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I’m doing this for me, and I’m not going to feel guilty about it.

By Clinical Psychologist, Dr James Kirby
How often do you find that you are in automatic pilot? I recently moved house, and yesterday when I drove back home from work, I found I was driving back to my old place rather than my new place. When reflecting on it now I find it comical, but when it happened I was so annoyed. I think I said something to myself like, “James you are an idiot”. As a result of this mistake I was stuck in more traffic, I arrived home late, still had to make dinner, and had no time to do what I really wanted to do and that was go for a run.
I’m sure most people can relate to this kind of experience. I find it happens more and more. I think it’s because I can get so easily caught up in what jobs I should be doing that I forget what I am actually doing. And that is exactly what happened on my drive home, I was thinking about what jobs I still had to do at work and I wasn’t paying attention to the present moment.
I often read or hear in the media how everyone is getting busier and busier, and one of the reasons for this is because we are all so much more accessible due to mobile phones and the Internet. It is like ‘we never turn off’. We all have so many responsibilities. Work obligations, family jobs, chores around the house, and social commitments. At times it can feel like we are just on automatic pilot going from job to job, event to event, with no time to ourselves. And in those rare instances when we do consider the thought, “I’m going to do this just for me” often a feeling of selfishness or guilt can be evoked. So rather than take care of our own needs, we keep trying to attend to all the jobs we should be doing.
But that is the very problem. If we don’t take care of our own needs we can start to become annoyed, frustrated, forgetful, irritable, and sad. All of a sudden we find that we start to lose patience with family, we put ourselves down for forgetting things, and we are constantly stressed. So to manage all the demands we withdraw from the things that we do for ourselves, because we don’t have time for them. And all of a sudden you get the sense that you have no control of your life, rather your responsibilities have control of your life.
This story I am telling is not uncommon. I find clients come to therapy for this exact reason quite often. It’s a case of I am becoming depressed because of just how much work I need to do or I am anxious because I fear I won’t be able to do all of the jobs I am supposed to do. Depression and anxiety are not enjoyable emotions.
So what is the answer?
There is no clear answer. But one small step you can make to improve how you are feeling is something we call, ‘pleasant activity scheduling’.
This might seem counterintuitive and I can already anticipate what you must be thinking, “hang on, I have just told you how busy I am, and now you are telling me to schedule something else in?”
I completely understand that point, it makes perfect sense. My response would be, “how many jobs do you do now that are just for you to enjoy?” Often the answer to that question is “nothing”.
The key to pleasant activity scheduling is looking at what activities you really like and then making sure you do them. When you start to do this, you will find that when your own needs are being met, you are better able to meet the needs of those around you.
An activity doesn’t have to be a 4-week vacation, although that wouldn’t hurt. Pleasant activities can be very small, for example, having a coffee in peace and quiet, enjoying a view of a landscape, seeing a movie, listening to a piece of music that you really like, or maybe reading for 15 minutes or going for a walk. These little activities are what makes life so enjoyable, they are the icing on the cake.
There will be barriers that will get in the way, such as unexpected jobs, work phone calls, and guilt. But the key about pleasant activity scheduling is the scheduling. Here are a few ways you can help improve the chances you will engage in pleasant activity scheduling:

  1. Generate a full list of all the different things that you like. They can be small or big things. For example, a trip away to the coast, looking at old photos, thinking about your next holiday. If you are stuck for ideas do a search on google for a list of pleasant activities.
  2. Write down in your diary a time when you can next do that activity. So you might schedule in a 20 minute walk for 4:30pm on Wednesday.
  3. Think of what barriers might get in the way. For example, another job at work that needs to be completed.
  4. Think of ways you might be able to overcome those barriers. For example, asking if you can attend to the job tomorrow, as you already have a prior appointment.

That is the key to pleasant activity scheduling. Is to view them as appointments that you must keep. By the implementation of simple, but pleasurable activities, we cannot only improve our own quality of life, but we can also prevent depressive and anxious symptoms from taking control of our life. So enjoy your icing on the cake, and go and schedule a pleasant.