30 tools to help you take back control of your life

30 simple things you can do to simplify your life. They are guaranteed to instantly give you relief from the many pressures that make life feel like a burden

Confident executive | Take back control of your life

Several years ago I wrote a book called Life’s Little Frustration Book [St. Martin’s Press]. It was a humour book, a collection of all those irritating and annoying things that happen to us. For example: You can’t open a drawer because something inside it is sticking up, and you can’t push it down until you open the drawer. And in doing that book, I realized what a complicated mess our lives have become, how little room we leave for error, how tightly our days are packed, so if only one thing doesn’t go as planned…everything starts to unravel. So we often find ourselves rushed, frustrated, frazzled…stressed out. Living almost our entire life in crisis mode. And we weren’t made for that. Sure, we can handle a pressure situation once in a while. But all the time? Think of the wear and tear on your nerves. All those harmful hormones and free radicals you’re unleashing—day after day, year after year—weakening your immune system, contributing to illnesses, aging you prematurely. I thought, surely there must be something out there that can help put a stop to this madness, some way to take back control of your life?

And it occurred to me that if all the countless available stress “remedies”—books, videos, drugs, audio tapes, aroma therapy, vibrating chairs, relaxation techniques, programs, devices—are so effective, how come everyone is still stressed out?

The answer is simple. While these methods may help to ease your stress—that is, treat its symptoms—most of them do little or nothing to eliminate the causes, to reverse the stressful habits, attitudes and mindsets you’ve developed over the course of your life.

The solutions mentioned here will give you the tools, motivation and attitude changes you need to root out stress at its very source… on the multiple battlefronts of your life.

It’s time to stop the insanity and take back control of your life. Starting today. Starting now.

30 tools to help you take back control of your life

1. Do one thing at a time

Do it mindfully. Do it well. Enjoy the satisfaction. Then go on to the next thing. That’s the way to take back control of your life — one thing at a time. Multitasking might work for computers, but humans have yet to get the hang of it. A growing body of evidence affirms that trying to accomplish several things at once takes up more time overall than doing them sequentially. It consumes an excessive amount of mental energy, too, so you fatigue more quickly. The lack of focus also leads to careless mistakes, shoddy work and unreliable performance. Worst of all, having to do things over. This is no way to live. Give what you’re doing your undivided attention. Take the time to get it right. You’ll be more productive, and less stressed, in the long run. Why make yourself crazy?

2. Throw something out every day

You’ve got too much stuff in your house. Office. Garage. Attic. Useless clutter that’s weighing you down, getting in the way, obscuring the things you really need. Just looking at the stuff is stressful, to the point where physical clutter soon becomes mental clutter. The problem is getting rid of it. It’s a huge job, so you keep putting it off. But the more you put it off, the more clutter you accumulate… making it an even more humongous task to face. Here’s how to break the cycle. Every day, find one thing you don’t need and toss it. Or give it away. Or sell it at a consignment shop. Be realistic. If you’re not going to use it, lose it. Over time, the clutter will begin to vanish and space and order will magically appear in your home… and your life. Stick with this. It really works. Why make yourself crazy?

cluttered rooom | Take back control of your life
Every day, find one thing you don’t need and toss it out

3. Cut down on competitive stress

Today, we compete for everything: the space around us, to be first to own a new product, to get our kids signed up for programs, to get our viewpoints across, to be faster, smarter, richer, sexier. Our days are filled with stressful competitions. And most are absolutely unnecessary. Because they’re driven by insecurity, fear of being left behind, an ingrained need to always have more or better than the next guy. If you wish to take back control of your life, try to get above all that. If you want to compete, vie to be the one who stays calm and in control, who isn’t easily sucked in by material things, who avoids being caught up in the daily grab-bag that robs people of health and peace of mind. Compete for that and see how pointless all those other competitions become. And how misguided those who partake in them begin to appear. Why make yourself crazy?

4. It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you react

In any given day, you’ll have progress and setbacks, triumphs and failures. That you can bet on. But as good a day as some people have, they’ll manage to find something to fret about. [“It’s just luck, it won’t last, I’m destined for misery.”] And as bad a day as others have, they’ll see the good in it. [“So what? I’m still alive, still kicking and nothing’s going to stop me”] will win over your day? And the next day? And the next? You have control over that: to enjoy your accomplishments without diminishing them; to accept your failures as opportunities to learn. You have the power to make every day a positive outcome. Because it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you react to it. Why make yourself crazy?

