How to deal with stress if you're short on time

How to Deal With Stress When You Don’t Have Time for Self Care

I was going to illustrate this post with a photo of a bottle of wine and a family-sized bar of chocolate, but … well, I’m guessing that’s probably not the kind of advice you came here for is it, so caffeine will have to do. For now.

Here’s the thing though: I don’t know about you, but hardly ANY of the advice I read on managing stress turns out to be useful to me. In fact, almost every time I see an article on this topic, I’ll click the link, feeling simultaneously hopeful that I’m about to finally find out how to dial down my stress level, but also pretty much resigned to the fact that I’m about to be told to:

01. Take a hot bath


02. Go for a long walk

Now, this is all well and good, obviously, and I’m guessing the advice must work for SOME people, or it wouldn’t be repeated so damn often, would it? My problem, however, is that when I’m super-stressed, it’s normally because I have too much on my plate, and I’m feeling totally overwhelmed with it all. I don’t have TIME to have an indulgent bubble bath, or head out on a long walk, and I know that if I even tried to do either of those things, I’d just end up fretting about all of the things I SHOULD be doing instead… which just leaves me feeling even MORE stressed. (See also: YOGA. God, I hate yoga.)

Oh, and I forgot one:

3. Read a book.

Because when that deadline’s looming, you totally have time to sit down and get lost in a book, don’t you? And your clients will definitely understand that their important project didn’t get delivered on time, because you just had to finish that chapter, won’t they?

In other words: if I had time to read a book, have an indulgent bubble bath or go for a long walk… I probably wouldn’t be stressed in the first place, would I? Thanks, Internet!

one of those days that call for coffee and cake

Lately, I’ve been really, really busy: so much so that I feel like I’ve barely left my desk since the start of the year, really. Now, being busy is a good thing when you’re self-employed, obviously, and I’d much rather have too much work than too little, don’t get me wrong. Over the last few weeks, however, I’ve frequently had to cancel plans at the last minute in order to spend even MORE time at my desk (Which has left me feeling horribly guilty about the people I’m not seeing enough of, but I just haven’t had a choice), and have literally been dreaming about the work I feel I SHOULD be doing, even when I’m asleep. (You know when you’ve been playing too much Tetris, say, and when you go to bed, you still feel like you’re moving those blocks around, and trying to slot them into place? It’s a bit like that, only every thought that goes through my head, I feel like I have to come up with 300 words on it, and then find a great image to illustrate it with…)

When I don’t have time to see my friends, I obviously don’t have time to lie around in a hot bath, either, so what’s a girl to do when she’s stressed out of her mind, and no amount of scented candles will help? Er, I dunno, really. What do YOU do in that situation? No, really, I’m asking? What’s that? I’m supposed to be the one giving out the advice here? Er… *looks around shiftily*… OK, here’s what I do when I’m super-stressed, but short on time…

Clean the house.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: if I don’t have time for a bath, I don’t have time to clean my house either, do I? Ha! Hoist by my own petard!

While I see where you’re coming from there, though, I’m sticking to my guns here (well, my mop, really…), because baths and books are optional: clean houses are not, for me. If my house is messy, I’ll be stressed even if I DON’T have anything else to worry about, so at the first sign of a looming deadline, I will get out the bleach and the rubber gloves, and only once the house is clean and sparkling will I be able to sit down and get on with whatever it is I have to do. (I know I repeat this aaall the time, to the point that it’s basically my answer to everything, really, but… it’s basically my answer to everything, really.)

Make a list.

Once the house is clean, my next step is to make a list of everything I have to do, and when I have to do it. Even if the deadlines and details are burned into my brain by that point (And they usually are: it’s just occurred to me that I rarely ever look back at those lists, other than to check off each item when I’ve completed it), the process of actually writing it all down somehow soothes my brain, and tricks me into thinking I have everything under control, even when I blatantly have not. And, of course, checking off each completed item makes me feel like a responsible adult, which is a refreshing change for me, so there’s that, too. I Am Very Busy planner with coffee and cupcake

Make a plan.

