Author: Rachael Severance

Feeling submerged under an ever-growing pile of administrative tasks, client sessions, and the constant pressure to balance work with personal life? You’re not alone. Running a private therapy practice brings with it a unique set of challenges that can make even the most seasoned professionals feel overwhelmed. Having worked with hundreds of affiliated clinicians over the years, we at HAM have learned that amidst these challenges lies an opportunity to redefine the way we view and manage our time. We want to explore practical, effective time management techniques specifically tailored for private therapy practice owners to help you reduce the overwhelm and find more joy in your work.

Understanding the Value of Your Time

The first step in mastering time management is recognizing that your time is incredibly valuable—especially in a profession built upon the premise of offering your time and presence to others. Each minute spent on less critical tasks is a minute taken away from your core mission: to heal and nurture.

Techniques to Reclaim Your Time

Prioritize and Plan

Start by distinguishing between what’s urgent and what’s important. Use tools like the Eisenhower Matrix to categorize tasks and focus on what truly moves the needle for your practice (what’s important, what’s urgent, what’s not urgent, what you can delegate, and what you can delete). Daily planning can also be transformative—spend the first few minutes of each day or the last few minutes of the previous day making a to-do list organized by priority.

Embrace Technology

Leveraging technology can significantly reduce time spent on administrative tasks. A robust electronic health record (EHR) is essential to streamlining operations. For current affiliates using our EHR, be sure to take advantage of its many features and use it to its full capacity. (If you’re unsure how, we’d love to show you!)

Set Boundaries and Learn to Delegate

We see so many therapists falling into one common trap: believing they need to do everything themselves. We encourage you to Identify tasks that can be delegated or outsourced. For example, this might mean hiring a virtual assistant to manage emails and calls. It can even mean affiliating with us. After all, this was the foundation on which HAM was born. We offer administrative and billing support so you can spend more time with clients, doing the work you set out to do. Please, lean on us! It’s what we’re here for.

Setting clear boundaries around work hours and communication can also prevent work from spilling over into personal time.

Batch Tasks and Block Time

Group similar tasks together to reduce the mental load and increase efficiency. Schedule these batches during periods of the day when you’re naturally more productive. Time blocking can also be a game-changer. Allocate specific blocks of time for client sessions, administrative work, and importantly, breaks and personal time.

Reflect and Adjust

Regularly take stock of how you’re spending your time. Are there tasks that take longer than they should? Are you, perhaps, spending too much time on non-essential activities? Use these insights to adjust your approach, experimenting with different techniques to find what works best for you.

Implement a Self-Care Routine

Remember, time management isn’t just about squeezing every drop of productivity out of your day; it’s about creating spaces for rejuvenation and self-care. This is especially critical in a caregiving profession like therapy. Ensure you’re setting aside time for activities that nourish your physical, mental, and emotional well-being, even if it’s only 10 minutes a day.

The Road Ahead

Transforming the way we approach time management doesn’t happen overnight. It requires patience, persistence, and a willingness to experiment with new strategies. But by implementing these techniques, you’ll not only lessen that overwhelming feeling but also free up valuable time to focus on what matters most: providing quality care to your clients and leading a balanced, fulfilling life.

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Back-to-school time is a time of transition. Schedules shift, kids are returning to classrooms, and as a working parent, you may be pivoting from more caregiving to more professional time. How can you navigate that shift effectively, with grace and compassion?

Transitions are one of the five “core challenges” of working parenthood, according to Daisy Dowling, author of Workparent. Dowling’s solution to the problem is to rehearse. This sort of practice, several days before an expected big transition occurs, helps parents identify potential snags ahead of time and brainstorm ways to fix them. It can be as simple as play-acting the first day of school with your children. By rehearsing the change to come, you and your child can feel prepared for a new routine, which can affect everyone’s attitudes and mindsets.

Reflecting and Setting Intentions for Your Family and Job

The transition to a new season and school year provides a ripe opportunity to set your intentions for the school year. With the fresh start autumn provides, you might consider pausing to look at the big picture. You can begin by reflecting on your life goals and all the things that are—and aren’t—working.