5. Eliminate meaningless deadlines

Our lives have become one long game of beat the clock. Crammed with arbitrary and unrealistic time constraints imposed by ourselves and others that serve only to make us more pressured, anxious and stressed out. For no worthwhile reason. Avoid the trap of assigning time frames to everything you do, especially if you have little idea how long it will take. But, you say, I need a deadline or I simply won’t get around to doing it. If that’s the case, it’s not a deadline you need, it’s a goal. Make your goal one of completing a project in a careful, professional, satisfying manner. In other words, as long as it takes to do it right. Or maybe your goal is to make the project more fun and interesting, or to develop a new and more expedient way of doing it. In any case, save your nerves and your energy for the few real deadlines we face… Why make yourself crazy?

6. Leave a cushion of time between events

Scheduling appointments, meetings, projects, luncheons, and events too closely together is a guaranteed stress fest. It leaves you vulnerable to even the slightest delays, which will occur. You’ll always have one eye on the clock and thus be distracted, rushed and prone to miss things and make mistakes. Be smart. Don’t stack up your events like planes on a runway. Life never works out that efficiently. Spread your schedule out. Always leave sufficient in-between time to allow for any unexpected bumps and delays. It will not go to waste. You’ll be glad to have those breaks to answer phone calls and email messages, take care of incidental things, and prepare yourself for your next event. That extra cushion of time will leave you less frazzled, and more productive, in the long run. Why make yourself crazy?

Bussinessman in a hurry
Don’t stack up your events like planes on a runway. Always leave sufficient in-between time to allow for any unexpected bumps and delays.

7. Have backups of essential items in place

So that you never run out of critical oft-used household staples like laundry detergent, milk, deodorant, toothpaste, batteries, or bathroom tissue… employ the buy-two-replace-one method. For example, buy two bottles of mouthwash. That way you’ll have an immediate replacement when the first one is used up, which will give you ample time to buy another before you run out of the second. In order to take back control of your life, make a list of those items it would be more than a little stressful to have to go without—there really shouldn’t be many—and see to it you’ve got both the item and its backup on hand. Why make yourself crazy?

8. Don’t get hung up on product features

The more bells and whistles a product has, the more there is to learn and remember, the more complicated it is to use and the more expensive it is to buy. Save yourself the waste and aggravation of overbuying your need. Get a unit that serves your main purpose simply and economically, with maybe one or two extras you’ll definitely use. Loading up on the latest gimmickery will cost you in more ways than one. There’s nothing more annoying than having to reread instructions every time you use something. Why make yourself crazy?

9. Entrust responsibility to responsible people

There are those who always have a convenient excuse for not getting it right, showing up late or botching the job entirely. And there are those who consistently, effectively and unequivocally come through for you. This isn’t luck. It’s responsibility. Not something you’re born with. Something you do. Responsibility takes effort. Concern. Pride. And perseverance. Whom do you want to entrust your children, your home, your finances, and your other important responsibilities to? Lose the whiners and stick with the winners. Why make yourself crazy?

10. Always view yourself as ahead, not behind

This small change in perspective can alter your approach to everything. When you perpetually see yourself behind schedule, never caught up, forever lacking in something… your emphasis is always on need. And that puts unrelenting, unhealthy pressure on you. But view yourself as ahead of the game [and most of us truly are] and the pressure almost immediately eases, and your needs diminish, because you’re grateful for what you already have. You can move forward confidently from a position of strength, rather than struggle from one of weakness. It’s all in the way you look at it. Why make yourself crazy?

11. Don’t over-volunteer

Resist volunteering for more than you can handle, more than your free time allows. Volunteering is great, but heavy involvement can steal important time from your family and relationships. [And it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to avoid more important obligations.] If the work becomes too demanding, simply say no. Nobody else is going to look out for you better than yourself. If we all “volunteered” to spend more time with kids, visit our parents, make loving homes, and carve out special time for ourselves, there wouldn’t be a need for so much volunteering in the first place. Why make yourself crazy?

12. Accept that people think differently than you do

You could spend your entire life trying to win over people to your point of view. The simple truth is, you won’t. At least, not everyone. Even if you present the most logical, rational, airtight arguments, some people will never see it your way. Maybe they’re proud, stubborn, stupid, or in some people will never see it your way. Maybe they’re proud, stubborn, stupid, or in some instances—did you ever stop to think?—right. If you wish to take back control of your life, don’t waste your time trying to convert the diehards. Instead, work with them, live with them, respect their differences, and be thankful the world isn’t full of people exactly like you. Why make yourself crazy?

Boss talking to subordinate
Even if you present the most logical, rational, airtight arguments, some people will never see it your way.

