In 2019, I suffered from a severe panic attack and anxiety episode that incapacitated me for 3 weeks. It took many months until I felt fully functional again. Part of my healing process was completely restructuring my work, which involved not just my calendar schedule, but also deep-seated beliefs about productivity, social media use, and all of my workflows.
Even for people who don’t experience full-blown anxiety—getting on top of these things can help to keep you in a good place mentally. I’ll go into this in more detail below, along with eight tools and approaches that you may find helpful in dealing with stress, anxiety and dread.
"Work-life balance" is a nebulous term that means different things to different people. Achieving this elusive balance also looks different from person to person. It can be difficult to define, but it's pretty easy to tell when we don't have work-life balance!
To me, work-life balance is achieved when work-related stress is minimized, work issues don't "spill over" into personal time, and there's ample opportunity for non-work activities (including spending time with family and friends, working out, and musical pursuits). Work-life balance doesn't necessarily mean devoting precisely equal time and mental energy to work and personal life -- it means finding a balance between the two that works for you in a way that's most conducive to your mental health.
Redesigning my work day/week
As an entrepreneur, this is something I'll be working on in some capacity for the rest of my working years. Redesigning my work days, along with meditation and medication, were the 3 most effective anxiety-management strategies I've used.
I’ve been attempting to decrease my weekly work hours and take weekends off regularly. As I’m sure most entrepreneurs have experienced, work tends to expand to fill the available time. If you’ve got 4 hours to write a report, it’ll take 4 hours. If you’ve only got 2 hours, you’ll find a way to get it done in 2 hours. So, I’m assigning my tasks as little time as possible.
In 2019 I took my first real no-work vacation in two years, having my awesome assistant Izzy take over my coaching practice for a week. Since then, I've been able to take many mini-vacations now that I have two other coaches on the team.
Two books, both by Cal Newport, have been particularly useful in redesigning my work schedule: Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, and Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Moving away from “busy” as a proxy for “important” or “productive”
I’m working hard to change my mindset about busyness (this has been a work in progress for many years). We often use being “busy” as a way to boast about the meaningfulness of our lives, and to signal that what we do is of utmost importance.
Just remember that we’re judged on our output, not on the number of hours we put in.
Cal Newport writes, “Knowledge workers…are tending toward increasingly visible busyness because they lack a better way to demonstrate their value.”
“In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.”
“Very busy!” used to be my default answer to, “How’re things going?” Not anymore. I’m still productive, but I’m not “busy” doing it. I’ve got a clear plan for my work priorities each day, and I aim to complete them in as little time as possible.
Here’s a brilliant passage from Tim Kreider’s The ‘Busy’ Trap:
“Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence. Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
I find that a distracted brain is more likely to be an anxious one, so I institute regular blockout periods from social media, using the SelfControl app.
In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport writes:
“The urge to check Twitter or refresh Reddit becomes a nervous twitch that shatters uninterrupted time into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life.”
The days I feel the most productive and the least scattered are the days where I’ve blocked myself out of social media for several hours at a time.
In keeping with my goal of minimizing distractions, I have email open only when I’m actively checking and answering messages (twice a day, scheduled into my calendar).
In Deep Work, Cal Newport writes:
“…by seeing messages that you cannot deal with at the moment (which is almost always the case), you’ll be forced to turn back to the primary task with a secondary task left unfinished. …this is a foolhardy way to go about your day [checking inboxes], as it ensures that your mind will construct an understanding of your working life that’s dominated by stress, irritation, frustration, and triviality. The world represented by your inbox, in other words, isn’t a pleasant world to inhabit.”
I’ve unsubscribed from everything. When requests come in that aren’t related to coaching awesome vegan clients (i.e., the main focus of my business), my default answer is “no”. Recently my husband and I were asked to participate in a video project that would have featured us and our work. We passed. I said “no thanks” to a $5000 project that related to veganism, but didn’t immediately relate to my coaching practice.
As someone who runs a 100% online business with clients all over the globe (and as someone who attempts to keep things as paper-free as possible), I use a ton of tech. I do try to stay mindful and use only that which is useful for my business, but in any given week, I use Asana, Google Calendar, iPhone reminders, Trainerize, Zoom, DropBox, Skype, Voxer, various screen recording apps, at least 3 different text editing applications, iMovie, GarageBand, and much more.
For the first time in almost a decade, I went back to using an analog, paper-and-pen planner, and it’s been an absolute game-changer. It’s not just any ol’ planner – it’s the Full Focus Planner by Michael Hyatt (and no, I’m not an affiliate). It’s brilliant.
My main schedule, commitments, and reminders still live in Google Calendar, but the planner functions to prioritize my daily “big 3” tasks, list smaller To Dos that aren’t in Google Calendar, and create a rough schedule of when I’ll work on those To Dos. There’s something about writing things down that feels better than entering them digitally, and there’s lots of research to back this up (e.g. people who write down their goals are much, much more likely to achieve them versus people who keep them in their heads). Instead of keeping a running To Do list as a text file on my desktop, which always felt like a losing battle, To Dos are now listed in my planner.
This particular planner also has a fantastic Weekly Preview, in which you take stock of the previous week and plan ahead for the coming week. Using this old-school paper planner along with all my digital tools has decreased my feeling of overwhelm (like the never-ending To Dos), and increased my focus. If you’re a planning and productivity nerd like me, check out the Full Focus Planner.
Prioritizing non-work life
Music has always been a part of my life, but since the Anxiety Shitstorm of 2019, I’ve made a commitment to have it be more prominent.
Along with saying “no” to additional work projects, I’m saying “yes” to more music projects. In June of 2019 I started a project with a new performance partner: we rehearse and perform the entire soundtrack to the Amélie movie, composed by Yann Tiersen. I’ve also been playing didgeridoo more often, including performing at our town’s biggest street festival, a studio recording session, and performing for local schoolchildren. My accordion teacher/performance partner and I also founded our city's annual Accordion Fest, the first of which happened in May of 2022, and was a great success!
Hiring help and finding accountability buddies:
Over the years, I've had nine different business coaches. So why not hire help for other areas of my life, too? In 2013, when I picked up the accordion, I started taking weekly lessons. In 2018 when I moved from Vancouver to Powell River, I started working with a new teacher and soon increased my lessons to twice weekly. Seven months ago I added weekly piano lessons to the roster; I've been playing since the age of 5 but wanted to expand my skillset.
All these music lessons force me to practice regularly, and take time away from my "default mode" of work.
For my fitness, I hired a swim coach for ongoing stroke analysis, which keeps me accountable to my swim training 4-5 days a week. An ocean swim buddy takes care of my weekly open-water session. To keep myself consistent with strength training (and to keep it fun!), I have three training buddies who together take care of all 7 of my weekly lifting sessions. This way, I've created an environment that forces me to step away from work and engage in something that's equally important to me (but more challenging, sometimes, to get done on any given day!)
If you need an extra kick in the butt to fit healthy habits into your life, my team and I can help! Check out our fitness and nutrition coaching programs that help you build lifelong, bulletproof health habits.