Blog Series: Everyday Mental Health: Universal Truth #1 Planning Your Life Leads to Better Mental Health!

Dr. Amanda Beaman, C.Psych

In my first article about planning, I discussed some of the common assumptions that get in the way of this habit. If you haven’t read it already, it may be helpful to uncover some of your unhelpful assumptions before moving onto the steps of building the daily habit of planning your life.

As we work together on planning, most clients experience the usefulness of it, see how it can be motivating, and can promote their mental health. They also see that it actually reduces their feelings of overwhelm and helps them accomplish what they need to. Once we get negative assumptions out of the way, we assess where they are at with the following essentials to planning:

  • Utilizing a scheduling tool (e.g. electronic or paper calendar)
  • Accounting for all goals/tasks (both personal and professional)
  • Prioritizing goals/tasks
  • Breaking goals/tasks down into detailed enough steps
  • Setting realistic goals
  • Appropriate estimates of how much time things take
  • Making room in their schedule for self-care
  • Building in accountability and rewards

In this article we will cover the first two essentials of planning.  Once you have done the work of articulating your goals we can move on to the remainder of the steps in our next articles!


Planning: Essential Elements

Step One: Adopting a scheduling tool

This is the first step to take if you haven’t already.  It may seem like a “no-brainer” to many of you reading this, however, don’t stop reading as there may be some information here that is useful to you.  For others, you may have had difficulty sticking with a scheduling tool. This can be especially true for people who don’t work, or are going through a life transition, such as being on a disability leave, mat leave, an illness, retirement, or are between jobs.  Or maybe you just never got into the habit!

A scheduling tool can take many forms but it should be a central hub where one can keep track of all personal and professional tasks, appointments and goals. The tool should also allow for time to be partitioned by hour, day, week, and month such that goals can be planned in these increments.  Having the day broken down by hours is very important.  Cultivating a habit of doing fine-grained, hourly planning not only leads to general positive outcomes, such as getting more accomplished, it becomes absolutely essential during times that we are feeling less mentally well.  In addition, using a tool means that you’ve written it down somewhere.  Most people do not have the memory capacity to remember, in detail, all the things they need to do and in what order-especially today where there is so much competing for our attention!  There is some problem-solving involved in planning tasks. So if we don’t do this thinking ahead and write it down, it may result in constant re-visiting of our tasks.  This takes up a lot of mental energy, can create anxiety, and often interferes with being present or falling sleep.  So, there is no need to try and be a hero and remember everything that you have to do, just write it down and free up space in your mind for more enjoyable or important things!   Find yourself a day planner, in electronic or paper form, which allows for the time increments described above.  The less fancy or complicated the tool, the better!  Once you have a tool, come back and we will start planning!

Step Two: Articulate your goals

Once you have your tool, it is important to, on a weekly (then daily) basis, take stock of everything you have to, or want to do. However, sometimes this isn’t always so clear! Often there is conflict between what we would like to change in our lives and what we actually end up doing.  Often, people already have an internal sense of some of the changes they need to make in their lives, they just need a bit of help articulating it.  At the beginning of therapy, we ask a few questions to try to understand more about the problems a person is experiencing, and what they would like to see change in their lives.  It is very common for people to give vague answers, and it is our job to help them define the problems more clearly and to guide them in setting goals.  This is a very important step, as it guides the course of the therapy for both the client and therapist.  Similarly, this is a very important process for anyone who is taking stock of their mental health and deciding what needs changing.  One of the most telling set of questions we ask, perhaps several times throughout the planning process is:

If you felt better (i.e. mentally healthy), how would your daily life be different?  What would you be doing differently if you felt better?

Before you answer this question for yourself, let’s review the story of Kelly.

Kelly is a 51-year-old woman who came to therapy for help with “anxiety and stress”.  She has two teenage children and a busy career as a sales representative.  Her husband is an executive and is often traveling on business.  She described her “anxiety and stress” as feeling tense a lot of the time, having difficulty sleeping, and being anxious about her future.  When I asked Kelly the first time what would be different in her daily life if she felt better, she said she’d “feel less stressed and anxious”.  I discussed with Kelly that this is a very common goal that people have when they come to therapy- they want the feelings of stress and anxiety to go away.  However, it is difficult to work on the feelings of “anxiety and stress” directly, we have to find the things that are connected to these feelings, as we only have the ability to change things that are concrete.  These “things” are usually unhelpful habits of behaviour or thinking.  So, I re-phrased the question to, if you were feeling less “stressed and anxious”, how would your daily life be different? What would you be doing differently? Kelly thought about this for a while, it was hard at first to answer, as she was so focused on the feelings themselves she hadn’t considered what might be connected to them.  She imagined that if she felt less stressed she would probably be doing hobbies that she had stopped doing instead of distracting herself with tv or scrolling on her phone in the evenings.  She used to love to plan interior design projects in her home, but she hadn’t been motivated to do that in the evenings after a busy day. She had also stopped exercising a year ago when she took on a new client that has been very demanding, and she remembers when she did daily exercise she felt more relaxed and slept better.  I asked Kelly why she would feel the need to distract herself in the evenings.  She described that she thinks a lot about work and daily tasks she has to do the next day, even though she knows it will turn out fine as it always does, she finds her mind keeps thinking about everything she has to do and she starts to feel stressed.  She finds that screens distract her from this temporarily, but once she gets in bed she often has trouble falling asleep for the same reason.  She may bring a device to bed and scroll through social media if she can’t sleep, but this can lead to her not falling asleep until much later than she wanted.  This causes her to feel tired the next day and unmotivated to exercise. I asked her about how she plans her days/week.  She explained that she has her work meetings planned in her schedule, and a general list of “to-do’s” that she keeps with her and tries to cross things off of when she finds time, but she doesn’t often feel like she has accomplished most of what she wanted to. We started with the following goals for therapy, that we would work on implementing over 6- 8 weeks to see how it affected her feelings of stress:

  1. Make a detailed daily schedule every day, with “to-do” items prioritized and added in the schedule
  2. Start exercising more- to start, 3 times a week for 30 minutes in the morning
  3. Reading at night before bed about interior design project in mud room instead of social media scrolling
  4. Eliminate screens from bed
  5. Develop strategies to help with negative thoughts about the next day that cause stress
  6. Spend time with kids in the evenings instead of distracting myself with screens

Now it is your turn!

How would your daily life be different if you felt more mentally healthy?

What would you be doing differently?

Would you be thinking any differently?  We will discuss strategies for working on thinking in future articles, but it is helpful to articulate now what types of thinking patterns you may notice are getting in the way (e.g. “I am too tired to exercise”, “I’ll never be able to get what I want, what is the point of trying?”)

Try to come up with an initial list of changes/goals that would likely coincide with you feeling better.  Having an initial list of goals in mind as you read the next article will help you get started.