted to do instead (go outside, play with the dogs, close my eyes for a few minutes).

Initially, I found it hard to change my habits. I caught myself staring at my screen or sorting things out around the house. When I sat down to do something like a breathing exercise or a short meditation, I found myself thinking about work.

Gradually however, I found ways to stick to and even enjoy my new lunchtime habit. I use a mindfulness app or other videos for 5-10 minutes and the guidance they provide helps me reset more easily. Weather permitting I have lunch outside, and my phone stays inside. I have stopped planning to complete chores during lunchtime instead making time outside of lunch.

What could work for you?

What habits are present in your life? Do you have any positive pairings that work for you or negative ones you’d like to change? How could pairing habits work for you?

If you’d like to try this strategy for yourself, here are some questions to get you started:

  • What habits work well for you (at work, for your wellbeing, or another area of your life?)
  • Why do they work well?
  • Can you identify any pairings that you would like to change?
  • How would you like to change them?
  • What single change would have an immediate positive impact on you?