13. Don’t say it. Do it

Boasting about the wonderful things you’re going to do for yourself and others can actually be your undoing. For one, now you’re expected to do them. Secondly, if you don’t do them you appear weak, unreliable and irresponsible. If you really want to impress people, don’t reveal what you intend to do… but simply do it. They’ll be surprised and pleased with your accomplishment, and even more moved by your modestly. And if for some reason you can’t get it done, no one will be the wiser. Why make yourself crazy?

14.  Always be equipped for an emergency

This is an important step when you wish to take back control of your life. You only need to do this once. In your car, keep a first-aid kit, jumper cables, flares, flashlight, blankets, and a fire extinguisher. Home: a first-aid kit, fire extinguishers, flashlights, candles, and a portable radio. Sports bag: first-aid kit and instant cold packs. Take the time. Make the investment. Do it today. Even if you never use them, the peace of mind alone is worth the effort and expense. Why make yourself crazy?

15. Don’t look at your crazed schedule in its entirety

It’ll freak you out…like looking over the edge of a steep cliff. You’ll swear you’ll never live through it. And stress yourself big time fretting over it. Calm down. Focus only on what you need to accomplish over the next day or so. Deal with each event as it comes. You’ll find that things have a way of sorting themselves out, refreshing breaks do sometimes open up, and other options will present themselves. Your kitchen calendar [or electronic scheduler] can look far more frightening than it really is. One thing at a time. Why make yourself crazy?

16. Be a slug one day a week

Especially if you’re a jackrabbit the other six. Sleep late. Languish in bed with the newspapers. Don’t answer the phone. Go out for brunch. It’s okay. It’s not a crime. In fact, considering how you normally abuse yourself, it’s downright virtuous. Even better, designate a day the whole family can be slugs. No shuttling the kids around frantically. No social calendar to be slave to. One way to take back control of your life is to just let things happen… lazily and naturally. It will leave you more energized and better prepared to tackle the week ahead. Why make yourself crazy?

Woman relaxing at home reading a magazine
One way to take back control of your life is to just let things happen

17. Don’t let routine tasks become urgent ones

Don’t wait until: you’re out of underwear before you do your laundry; the fridge is empty before you go shopping; the cell phone dies before you recharge it. That routine task will quickly become a critical one at a time when you can least afford to deal with it. And saddle you with exasperating stress when none should exist. Keep tabs on what might soon need attention and take care of it before it rears up and bites up. Why make yourself crazy?

18. Be on time

Lateness can signal a lack of respect for those you keep waiting. At least, that’s how they might view it. However acceptable you think lateness has become, you can bet it still grates on those whose time is compromised. Aside from that, constantly running late is a stress factory. It’ll fry your nerves, make you prone to errors and accidents, weaken your immune system, age you prematurely. Get hooked on the relaxed, liberating feeling of being ahead of schedule. All it takes is planning, practice and empathy for others. Everyone wins when you’re on time. Why make yourself crazy?

19. Make the “I’m running late” phone call

When it’s fairly certain you’re not going to arrive on time, make the call. Let others know in advance you’ll be delayed. It accomplishes several things. You’ll experience an immediate unburdening of stress and a sense of relief. You won’t be keeping people hanging, fuming and wondering where you are. Your alert will allow them to alter their plans accordingly. And by the time you arrive, they will have appreciated your courtesy, adjusted to the situation and be more agreeable with you. So don’t just arrive way overdue and try to minimize it with a trite “Sorry I’m late.” Call ahead and let them know you’re delayed. Why make yourself crazy?

20. Don’t expect gratitude

You may get it, but don’t expect it. Accept that a lot of your good efforts will go unacknowledged. [And your kids will never fully appreciate you until they have children of their own!] Today, people mostly take notice when things go wrong… and take the rest for granted. So rather than repeatedly setting yourself up for disappointment, don’t expect accolades. Do it because it’s right, because it pleases you, because your reward should derive from the fruit of your labours, not the arbitrary whim of disinterested recipients. And when that infrequent expression of thanks does come your way, it will be that much sweeter. Why make yourself crazy?

21. Tell people what you expect of them

How else are they going to know what you want? And how to deliver it? When you’re the boss, the customer, the parent, the teacher… you can’t be vague or timid. You have to be clear, firm and decisive. Don’t be shy about giving orders or afraid you’ll ruffle some feathers. And you have every right, indeed obligation, to give it. You can save yourself and others a lot of frustration when you simply take command and let them know what you expect. Why make yourself crazy?

Two men in discussion
You can save yourself and others a lot of frustration when you simply take command and let them know what you expect

22. Don’t answer your morning emails right away

Read them, but don’t answer them—unless there’s an immediate fire to put out. They’ll sap your time and the mental energy needed for more important tasks. Save them for later when you need a break. Responding will be easier then, too, since your subconscious will be working on them all the while. [Notice how you instantly know what to say when you revisit them.] Personal messages and jokes can be especially insidious and take a big chunk out of your day. They’re like electronic water coolers. And try not to interrupt your workflow every time a new message arrives. Wait till you’ve got a bunch. The objective here: fewer distractions, more focus, less stress. Why make yourself crazy?

