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7 Ways to Plan Out Your Day to Feel Less Stressed

By Kerry Weiss
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
April 22, 2024
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Meeting work deadlines. Paying bills on time. Tackling the dirty laundry pile. Shopping for and cooking dinner. Life’s daily demands are enough to make anyone feel stressed or overwhelmed. But taking steps to manage your personal day-to-day stressors may help you feel more in control.

Not sure where to start? Adding structure to each day can be a great first step.

“Human beings love structure,” says Josh Briley, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist based in Texas and a fellow of the American Institute of Stress. “We rebel against it sometimes, but we definitely need structure to know when something’s going to happen and how long we expect it to last.”

Planning your day ahead of time can serve almost as a dress rehearsal, says Allison Young, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist based in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, in New York City. “It's an opportunity to think through what you want to get done, what you need to get done, and generally where in the day those things will fit in,” she explains.

Planning may also help alleviate stress. “Just getting what you need to do onto paper, instead of having it repeat in your head, will help make space for other things and reduce stress and worry,” Young says.

Try these strategies for scheduling your day in ways that may make you feel calmer and more in control.

1. Set a Regular Sleep-Wake Schedule

Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night to wake up feeling refreshed and ready to face the day. But stress can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Resetting your sleep routine may help.

Start by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day—without hitting snooze. “You don't actually get more sleep by hitting snooze,” Briley says. “You get a bunch of interrupted nine-minute naps, which do you no good whatsoever. And so then you're starting the day stressed out because every time you start to kind of relax and get some sleep, your alarm goes off again.”

Instead, having a regular bedtime and wake time keeps your body in a more natural rhythm, which can help you get the quality sleep you need to tackle the day ahead. “Eventually, your body will sync to that,” Briley says. “You’ll find you’re waking up a little before your alarm goes off, or that 20 minutes before it’s time to go to bed, you’re yawning.”

2. Start Each Morning Off Right

“Wake up with enough time to do whatever your morning routine is,” Briley says. That may include exercising, showering, getting dressed, and having breakfast to start your day. That way, your morning routine becomes predictable, and you won’t feel pressed for time—which can otherwise stress you out before your day even begins.

And working from home isn’t an excuse to just roll out of bed and open your laptop. “Even if you don't have any meetings, getting ready for work gets your mind set for work,” Briley says. Getting in the right mindset can help you feel more prepared to face what’s on the agenda for the day rather than get stressed out by it.

3. Create To-Do Lists

Briley and Young both recommend having two to-do lists: one master list of all the things you need to accomplish overall, and one to-do list just for the day ahead. That daily to-do list should be much smaller—three to five tasks to accomplish—which can help you focus and make things feel more manageable, Briley says.

The goal of focusing on just three to five tasks a day is to help prevent you from biting off more than you can chew, Young says. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries and say no when you need to. “If you're always making a list that's not manageable, it's going to add to stress,” she says.

4. Block Out Time for Daily Needs

Scheduling your day involves so much more than figuring out which deadlines you need to meet or which bills are due. “Make sure that when you're preparing for the day, you're also considering what your daily needs are,” Young says.

Those needs can include things like eating lunch before you get hangry because of low blood sugar, moving more throughout the day, and finding time for hobbies, like gardening, playing music, or making art. “Make sure you’re doing something every day that you enjoy,” Young says.

5. Find Time to Step Outside

Need another reason to schedule that midday walk around the neighborhood? Results from a 2018 study suggest that spending more time in nature could help improve attention and mood—which may help reduce stress and make it easier to jump back into that to-do list afterward.

6. Wind Down at Night

“In the evening, do something calming, like a mindfulness meditation exercise, yoga, or tai chi,” Briley says. “Something to bring yourself into the moment [and help you] make a good transition between the workday and home.”

One small 2018 study suggests that practicing just five to 12 minutes of daily guided mindfulness meditation over several weeks helped participants decrease their stress levels.

7. Try to Be Flexible

As the saying goes, even the best-laid plans can go awry. Maybe a meeting runs longer, or a project takes more time to complete than you anticipated. Things may throw off your plan for the day, but it’s not the end of the world, Briley explains. “If you don’t get the five things on your list done that day, don’t stress about that,” he says. Instead, focus on accomplishing the highest-priority tasks and allow yourself the flexibility to bump the rest to another day.

“A lot of times with stress we get caught up in the little details,” he says. “Focus on the big things, and the little things tend to take care of themselves.”

Although you can’t control how much time there is in any given day, reshaping how you approach your day can help you make the most of the time you do have—which in turn can help you feel less stressed.

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