As you reflect on your career and family, you might ask yourself:

How satisfying is my current life?
Are my values reflected in the life I’m leading?
What are my priorities right now, in this phase of parenting and at this phase of my career?
What do I want to hold on to?
What do I need to let go of to make life easier?
What do I need to ask for at work and at home to make my goals achievable?
In which direction do I wish to go?

Caring for Yourself as a Parent and Professional

You might find it hard to make time for that kind of deep reflection. After all, life is so busy right now. Although the knee-jerk reaction to this hectic stage of life might be to just slug through it, reflection and self-care are arguably even more essential for mental health clinicians who are parents than it might be for parents in other professions—particularly non-caregiving occupations.

At heart, behavioral and mental health professionals and parents have similar mandates: they support and encourage others’ unique growth and development. When you’re both a therapist and a parent, there are special challenges to integrating work and parenthood. “Work-life balance” may not speak accurately to the conflicts that arise between your professional and personal choices, as both roles require you to draw from the same well of compassion. A better description might be the one put forth by therapist Robin B. Thomas, Ph.D.: existing in a “constant state of adaptation to meet the many demands of family, career, and social obligations.”

In order to flow within that “constant state of adaptation,” you need to put your (figurative) oxygen mask on first. It’s worth repeating: self-care is vital, particularly for parents who are therapists. Left unaddressed, burnout and compassion fatigue can amount to a personal and professional crisis. The antidote is self-care.

Regard self-care like you would any other appointment on your calendar: your needs are equally important to others’. While it may seem like you’re taking time away from other obligations to focus on yourself, what you’re actually doing is enabling yourself to care for others well while modeling healthy behavior for your children. This article contains specific advice on self-care techniques for handling therapists’—and arguably parents’—occupational hazard of secondary stress.

Strategies for Navigating Your Career and Family Demands

While challenges such as secondary stress may be unique to parent-therapists, there are some more-universal methods for working parents seeking to flex and adapt to the dual demands of both roles.

1. Make value-driven choices. Reflection on your own unique life has to be the first step. Once you decide what you value, you can arrange everything accordingly. Maybe at this stage of life you value convenience over wealth, so you buy precut vegetables to save minutes in the kitchen. Getting clear on your values can guide decisions both big and small to ensure they’re consistent with the life you seek to lead—and that’s a natural recipe for satisfaction. See the reflection questions above as a starting place.

2. Change your strategies as needed. What works when your baby’s in diapers is not necessarily going to work when they’re a teenager. Your need may be the same (e.g., focused work time), but your strategy for meeting that need (e.g., childcare you pay for) can change. But your needs can change, too—especially if your values have changed! As a general rule of thumb, you can expect to reevaluate your values, needs, and strategies every two years as you and your family grow and evolve.

If you find you’re in need of new solutions, take note of other working parents’ strategies. What seems to work and what doesn’t? What do you like and not like? Can you imagine that method working for your family? It’s fine to experiment with changes in your own life to find what works for you. Strategies are not set in stone. By employing flexible thinking, we can accommodate new needs. And remember, reducing your commitments is a legitimate strategy, too. Do you want to reduce your contribution to your field at certain stages of your child’s life? Dowling calls this “auditing your commitments.” Which leads us to setting boundaries.

3. Set boundaries. This is work; this is home. With clearly delineated boundaries between what’s personal and what’s professional, you are in a position to push back on overwork culture and increase your happiness. In practice, boundaries look like not answering work communication after hours, for instance. Not only does this sort of boundary setting establish guardrails for yourself and contribute to life satisfaction, it also helps head off a whole host of secondary problems that thrive in the neglectful shade of burnout culture, according to Anne Helen Petersen, a journalist who has written two popular books on the difficulty of maintaining work-life balance. “Turns out,” she writes, “it’s incredibly hard to build community, to forge social safety-nets, to agitate for larger social change, [and even to] give and receive care when you’re dedicated, willingly or not, to the culture of overwork.”

4. Establish an egalitarian home if you have a partner. This can be one of the most important factors for partnered parents thriving at work and at home, according to Danna Greenberg, author of Maternal Optimism. Consider how well your current home management routines and organizational systems (shared calendars, to-do lists, digital versus paper, etc.) are working as well as who is carrying the mental load.
Embrace flexible gender roles to balance work and family and contribute to your happiness, advises Jeremy Adam Smith, author of The Daddy Shift. There’s that flexible mindset again!