23. Leave yourself an extra day at the end of your vacation

Enjoy a day of transition at home to unpack, read your mail, do your laundry, reconnect with others, catch up on things, or simply relax… before heading back to work. Thrusting yourself right into your busy routine without a breather is asking for the same stress you were trying to escape in the first place. That extra day of reentry and re-acclimation can make a huge difference. Take it. Why make yourself crazy?

24. Don’t be so thin-skinned

Why let an off-the-cuff remark or minor criticism rankle you to the degree it leaves you tense, angry and unable to focus on much else? Develop a hide thick enough so that verbal slights bounce right off and get only the minimal attention they deserve. [Sometimes we misconstrue what was said, too.] Overblown reactions create unnecessary stress and negative energy. To what purpose? You can bet the off-putting remark isn’t bothering the person who delivered it! To take back control of your life, don your emotional flak-jacket and accept that you can’t always please everyone. Why make yourself crazy?

25. Lose that jarring morning alarm

If your alarm clock shocks you out of bed each day with a sudden, loud, jangling noise, you could be doing yourself harm—starting the day with a burst of unwanted stress hormones. Try one of those new wake-up clocks that lift you gently out of sleep with natural sounds like ocean surf, birds, rainfall, or babbling brooks. Some even have pleasant chime sequences that gradually increase in volume. Or wake up to an unobtrusive radio station. Set a melodious rather than dissonant note for the day. Why make yourself crazy?

26. Improve your posture

Try not to slouch. Because when you slouch—for example, slunk low in your office chair, hunched over while walking, or ensconced deeply in the cushions of your couch—it impedes the flow of blood, makes breathing more difficult, contributes to a feeling of stressful incapacity that makes it harder to hoist yourself to a task. Snap to it. Sit up straight. Profit from the energy and alertness of a good healthy posture. Why make yourself crazy?

Man sitting on his desk, slouched
Posture is important. Always sit with your back straight. When you slouch, it contributes to a feeling of stressful incapacity that makes it harder to hoist yourself to a task

27. Seek professional help for major stress problems

The stress we deal with here is the everyday stress, the retail stress that we more or less bring on ourselves and thus have the power to eliminate ourselves. But sometimes there are major stressful events in our lives we don’t have control over—an illness, death of a loved one, marriage breakup, loss of a job, depression, abusive relationship—that require the help of a professional therapist. In such cases, don’t put off seeking assistance, or believe that casual stress remedies are going to do the trick. There are people out there who can make an extraordinary difference in helping you get through a difficult time. Seek their counsel; they will help you take back control of your life. Why make yourself crazy?

28. Don’t talk so fast

Have you noticed how much faster the pace of normal conversation is becoming? How we rush our words, leaving no openings, anxious to complete a thought before someone else rushes in? Often having to scold our listeners with “let me finish”? It’s a sign of our hurried times. And as much as fast talking is driven by stress, it can cause stress, too. Rapid speech is highly contagious. It’s less effective, hard to follow and easily misconstrued. No matter how fast the other guy is blathering on, slow down, speak deliberately… replace speed with firmness and clarity. You’ll stay more calm and communicate more forcefully. Why make yourself crazy?

29. Set up a stress relief fund

Put aside some money, and stock it away somewhere in your house where it will be available at a moment’s notice. This is not vacation money, not typical fun money and should not be used capriciously. But when things really start cranking up and you’re all but fried…break into your emergency stress fund. Go out and do something totally unplanned and indulgent. Whether it’s a favourite restaurant, store, nightclub, sporting event, whatever… is up to you. But when things are getting too insane, declare yourself a disaster area and send in some aid. Why make yourself crazy?

30. Alternate mental and physical activities

If you work at a desk all day, don’t sit in front of TV all night. Do something active. If your job is physical, or involves being on your feet or running around, relax and exercise your mind [like reading a book] during the off hours. If our work involves both mental and physical aspects, try alternating the two throughout the day. What this does is add balance and vitality to your life. It’s more energizing, stress-reducing and healthier overall. It’s easy to get stuck in a single monotonous mode—like moving from chair to chair all day—and suppress your other self. It’s essential to exercise both your mind and body. Why make yourself crazy?

Adapted with permission from 400 Ways to Stop Stress Now by G Gaynor McTigue; Jaico Publishing House

This excerpt also appeared in the January 2011 issue of Complete Wellbeing

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