Almost six years ago on a beautiful spring day in April, I checked myself into the hospital, certain I was having a heart attack. I felt stressed, maxed, exhausted, and BEHIND. And I was hounded by my time and stress management failures:

  • Keeping up with the endless emails, tasks, reports, and deadlines that would proliferate after I fell asleep with my computer on my lap at midnight.
  • Advocating for myself when the workload became unsustainable, as 8 projects became 10, and 10 became 14.
  • Protecting ANY of my time in support of my mental and physical well-being. I told myself I couldn’t afford the luxury of eating, sleeping, exercise, and “downtime”.
  • Being a nice person, a kind wife, a patient mother, or a functioning adult.

At the time I was an educational consultant, working in urban schools to help them make sustainable change. It was important work, and I really wanted to do it well.

Perfectly, even.

But despite my genuine commitment, I found myself trapped on the productivity Merry-Go-Round of Doom; endlessly cycling between burnout and procrastination. As the pace picked up in the spring, I would work until I dropped: not eating, not resting, not exercising, and certainly not enjoying my life.

When the pace pulled back in the summer, I found that I couldn’t do anything beyond the bare minimum. I would set goals designed to get me ahead of the curve but just stared at the wall instead.

Though I was not having a heart attack (panic attack, the doctor said), I definitely had a wake-up call. I had to learn time and stress management.

Was I living the life I wanted to live? Did I spend enough time on things I cared about? Or was I mindlessly doing what I thought I had to do; guided by things like guilt, worry, and obligation instead of passion, intention, and commitment?

It was that last one.

In that moment, I realized that if I was going to have a life worth living, things were going to have to change. I obsessively researched traditional time and stress management tools, building expertise in systems like “Getting Things Done,” Kanban, Pomodoro, and time blocking. They taught me some very effective tactics, many of which I still use today. It helped me become more and more efficient, moving through tasks, meeting deadlines, and beginning to carve out bits and pieces of time for my mental and physical health.

And yet…though I was doing a much better job of cycling through to-dos at work, I was getting no closer to what really mattered to me.

And while we are on the subject…what did matter to me?

Just to be clear, this experience is not uniquely mine. This is most of us. Whether we are running a business, building a practice, climbing the corporate ladder, or creating a family life that feels authentic and nurturing:

The vast majority of us spend our lives on autopilot; we do what we’ve always done and we get the results we’ve always gotten.

Despite all of the work I had done to maximize my time, this piece just wasn’t changing. This is when I realized that ordinary time management is severely limited because it rests on the premise of three false assumptions:

  1. You remember what you want.
  2. It helps to do more.
  3. You are making choices about how you spend your time from a neutral, objective place.

The Great Work Journals assume that all three of these are false.

Let’s revisit each of them:

To remember what you want, you need to keep it top of mind. 

You probably regularly lose sight of what you want. There are moments of clarity, for sure: in a surge of enthusiasm, you set a goal, make some plans…and then are swept up into the tangled mess of other people’s expectations, habit, prior commitments, and duty. Weeks, and sometimes months go by and you make no progress on your goals. This is a phenomenon I call “goalnesia” (which means to set a goal and immediately forget about it) because it feels entirely out of your control, like selective amnesia. 

When you wake back up to the goal that you had previously set, you are confused and frustrated, wondering “Why didn’t I do anything? What’s wrong with me?!” The Aligned Time Journal combats goalnesia directly by reminding you every quarter, every week, and every single day about what you want. As you keep it top of mind, you can begin to make progress.

You must do less. 

The key to doing more of what matters is doing much, much less of the things that don’t matter. Let’s call those tasks that come from outside expectations, habit, and duty “The Rest of It.” The Great Work Journals support you as you build a habit of saying “no”, backing out, and resisting the pull of “The Rest of It,” thereby creating space for what matters. With that space created, you can pursue the goals that matter to you with fewer distractions and more energy.

You have to stop operating from fear. 

Most people experience a lot of fear about time and stress management and goal setting. Fear, for its part, makes people act erratically about their goals, causing feelings of frustration and shame. I know that someone is fighting through fear to accomplish their goals if they are exhibiting the symptoms of hurry, worry, or guilt.

  • Hurry. Feeling desperate to “get this goal over with” so you can finally relax and feel good about yourself?
  • Worry. Do you obsess over the question of whether you are “the kind of person” who can do what you want to do? What if you just don’t have what it takes and everyone finds out that you’re a total fraud?!?
  • Guilt. Do you feel guilty about pursuing your goals, certain that you are leaving people behind or acting selfishly?

I used ordinary time management methods to become more efficient, develop systems and supports for progress, and get organized.

However, it wasn’t until I aligned my time to my priorities, said no to a ton of commitments, and handled my own beliefs about what I “had” to do, who I was “supposed” to be, and what I “should” prioritize that my life really turned around. And I’ve brought that full skillset to the Great Work Journals.

I changed my behavior. I:

  • Stopped being a workaholic, but I accomplished just as much.
  • Started saying “no” to things and became an even more valuable collaborator and a better team player.
  • Met my commitments AND made progress on what mattered to me.
  • Maybe most importantly, I was kinder to myself, a more patient mother, and a nicer human being.

The Great Work Journals will help you master time and stress management. It will change the way you approach goal setting by aligning your time to your goals and letting go of “The Rest of It.” Every quarter, week, and day you’ll remind yourself of your goals, practice saying “no,” and let go of your fear.

Everything you want is on the other side of that fear.

If it speaks to you, I hope that the Great Work Journals can be a part of that journey for you.

About the author

Dr. Amanda Crowell is a cognitive psychologist and business coach who helps accidental entrepreneurs get more clients and have a bigger impact. She is the author of Great Work, the host of the Unleashing Your Great Work podcast, and the creator of the Great Work Journals. Amanda's TEDx talk has received almost two million views and has been featured on TED's Ideas blog and Ted Shorts. Her ideas have also been featured on NPR, Al Jazeera, The Wall Street Journal, Quartz, and Thrive Global.