5. Lean on the village. It takes a village to raise a child—even more so if you are a single parent. Outsource help where your budget allows: dog-walking, housework, cooking, even lice combing are all subject to outsourcing. If your budget is tight, you might find creative solutions for childcare, such as forming a cooperative for daycare. By leaning on your friends and extended family, you strengthen social ties and develop community. It requires time and planning to ask for their help, but the benefits are tenfold.
A professional peer group is also crucial for social support. Mother-therapist Maggie Benedict-Montgomery, Ph.D. speaks of the need to find “allies” within your professional network. These professional peers can assist you in navigating your specific field as a parent, and might have experience in areas that are new to you. It’s good to know that others have your back—and that you can have their backs, as well—and that you are not alone in navigating these challenges. Which finally leads us to:

6. Speak up. You know that trying to navigating parenting and your career isn’t just your private, personal struggle when you Google “parenthood and career” and the first options that come up are survival guides! Fifty million Americans are surviving as both parents and professionals, but they aren’t necessarily thriving. Our workplace policies could do more to curb overwork culture and help working parents and families thrive. For example, only one out of ten American men have access to paid paternity leave, according to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Statistics such as these showcase how important it is to advocate for social change. We can all do our part to advocate for family-friendly workplace policies. In fact, activism can make you a happier parent, because volunteering and advocacy offer considerable mental and physical health benefits. When industries and institutions in the United States become more supportive of parents in the workforce, we all benefit.

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In this blog series, “Managing Your Private Practice,” we look at how to successfully run your private practice as a mental health professional. We started the series with a dive into how to market your private practice. Now, let’s look at a critical yet sometimes overlooked element in owning a business: policy writing.

Written policy forms are an essential component for any successful business. Therapists have an additional responsibility when it comes to paperwork: you need to ensure your bases are covered when it comes to legal, ethical, and HIPAA compliance. Fortunately, Health Affiliates Maine is here to help clinicians when it comes to compliance and current regulations.

How to Write Effective Office Policies

How a counselor runs their private practice varies from person to person. Regardless of your office size or structure, there are several office policies we advise all practices to put in writing. While some behavioral health practitioners with staff develop internal policies specific to issues such as dress code and social media, we’ll focus on advice for external office policies here—the policies your clients will see and review. Here are some guidelines for how to write effective office policies.

Office Policies Reflect Your Practice’s Core Values

When you give clients forms to fill out, it’s not only important to ensure they are clearly written in simple, easy-to-understand language, it’s also essential to make sure the forms reflect your private practice’s core values. For example, if you value inclusion and diversity, you might want to create or modify an existing form or template to include options for preferred pronouns. Remember, while filling out paperwork such as an authorization to release information, intake, insurance, and informed consent forms, as well as signing office policies, your client is getting an impression of your business.

Get Feedback

Whether you consult a colleague, a mentor, or a trusted office assistant, getting feedback from others is invaluable. Outside perspectives allow others to see things you may be too “inside” your own practice to notice, and others may also have more experience around which areas of the practice need or could use written policies to make the office run more smoothly.

So, by all means, ask a friend or colleague to review the packet of forms you’ve created and get their impression. Ask:

  • Was there enough space to write your answers?
  • Is it easy to follow?
  • Are there areas of unnecessary repetition?
  • Did you find any typos?
  • How could this be simplified?
  • Which changes or additions would you make, if any?
  • Am I missing something obvious and important? (We all do this!)

While involving others in policy writing and reviewing takes more time, the final outcome of a collaborative process ultimately makes for smoother operations and happier clients. If that’s hard to add to your to-do list, consider reframing the time investment as optimizing your client’s care.

Strive for Clarity

Setting clear policies in writing is a bit like setting clear boundaries: it helps everyone know what to expect. Clear is kind.
Make it part of your therapy practice to include office policies in a new client’s paperwork and reshare annually or when policies change. Successful practitioners have standardized forms and make use of a secure, organized paper filing and recordkeeping system.

At the same time, don’t assume clients will read through all the forms. During your first session, discuss your office policies briefly. This helps ensure that expectations are clear and understood, and it contributes to building trust in the professional relationship you’re developing.

Which Office Policies Do I Need in Private Practice?