I’ve never really been a “fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants,” kind of girl. Well, I mean, I AM… when I’m on holiday, say. In my free time, I like nothing more than having absolutely no obligations, and being able to do things on a whim, but the rest of the time, I need to have a plan: as in, I need to know EXACTLY when things are happening, what I’m expected to do, and that there will be no last-minute changes to any of this. I do NOT do well with last-minute changes: mostly because, once I’ve made my plan, any change to that plan will throw the entire thing into disarray, and possibly cause the world to tip off its axis, too. This is why I’ve made every single member of my family promise that they will never, under any circumstances, throw me a surprise party, or even just pop round unexpectedly. Do you WANT to make the world tip off its axis? DO you?

OK, so I’ve actually made that sound quite stressful, which wasn’t the intention, obviously. All I mean is that, if I know I’m going to be really busy for a couple of weeks, I’ll make sure I know about any upcoming events or other plans that I’ll need to schedule my time around. Unfortunately, I’d have to admit that, yeah, any last-minute changes to that will make my stress levels sky-rocket, but it’s still better than having NO plan at all… which doesn’t really bear thinking about, does it?

Tell people about it.

By this, I don’t mean you should have yourself a good ol’ whine fest while your long-suffering friends and family sit around, gamely trying to look sympathetic (I mean, I do, but… don’t be like me, kids, seriously.): I just mean being honest and saying, “Look, guys, I probably won’t be around much for the next couple of weeks: don’t take it personally.” That way, people won’t be constantly asking you to do things, so you won’t feel guilty for constantly refusing or cancelling, and you can get on with whatever it is you have to do instead.

how to deal with stress when you don't actually have time to deal with stress

Or multi-task, if that’s what works better for you. So, find you’re preferred way of working, and stick to it, is what I’m saying. In my case, multi-tasking stresses me out like nothing else: I’m absolutely useless at trying to juggle more than one thing at a time, and will end up huddled in a pool on the floor, rocking back and forth and muttering to myself about how unfair life is if I have to try to juggle any more than that. So, NOT A JUGGLER, in other words.

Single-tasking, on the other hand, is WAY more my speed. This, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the expression, is exactly what it sounds like: you work on a single task until it’s done, then move onto the next, and so on. Like I said, this technique won’t work for everyone, but it’s just easier for me to focus on one thing at a time, and then be able to strike it off my ‘To Do’ list, than to split my attention between several things at once, and have them all still hanging over me. But, you know, you do you.

Ask for help.

Finally, I know this should be obvious, but I’m terrible at asking for help: I just try to muddle along, doing everything by myself, when the reality is that there are plenty of people who I know are more than willing to lend a hand. I’ll work on this one…

And that’s how I (try to) deal with stress, when I don’t actually have time to deal with stress.

Or, of course, you could just buy that bottle of wine and family-sized bar of chocolate: up to you.

  • I opened this post, thinking, “I hope it isn’t going to be about yoga.” Thanks for making it not about yoga. Not that there is anything wrong with yoga (don’t hate me, Amber’s readers). I’ve tried, I just find it more stressful than soothing.
    Actually, most of the things you list here are exactly what I do when I’m stressed, like making lists even if I don’t refer back to them. The writing it down is what counts. Cleaning up my workspace, at the very least, and often the kitchen, is also how I roll with bringing the stress levels down. I’ve had to learn to tolerate a certain level of disorder, living with a couple people with mess-blindness, but spending a little bit of time fighting against domestic entropy makes a huge difference.

    March 20, 2017
    • Funnily enough, having tried yoga multiple times when I was massively stressed with a million and one important things on my plate and absolutely hated it, now that I am no longer stressed (quit my international law career, went freelance as an editor, moved to the countryside!) I love it! I totally feel the benefit of taking the time out to breathe and stretch, because now I have that time to actually take, and I don’t lie there feeling guilty about the things I really should be doing instead. The great paradox of yoga – the genuinely stressed find no benefit in its de-stressing properties whatsoever!
      Hope you get a chance to try it and like it one day when life is less hectic! x

      March 20, 2017
  • Making a list really works for me. It’s seriously changed the way I deal with stress because afterwards, I can physically see what exactly I need to do. I hate being disorganised, and I’m a workaholic, when I make lists I feel like I’m being productive!

