9 Tips for a Productive School Year

by Yoni Sobin, PsyD

The beginning of the school year brings many challenges for children and parents alike. Perhaps most of all is the challenge of staying on top of all the tasks that need to get done! For some, staying productive may feel overwhelming, for others it may seem impossible – we stay on top of things for a few days, a week or two, maybe close to a month, yet eventually we find ourselves falling behind and overwhelmed once more. These tips can help make this coming school year your most productive one yet:

  1. Consistency

Humans work well with schedules. Wake up, brush teeth, eat, work, come home, eat, sleep, rinse, repeat. Performing a behavior consistently daily for a month is usually enough to set a habit. One great trick is to make sure you start the day with a consistent routine. For example, make your bed every morning. Starting every day with a small accomplishment sets you up to feel productive and ready to tackle the day’s challenges.

  1. Set one alarm (at most)

Alarms, especially multiple alarms, interfere with our circadian rhythm. So, at most set just one for the (actual) time you need to get up, and try not to snooze it. Even better, set a bedtime 7.5-8.5 hours before you need to get up, and let yourself wake up sans an alarm. If you get to bed on time and live somewhere with natural light in the mornings, let that be your alarm clock. By helping your body to learn to sleep when it’s dark and awaken when it’s light, you’ll maximize your productivity throughout each day.

  1. Delay morning phone/email use

This helps you to focus on priorities – getting kids out of the house, getting to work on time, and eating breakfast. It reduces your level of overall stress. Your most pressing needs in the morning are the immediate proximal stressors in your environment. Check the time, clean yourself up, and eat. Distal stressors can usually wait 20 minutes until you are more alert. No need to add stress the moment you wake up. Relatedly…

  1. Disable push notifications

Even when we quickly check a message notification without responding, it can take up to 10 minutes to reorient to another task. All that distracted time adds up throughout the day. Unless your job requires it, disable notifications for all social media, and any other distractions that are not essential to the day. Then, set aside time each day to allow yourself to govern your social media, instead of letting it govern you.

  1. Buy a planner / notebook

When were you last able to remember everything to do in one day without writing something down? Well, that’s because our brain is not designed to remember lists of tasks. Numerous studies have shown we can hold in mind a maximum of 7±2 units of information at a time. The solution is to get something simple;a weekly planner with a monthly page for long term planning should suffice. Use only one planner and stick to it, and get into the habit (see item 1) of looking at that planner several times daily and adding to it ANYTHING that needs doing. A task that is not completed must carry over to the next day.

  1. One planner only

One planner means one place to look and find out what you need to accomplish. With Google, Outlook, Slack, sticky notes, and more, we get overwhelmed trying to keep it all together. Consolidate everything in one place. Studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of a handwritten planner over digital tasks. The simple aspect of writing down tasks makes you remember them better. Digital means distraction.

  1. Break it down

It helps to break tasks down into manageable pieces. Manageable goals leave you satisfied and accomplished; overly optimistic goals result in feeling overwhelmed and procrastination, furthering a cycle of feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and being unproductive. When you finish a task, cross it off the list, physically, and then smile J The act of removing it from the list and rejoicing in small accomplishments serves to reinforce further completion of tasks.

  1. Ask for help

Do not be afraid to ask for help. If you do not like asking for help from other people, get help from digital aides like StayFocusd and Boomerang for Gmail. StayFocusd lets you choose how much time you will let yourself spend on distraction websites; once you have hit that cap, the application will block further access to your distraction website. Boomerang for Gmail helps keep your inbox clean, allowing you to “boomerang” messages you do not need to deal with now, and schedule them to return days, hours, or even weeks later when they are more important or pressing. You can also schedule messages to send later, helpful for night owls or for dealing with something in advance you worry you might forget about.

  1. Batch tasks to be more productive

When planning your day, batch similar tasks together. For example, don’t make a phone call, then answer an email, then eat lunch, then deal with 2 other phone calls. Plan to make all 3 phone calls together, then deal with emails, then eat lunch as a reward. This will help you stay further focused.

Stress-free living may not be possible, especially in this ever-changing, ever-complicated era of history. But by employing these 9 tips you will certainly find yourself more productive and relaxed. Try it for a month…

How to Conquer Difficult Emotions with Dialectical Behavior Therapy

By Aliza Dinerstein, LMSW

Throughout life individuals encounter a kaleidoscope of experiences,
each one eliciting a specific emotional reaction ranging from joy,
love and hope, to anxiety, anger, or fear. Although one instinctively
strives to increase positive feelings and decrease negative ones, it
is important to remember that, at times, encountering painful emotions
is an inevitable part of life. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a
composite of therapeutic interventions geared toward helping
individuals build a life worth living, focuses on the science of
‘emotion regulation,’ i.e., one’s capacity to work through difficult
emotions in an effective way. DBT provides concrete, empirically based
practices such as building awareness, mindfulness skills, and specific
behavioral change that can be utilized in day to day life, helping
individuals approach challenging emotions in constructive and
rewarding ways.

The first step is to increase emotional awareness. Oftentimes, strong
emotional reactions occur and individuals are unable to identify their
own emotions or recognize their impact on thoughts and actions.
Therefore, one of the most fundamental tools in responding effectively
to difficult feelings is learning to identify and label present
emotions as they arise, while gaining an understanding of how those
feelings work in conjunction with one’s thoughts and behaviors.
Emotional awareness is developed through monitoring five specific
elements: 1) events that trigger emotional responses, 2) one’s
thoughts and cognitive interpretations of these event, 3)
physiological reactions and bodily sensations, 4) behavioral response
(i.e., actions), and 5) most important, the outcome of one’s
emotional, cognitive and behavioral responses – also known as
“effectiveness”. Building emotional awareness is a skill that takes
time and practice to acquire through the use of daily monitoring. But
this is the foundation of DBT, as it enables us to develop emotional
mastery and regulation.