Which office policies you include in client packets are somewhat unique to the practice you run. In general, we advise therapists to develop written office policies around cancellations, fees, social media, and—important in Maine—weather. (Keep in mind office policies are separate from other paperwork you should require from clients, including intake, insurance or billing, authorization to release information, and informed consent forms.)

Cancellations and missed appointments: Life’s little mix-ups happen. But as a counselor in private practice, missed appointments can disrupt the treatment process and therefore adversely affect your income and business—particularly if they are a chronic, recurring issue. Craft a clear understanding with your clients in writing about what happens when you or they need to cancel, in addition to missed appointments.

Fees: Practitioners may accept all or some insurance, self-pay, and/or having slide scale fees. However you structure payment, be clear and upfront with clients about how (and when) you charge and collect fees in your practice. Include your fee structure with a written policy on payment and collections in every client package, regardless of whether they currently have insurance; and, of course, all practitioners should be up to date on the new GFE (Good Faith Estimate) law, which requires providers to give patients who either do not have or are not using insurance a written estimate for non-emergency procedures. (Find more information on GFE requirements here.)

Social media: Use of social media is prevalent in our country, so therapy practices in particular need policies on the use of Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and the like. Set clear boundaries on how you or anyone in your practice orbit may communicate with prospective and current clients online, keeping in mind that some clients may have differing preferences around privacy. And, while we’re focusing this blog on external office policies, if you have an office assistant or other staff, we strongly encourage you to set an internal social-media policy for staff. And, finally, check with your licensing board and code of ethics to see what is required regarding confidentiality and social media use.

Weather: Maine knows snow days! Develop a written office policy on what happens in the event of inclement weather, letting clients know how you will get ahold of them or how they can check in with your office to see if it is open. Will you call them or text them? Should they check your practice’s website if the weather forecast looks questionable? While it may seem a small matter, this office policy will help eliminate confusion and smooth operations in the long term.

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In honor of National Men’s Health Month in June, we’re taking a closer look at how traditional gender norms negatively affect men’s mental health in the United States and especially in Maine—a phenomenon that, as therapists, many of our readers will have observed firsthand.

In the article, we’ll cover how our culturally created and reinforced ideas of how a man “should” act impact the rates and reporting of mental health issues, including depression and eating disorders, and, relatedly, how certain, more-traditional models of masculinity can contribute to stigma around mental health, with damaging consequences to men’s willingness to access mental health services.

Depression Symptoms in Men Versus Women

Partly due to gender norms perpetuated in our culture, men and women can present symptoms of mental and physical illnesses differently. This can lead to health-related problems going undiagnosed, and that lack of diagnosis (or late diagnosis) can alter the course of a person’s life.

For example, men are more likely to report symptoms of fatigue, irritability and/or rage, risk-taking, and loss of interest in work or hobbies when they are suffering from depression, according to Mental Health America. Women, in turn, are more likely to report feelings of sadness or worthlessness. One way of framing the difference is that men’s reported symptoms tend to be expressed as outwardly directed feelings and behaviors, while women’s reported symptoms tend to be more inwardly directed.

How to Assess Depression in Men

How we measure depression clinically, of course, changes how we treat it—or even if we treat it at all.

Officially, more than 6 million men in the U.S. report suffering from depression each year, but we know that many more cases go undiagnosed. It follows that the questions we ask as mental health providers and the use of gender-inclusive diagnostic scales can have a profound impact, as a 2013 study in JAMA Psychiatry found.

When a gender-inclusive scale is used, 30.6 percent of American males are found to have experienced a period of depression in their lifetimes, with no significant difference between sexes in rates of lifetime depression. However, when traditional depression scales are used, depression is found to be more common in women than in men.

It’s worth noting here that the State of Maine reports rates of diagnosed depression as higher in females, at 25.9%, than in males, at 16%. Because the State of Maine does not use a gender-inclusive scale when measuring depression, it is likely that many men who suffer from depression are not being counted, and we may be missing a large segment of the adult population in our diagnoses and treatments.

Men and Suicide Rates in Maine and the U.S.

The suicide rate among men in the United States is an unacceptable four times higher than it is for women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it has been on the rise since 2000. Suicide deaths follow a similar trend in Maine, with significantly higher rates among men (24.3 per 100,000) than females (7.9 per 100,000). The suicide rate in our state is higher than the national rate (15.9 per 100,000, compared to 13.5), according to the 2019 Maine Shared Community Health Needs Assessment Report.