    Charmaine Ng
    Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

    March 20, 2017
  • Wendy


    I was so stressed at work I ended up in hospital with a suspected heart attack. ( Turns out I have brilliant coronary arteries, which is always good to know, but I wish I hadn’t had to find out.) Due to the stress one of my company’s requirements was for me to see mental health professionals to explore causes and potential solutions. I had a brilliant clinical psychologist ( a famous hostage negotiator) who got me to practice mindfulness as a way to manage stress, and I’ve never looked back. It was a big struggle at first because my brain is constantly ” chattering”, but it does get easier after a few weeks and I’m now at the point where I even focus on my breathing and being ” in the now” when I’m driving- to control my impatience with every other driver on the road. When you have a little more time you might want to give it a go – I was doing 10 mins three times a day to start with to get the hang and embed the practice, but now even a few seconds of just focusing consciously on my breathing is enough to push stress firmly back into its box.

    March 20, 2017
  • Hi Amber, I just wanted to say I’m sorry to hear about Rubin. I hope you and Terry are ok. When i worked in retail I was majorly stressed, every time i went to my manager to say I was stressed, I got told I was being foolish and silly. I was just being an attention seeking girl. I didn’t know what to do, I felt really depressed. In recent time I had a client set me a unrealistic target and held me ransom (telling me he won’t paid me unless I get it done), so that stressed me out a lot. My aunt once told me she smoked cause she stressed, I told her she’s being stupid and eat some chocolate instead. xx

    March 20, 2017
  • I’m so with you on the clean house part. If my house is a mess and not clean, it stresses me out even more. I have to get everywhere looking nice before I can contemplate getting some work done. I agree about making plans and lists too. I always make a plan and list of jobs I need to do every week so I feel prepared x


    March 20, 2017
  • So so sorry about Rubin Amber. My dog is 12 now and I too live in fear of it happening. Sending a huge hug to you both.
    This post though – this post was great! I absolutely get this. I used to have a very high pressure full time job, on top of a full time PhD, a house to run, and a blog to attempt to write, and my life was absolutely insane. I regularly googled how to de-stress, and felt the same frustration when being told to go for a long walk or take up a hobby. I wouldn’t be stressed if I had the time to do those things!! In the end, things came to a head themselves – I started suffering from daily headaches, which went on for over a year, during which time I became a shell of a person, doing the minimum to get by but still trying to keep on top of all the work. When all the MRIs and tests came back showing nothing, the specialist attributed it to stress (and told me to take up yoga FFS – though see my reply to Deserae above on yoga!), so I quit my PhD and my law career almost entirely, scaled back to 3 days a week at work on a less stressful job, and started my own freelance editing business to fill the rest of my time. Oh, and I moved to beautiful rural Yorkshire. I know this isn’t possible for everyone to do of course, and I feel very lucky, but since then my stress has gone, as have the headaches. I still make use of my tactics for managing the stress though – to do lists and plans. They were the only thing which could keep the tide of panic at bay back in the day, and they still work for me now. Highly recommend them to anyone.
    Hope this stressful period passes for you, great as it is to have loads of work, its nice to have some downtime too! It’s a problem especially with freelance work sadly. Hugs xx

    March 20, 2017
  • Myra Boyle


    When I was teaching I worked 70 hours a week on average, up to 100+ hours during stressful times, and about 30-40 hours during most of the much maligned school holidays (including painting my classroom). It was a real insult when my boss told me to time manage. What I found helped was quite simply doing the things I needed to do, one more thing off the list meant less stress. I did all the little things first, leaving the mega jobs last so I could really concentrate on them, e.g. The school SEN financial audit and breakdown (that most other schools commissioned accountants do).
    I too was really bad at asking for help, even though I had a dozen people in my team who would have helped.
    I loved introducing innovative programmes like a bullying survey and a peer mentoring programme (God those kids were great). But it just gave me more work. What was I thinking.
    I agree that meditation works, and once practised, it acts as a reminder to just breathe.

    March 20, 2017
  • Brenda


    I agree completely on the clean house… if it isn’t clean I can’t accomplish much else. Lately though, I have been thinking about enlisting help (#6) by getting a cleaning service in once a week. Then I can get some of the other stuff done without having to worry about a clean house.