Another core concept in DBT is to grant yourself the freedom to feel.
Usually, people try to avoid painful feelings such as anger, sadness,
fear and anxiety. However, inhibiting these emotions does not make
them disappear and in fact it usually makes them worse. Thus, DBT
emphasizes the importance of “mindfulness” which involves truly
experiencing emotions instead of blocking, suppressing, or avoiding
them. In mindfulness practice, emotions are understood as waves that
naturally rise and fall. When we allow our emotions to operate
naturally, the intensity of the feelings are minimized and we can move
through strong emotional responses in a more healthy and integrative
way. A related DBT concept is that one should aim to radically accept
each emotion without judgement. Mindful awareness is a key element for
truly allowing one’s self to feel, and mindfulness practice enables
us to work through emotions with mindfulness, presence, and
acceptance.

A third key DBT principal is learning to take care of the body in
order to take of the mind. Our capacity to cope with challenges in
moments of adversity is impacted not only by one’s emotional health,
but also by the condition of one’s physical wellbeing. DBT’s  emotion
regulation ‘PLEASE’ skill encapsulates these very dimensions of
physiology, which include 1) treating any existing Physical iLlness,
2) maintaining balanced Eating, 3) avoiding mood Altering drugs, 4)
creating healthy Sleep habits, and 5) engaging in regular Exercise.
Although these targets may seem simplistic, research shows that the
more one decreases physical and environmental stressors, the less
prone to emotional reactivity one becomes.

Although experiencing painful emotions is unavoidable over the course
of life, it does not mean that anyone must suffer through them. These
and other principals of DBT explain that one can change maladaptive
behavioral, emotional, and cognitive responses while mindfully
experiencing life in the present and accepting reality as it is. This
understanding, coupled with the skills that DBT provides, can help us
cultivate awareness, acceptance, resilience, and growth.

Overcoming Depression One Step at at Time

By Thanos Napolias, MA

As any living being can attest, problems are unavoidable. Some problems are simple and their solutions are relatively immediate, such as figuring out an alternative route to work when there is heavy traffic and running late to work. Other problems are more distressing and complex, like dealing with an unexpected expense that throws an entire family out of budget. In both cases though, it’s essential to carefully examine the problem and then apply specific solutions to address each aspect, one at a time.

Like most mental health concerns, depression can be seen as a problem, since it causes significant distress and functional impairment for over 15,000,000 American adults each year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.  Therefore, when it comes to depression, a similar strategy of examining the problem and applying specific solutions to address each aspect can enable individuals who struggle to overcome their symptoms. Even though mental health challenges seem more complex than everyday unwelcome matters, therapy models that concretely address the various parts of depression have been showed to be very effective.

Traditional Cognitive Behavior Therapy conceptualizes depressive concerns as having four parts: (1) Negative emotions, (2) Distressing physiological responses, (3) Maladaptive cognitions (thinking), and (4) Maladaptive behaviors. As such, the first step in Cognitive Behavior Therapy for depression is to teach individuals to break down their experiences into these four parts, in order to come up with step-by-step solutions to each one.

For instance, we can think of a fictional person “Sally”, who is a college student experiencing depression. Sally feels sad all the time and is also afraid that she has fallen too far behind with her assignments (negative emotions). Sally also has no energy to attend her classes, feels tense in her neck and back, and she has a hard time falling asleep at night (distressing physiological responses). As a result, Sally starts to think of herself as a failure and wonders whether she will be able to graduate (maladaptive thinking), and she starts to spend more and more of each day in bed, avoiding classes, exercise, and social activities (maladaptive behaviors).

When Sally came to us for therapy, using the above cognitive-behavioral approach we helped her to realize that when a stressor came up she tended to feel sad, down, and somewhat anxious. On a thinking level, she tended to make unhelpful predictions about her future and for herself, such as “I am going to fail that class,” “The professor will think that I am lazy,” “Even if I try to go out with my friends, I will feel as miserable as staying in bed.” When she thought this way, it triggered Sally’s physiological sensations such as tiredness, muscle tension, as well as feeling “unreal and detached” from the world. In these difficult moments, Sally’s behaviors included staying in bed, withdrawing from friends, dropping out of her favorite workout class, and avoiding returning to her classes, which paradoxically reinforced her unhelpful thoughts and feelings.

Once Sally understood how her feelings, thoughts, sensations, and behaviors worked together to maintain her depression, she began with the help of her therapist to identify more helpful interpretations about her stressors and adopt small behavioral changes that significantly reduced her depression. With appropriate guidance, Sally made gradual shifts in her behavioral patterns, such as returning to her work out class and inviting a friend over, which had a positive impact on her mood and eliminated many emotional and physiological symptoms of sadness and fatigue. Similarly, over time she began to notice and challenge her unhelpful thoughts. At times she even tested her thoughts by approaching the professor and explaining her situation, and other times she started observing her thoughts without necessarily believing their content. Over time and with consistent practice, Sally overcame her depression, one step at a time.

Sally’s brief story is an example that mental health disorders are not permanent and that it is not overly simplistic to view them as problems to be overcome. Like Sally, individuals who struggle with depression can develop methods to live much happier and meaningful lives!