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Recent research by Robert Epstein, PhD, founder and director emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavior Studies, finds that as much as a quarter of our overall happiness rests on our ability to manage stress — and that planning our days effectively can help us do just that.

After analyzing the results of an online questionnaire completed by more than 3,000 people from dozens of countries, Epstein found that planning ahead to avoid stress had by far the greatest health and mood benefits, besting other strategies including relaxation techniques and thought management.

“If you can prevent stress from happening by planning, you’re going to be much better off,” he says. “Because once the stress is there, it doesn’t matter how good you are at deep breathing or meditating — you’re going to be affected by it.”

You don’t have to plan out every minute of your life for the next year; simply outlining your upcoming day or week can make an impact, says Epstein. He offers three tips to do
just that:

  • Make a list. Before you go to bed each night, create a to-do list and schedule on a notepad or smartphone app.
  • Prioritize. Make sure you know the top two or three things you must get done during the day, and try to tackle them first so you can feel an immediate boost of accomplishment.
  • Break down big tasks. Few things feel as paralyzing as huge, amorphous tasks like “clean out the garage.” Break big projects into 15-minute tasks that will give you a sense of forward momentum. For example, “Box up old toys for Goodwill” and “clear out top shelf.”

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