Swan, koala or cat?

I remember being asked in an interview in a former life “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?”

This is one of those awful psycho-nonsense questions that hiring managers like to ask to mix things up a bit, make them feel like they’re going above and beyond the average interview and put candidates in a cold sweat.

I’ve also been asked “what fairground ride would you be?” and “tell us a joke”, which is a whole other level of awful.

On the spot, the only animal I could bring to mind was a koala. It was the perfect answer to the question “which of Australia’s tree climbing marsupials makes the best teddy bear?” But that wasn’t the question.

Of course then I had to justify my answer. You try giving business-like characteristics to a koala… Exactly.

What animal are you?

Ever since then I’ve been wondering what kind of animal I would be if asked the same question under pressure. Every answer I can think of is so cliched and corny. A tiger? Hungry, ambitious, but too aggressive; A cat? Independent, but not a team player. A dog? Just makes me think… ‘licks his own balls’. Nope.

The best interview answer I can think of is a swan. Graceful and composed on the surface, feet paddling like mad underneath.

The swan is a good metaphor for how I cope with stress – by seeming composed and having various strategies to maintain that calm exterior, while deep down there’s a lot of crazy mental paddling going on. A koala, on the other hand, would just be clinging on for dear life.

I’m no expert

There are a lot of great resources out there for busy people, on productivity, time management and cutting down on stress and I am no expert. I also realise I have less on my plate than many of you, with your busy lives, expanding families and big careers.

But if you’re interested to know how I manage to at least keep a calm exterior, while managing a blog, a recruitment business and making sure four humans are fed, have clean clothes to wear and are in the right place at the right time, then here are my ‘5 de-stressing tips for busy people’.

1.Make lists

I write a new ‘to-do’ list each day, divided into personal chores, work and blog activities. The list is slotted into my day-to-a-page diary, and if I don’t manage to tick off today’s tasks, they are written into tomorrow’s to do list.

In addition, the day-to-a-page format allows me to put tasks into my diary several weeks ahead, to follow up with someone I promised to call next month for example. I do have a diary on my phone, as well as a database for my recruitment business, but I get great satisfaction from physically ticking tasks off a piece of paper one by one.

For the larger tasks or those with a longer lead time, I use a Reminders app on my phone, and have another on my desktop computer called Task Me – which allows me to make virtual Post-it notes, which are colour coded. Each of these larger projects can be broken down into smaller daily tasks, which go into my desk diary.

I also have notebooks by my bed to download random thoughts that come to me in the night. This one is from The Nomad Factory.

5 de-stressing tips for busy people. I'm no expert on stress, but this is how I keep a calm exterior and keep all the plates spinning. A bit like a swan looking all serene but paddling furiously just under the surface.

2.Divide tasks into small, manageable chunks:

There is research that shows we are at our most productive when we break activities into 25 minute chunks followed by short breaks – whether that’s writing, reading, housework, homework or any other activity which requires concentration.

This is a technique called the Pomodoro Technique and I find it helps to make an overwhelming day seem more manageable. I’ll break after 25 minutes of writing to look at my social media, make a cuppa or chat with a friend on the phone.

3.Have a routine:

My kids have a routine when it comes to after school activities, homework, bedtime, meals etc. It’s long-established and helps all of us to get along. The kids know what’s expected of them – but because it’s just part of the routine, it doesn’t feel like I’m imposing rules or being unnecessarily strict.

Any break to the routine takes several days to embed. Just this morning I tried to persuade M to do his reading in the morning because he’s always too tired at night. Wow, what a meal he made of it, getting up 10 minutes later than usual, then locking himself in the bathroom under false pretences, until it was too late and he had to go to school.

I know we’ll crack it, but it will take a week or so for him to accept the new regime.

4.Schedule a little ‘me-time’ every day:

I try to take a little time out for myself every day. This is usually in the form of a dog-walk through the woods. I also write and read, listen to podcasts and occasionally go to the gym. Sometimes I will just sit still for a few minutes – where I can breathe deeply, relax and be free of distractions. I have written about mindfulness which helps me to gain perspective and which I endeavour to practice during these me-moments.

5 de-stressing tips for busy people. I'm no expert on stress, but this is how I keep a calm exterior and keep all the plates spinning. A bit like a swan looking all serene but paddling furiously just under the surface.

5.Wind down before bedtime:

About half an hour before I go to sleep, I turn off the TV and any other devices which all stimulate the brain. One of my favourite things is listening to Radio 4 in bed. I listen on the iPlayer, which switches off automatically at the end of the programme – by which time I’m usually asleep.

So which animal would you be? And what do you do to manage your busy lives?

Much love, Vx

[Disclosure: with thanks to The Nomad Factory for the traveller’s journal]

5 de-stressing tips for busy people. I'm no expert on stress, but this is how I keep a calm exterior and keep all the plates spinning. A bit like a swan looking all serene but paddling furiously just under the surface.