Given how far fewer men are diagnosed with depression when traditional depression scales are used, it is worth considering whether the suicide rate could be lowered simply by universally employing gender-inclusive depression scales in our field, thereby treating the depression before it can potentially manifest into suicidal ideation or suicide.

Masculinity and Access to Mental Health

One thing is clear, when we consider the underdiagnosed, under-cared-for rates of depression and national suicide rates for men in America: we need to improve accessibility to our services.

According to the National Health Interview Survey, only one in four men with depression has spoken to a mental health professional. This sobering statistic is likely due to influential social norms of masculinity, among which are the hyperinflation of emotional control and self-reliance, as measured in the widely used Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory developed by James R. Mahalik and colleagues.

The net result of these influential social norms of masculinity is American men who are reluctant to talk and who downplay their symptoms when experiencing mental health issues, including depression, substance use, and stressful life events. Moreover, male minorities are even less likely than White men to seek assistance for mental health. The more we can reduce all barriers to mental health treatment across our field—and that includes stigma—the more we can be of service.

How Cultural Norms Affect Men with Eating Disorders

As we see with depression, men with eating disorders, such as muscle dysmorphia, are less likely to seek professional help than women, and once again gender expectations are the likely culprit. Men currently make up approximately 30 percent of eating disorder diagnoses, which is actually an uptick from previous years’ statistics, according to social psychologist Jaclyn A. Siegel, PhD. “Self-reliance is one characteristic of traditional masculinity,” Dr. Siegel said in a recent interview. “Because of this, men are less likely to seek help for medical and psychological conditions. … I suspect that every statistic we have about men with eating disorders is an underrepresentation of the actual number, because it’s not stereotypically masculine to admit to having these conditions, and it’s definitely not stereotypically masculine to go to a doctor or a specialist and get a diagnosis.”

Dr. Siegel goes on to note that men in the LGBTQ+ community are at an elevated risk for eating disorders, and that more research is needed on Black men’s experiences with body image, eating disorders, and other mental health issues.


When we have evidence of men feeling limited in their willingness and ability to access mental health treatment for issues like depression and eating disorders due to social stigma and traditional models of masculinity, it is time to reconsider how those models are serving us as a culture. What might the mental health of our nation’s men look like if we were to adopt more flexible gender norms that allowed for personal expression and authenticity?

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In this new series, “Managing Your Private Practice,” we’ll look at various things you can do to keep your private mental health practice thriving. Topics will include marketing and business skills, finances and taxes, writing policies, and liability and insurance issues. We’ll also explore more therapist-specific interests, such as how to balance the clinical and business aspects of being in private practice.

To start, let’s look at an essential part of attracting clients: how to market your private practice.

But before we get to a numbered list of specific marketing tactics, let’s look at the underlying idea that should guide your marketing strategy:

Marketing is all about relationships.

To market your practice effectively, you need to develop and follow a strategy to build relationships and make yourself known with potential patients, in the community, and among reliable referral sources.

If you’re new to private practice, you may find yourself spending more time establishing your referral network and getting your name out there; and if you’ve been in private practice for a while, you already know that these are areas that needs ongoing attention. Considering the effort you’ve put in to build your practice, it’s worth reassessing your marketing strategy every few months to determine if it’s still working for you, and, if it isn’t, tweaking and revising your strategy to ensure that it’s generating the clients and business you envision.

Okay—on to the numbered list!

How to Market Your Therapy Practice

To achieve your business goals, you must present yourself consistently—across all marketing channels and in-person events—as a skilled and accessible mental health professional while also communicating in a way that is authentic to your beliefs, your values, and your therapeutic approach. By developing and understanding what drives your practice, you can keep your marketing in line with your values and avoid sounding disingenuous.

1. Set core values. Core values are your fundamental beliefs, and it can be extremely helpful to formalize them in writing. Your core values are what guide decisions and behaviors, and when captured in a formal document, they can help you understand how to navigate your business accordingly. Is there a set of values that is especially meaningful to you?