    March 20, 2017
  • I love making a good list. I don’t work on Thursday’s at the moment so tend to make a list on Wednesday night of all the things I’d like to achieve whilst looking after Felix. I normally write “buggy run” at the top, ha!

    Once again, sincerest condolences on the loss of Rubin, I’m so sorry for you and Terry x

    March 20, 2017
  • Annabel


    I seem to be the only person in the world that dislikes writing to-do lists. I know what I have to do and when to do it, thank you very much. To me, it’s just a hussle that doesn’t do me any good or bad. My way of dealing with stress when I don’t have time is to ignore and supress it completely until I have time to destress. Or explode- whichever comes first, really. Luckily, stressed is my usual emotional state, so I’m used to living that way (mmmm… that doesn’t sound that lucky, does it?)

    March 20, 2017
  • Ginger


    Making lists is the best. I get the most stressed when I have a multitude of commitments that are overlapping/interlocking with different deadlines. I have it all in my head, but there’s so much that I lose details. Then I remember, and add it *again* to the bottom of my mental list. So that list gets enormous. Often when I write it all down, I’m honestly surprised at how much less there is than I thought. It’s a huge boost, and it keeps going as I start crossing things off.

    March 20, 2017
  • I’m a terrible stresser (I don’t think that’s actually a word, but I’m going with it anyway!) I have an awful habit of letting my worries become all consuming until I get in a complete flap and can’t actually complete even the simplest of tasks. It took me such a long time to realise the importance of talking about it and accepting help. These days a good 10 minute pep talk with someone I trust, or for someone to help me plot out what needs doing when and which is most important, really helps. What’s the absolute worst though is those annoying people who go ‘Oh hey, try not to be so stressed, it’s not healthy. Just don’t worry so much’ like that’s the easiest thing in the world. Those people suck, I hate those people! X

    March 20, 2017
    • D. Johnson


      Thanks for the reminder, Steph, of the value of talking to good people!

      March 20, 2017
  • Rachael Dickinson


    I either go on a treadmill or clean like a manic woman!

    Rachael xox

    March 20, 2017
  • Love this advice!

    March 20, 2017
  • D. Johnson


    My stressors are not those that most of the people commenting here deal with. But this post was exceedingly well timed because today I had a stressful experience AND I had a time constraint (bad haircut and picking up my roommate at a specific time, respectively). I didn’t have time for a walk (or other things) and I needed to be focused because some shopping had to be done- – correctly and without my dishing out “attitude” to every hapless soul in my path. What helped? Laughter! When I am SO STRESSED, on the verge of “losing it,” I let myself lose my grip on reality a bit and I start creating Worst Case Scenario Skits in my mind. For today’s fiasco, I imagined myself grabbing clippers out of a stylists hand, buzzing myself bald, then shrieking to everyone in the shop (including poor, saucer-eyed children) “There! You wanted to screw it up and make me look stupid? Ha! Beat ya to it! Top THIS, bitches!” In my fantasy, my shaved self then zipped down the highway at breakneck speed, shrieking into a cell phone: “Hitchhike home! I’m off to FLORIDA!” Stress? Some form of shrieking, and laughing, even in one’s imagination.

    March 20, 2017
  • Claudia


    Read a book is definitely the number 1 thing I do to help relieve stress. I have found that reading helps me immensely! There are so many resources out there with great advice (like this one!). I recently read a book I cannot recommend enough called “The Worry Free Mind” by psychologists Dr. Carol Kershaw and Bill Wade ( The book gives you really simple and easy to implement ways to help motivate and decrease worry in everyday life. It’s really not your typical self help book because the authors explain the science behind worry and how you can train your brain to start new productive behaviors.It’s a book based in science but easy to understand and very easy to benefit from. I really hope you and your readers will check it out. Thank you again for your tips.

    March 28, 2017
  • This list is gold! Often, we think making time for cleaning and planning will just lessen the time we spend on “more important” things. But in reality, having a decluttered surroundings help have a more focus mind. This enables us to be more effective in what we do, rather than it being counterproductive.

    December 13, 2017