How to make time for yourself, over holidays and beyond

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There’s never enough time in the day — for personal or professional obligations, family, or even a good night’s sleep — and our health suffers for it.

That’s especially true with the holidays looming, a time when we’re constantly being reminded that we need to get ready yesterday or risk missing out.

Trying to manage it all, rather than simply living in the moment, has become stressful, rather than joyful. And when we are stressed, unhealthy habits often provide cold comfort.

“When we find ourselves under stress, we often make bad choices on things like diet and screen time, and even resort to smoking and drinking,” says Denise Johnson, MD, family medicine specialist on the medical staff at Methodist Richardson Medical Center. “This leads to health issues and raises risk factors for obesity, heart disease, depression, diabetes, and cancer.”

Physicians like Dr. Johnson understand how much our physical health depends on our mental well-being. How we organize our time affects both.

Dr. Johnson offers some tips to navigate a busy schedule and reduce stress, for the sake of better health.

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Sticking to a consistent schedule can create a productive mindset and help ward off distractions.

“Maintain that routine for a week,” Dr. Johnson suggests. “At the end, check to see how your body has responded to keeping a regular schedule.”

It might help to divide each day into chunks, anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, devoting each period to a task that can be completed in that time.

Consider trying the Pomodoro Technique, a time-management strategy developed in the 1980s that alternates 25-minute periods of focused work (no procrastination, no distractions) with 5- to 10-minute breaks, followed by a longer break after the fourth “Pomodoro.”

Those breaks are critical as a buffer, even if it’s just a few minutes for a bathroom break, to grab a snack or simply to stroll away from the task at hand.

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Prioritize your goals to identify what needs doing first — and make sure your list includes personal goals as well as professional goals.

“Write a to-do list and order tasks by complexity, relevance, and urgency,” Dr. Johnson says.

Make your list the evening before your workday rather than the morning, which tends to be especially hectic in most households.

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Value sleep and ensure you make time to allow your brain a rest so it can reorganize.

“Listening to your body can tell you if you need more or less sleep,” Dr. Johnson says.

Shoot for six to eight hours, but also understand that there’s no such thing as “catching up” on a sleep deficit. And remember, oversleeping can be just as detrimental to your well-being, leading to fatigue and sluggishness.

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Like sleep, meals and physical fitness too often become after-thoughts — a chore we grudgingly fit into our daily routines. And that can adversely affect our health.

“Diet and exercise directly impact your ability to deal with stress,” Dr. Johnson says.

Set aside time to exercise, and do something you enjoy rather than something you dread. Find a workout partner who makes fitness not just bearable but enjoyable and keeps you accountable.

Similarly, eating healthy doesn’t have to be an ordeal. Bring a healthy snack from home (think fruits and vegetables), so you don’t have to resort to vending machine fare. Find time on the weekends to meal-plan to spare yourself the daily stress of last-minute dinner prep or, worse yet, resorting to fast food.

Finally, get some sunshine and drink plenty of water. Both will improve your health, mentally and physically.

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Understanding your limits means knowing when to say no and realizing that falling short of a goal isn’t the end of the story.

“Don’t stress about failing,” Dr. Johnson says. “After all, success is measured by failures, so don’t stop trying.”

In other words, failing can often result in corrective behavior that can lead to success in the future.

When all else fails, don’t be afraid to ask for help, from a family member, a colleague, or a friend — if not your doctor or a counselor.

Dr. Johnson knows that asking for feedback can feel uncomfortable, but talking through things with a friend or a colleague can lead to time-management solutions you may have never considered.

“Be open to different perspectives by asking for advice and feedback on how to improve your time,” Dr. Johnson suggests. “It will be time well spent.”