Take some time to brainstorm a list of three to five core values that light a spark in you. Think about words like service, collaboration, growth, understanding, resilience, care, and what they mean to you and your practice. Once you get a handle on your core values, use them as a jumping-off point to compose a mission statement for your practice. You don’t necessarily need to post your mission statement or core values externally, but they can serve as a guide for how you do business and how you wish to be perceived by your clients and in your community.   

2. Create a digital presence. Many people find a therapist by searching online. They tend to compare mental health providers listed on their insurance company’s approved providers list with word-of-mouth recommendations, online references, and therapists’ websites and profiles on reliable databases, such as Psychology Today,, and our own Health Affiliates Maine list.

To maximize your approachability and searchability, curate your digital presence with care, and be sure your profile can be found in multiple online locations. That’s worth repeating: Post your profile in as many locations as possible! Some examples: create a simple website; consider writing a blog, vlog, or podcast; create (and maintain!) a practice profile on social media; and list yourself on professional databases. Learn more about all of these marketing options in our blog here.

In crafting your marketing content, it can be inspiring to look around and find examples you enjoy from among your peers. When you sit down to write your own content, choose your words carefully. Use your core values to inform your online voice and messaging. Consider carefully who your prospective clients are and what might resonate with them. Ask yourself, “What unique benefits do I bring my clients?” and “Would I want to engage with this therapist if I read this?”

3. Speak and teach. Libraries, adult education programs, businesses, and local community centers are wonderful venues for you to speak and teach on the topics you are most passionate about. These classes, lectures, and workshops can help get your name out into the community as an expert—and could connect you with individuals who might need your counseling services, either now or in the future.

4. Print business cards. While it may be tempting to skip this step in our increasingly digital world, this inexpensive, simple paper artifact makes it easy for potential clients to retrieve your name and contact you.

5. Learn from others. Networking with professionals from other therapy practices is a wonderful way to compare notes and share insights and information with your peers. (It’s also a great stress reliever!) Learn what’s working—and what isn’t—across practices that are similar to yours. And just as you can learn from your colleagues, they can learn from your experiences as you develop your private practice—the ultimate collegial win-win!

HAM Affiliates frequently remark that the group trainings and monthly supervision sessions are among the most-valued benefits of going into private practice with Health Affiliates Maine. Collaboration builds support for everyone involved.


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On the COVID-19 pandemic’s third anniversary, we’re pausing to honor the 6.6 million lives lost, reflect on the profound experience this disease has had on us as survivors, and look for meaningful paths forward. In the first of this two-part series on moving from a state of survival to conditions for thriving, we looked at how American lives have collectively changed over the course of this ongoing public health crisis. In this article, we turn our attention to what happens when we pause and reflect on the lives we lead.

COVID-19: Reflection Mode

Because of the massive disruption COVID-19 had on billions of lives, a disruption that caused significant changes in our everyday behaviors, over time we slowly moved from survival mode [link survival mode to March blog post] toward lockdown reflection. And what we seemed to notice during this time was our mental health is paramount.

Such a big disruption naturally makes people ponder big questions. To pause. To notice. And while on a societal level, we seemed to be waking up to inequalities within our operating systems, racial and otherwise, on a personal level it looked like a series of ambiguous, philosophical questions. Presented with so many deaths in a short time span, we asked ourselves: How do we live a life of meaning?

How COVID-19 Changed Our Ideas about Work

There is, of course, no single answer to how to live a meaningful life. It was clearly on many people’s minds, though. The question quietly rang behind social shifts we saw in the second and third years of the COVID pandemic. The Great Resignation, aka the Big Quit, the Great Rethink, or the Great Reshuffle, saw people leaving the workplace in droves: leaving for safety concerns, because of burnout, inadequate support from companies, and the need for childcare (which is closely tied to the issue of unpaid care work), or people who discovered they wanted autonomy or meaning in their work, or more money as the labor market tightened. Resignation rates remain high. “People are now looking at work and the role they want it to play in their lives in a different way, and switching to jobs that better align with their new values,” writes Kate Morgan for the BBC.

Like the Black Lives Matter movement, the Great Resignation may have gotten its spark from the pandemic, but the embers had been building long before COVID came to be. Quit rates have been steadily increasing over the past decade. Wages have stagnated for decades, and minimum wage has not been keeping up with rate of inflation. There is an American culture of presenteeism and widespread burnout in the workplace. The pandemic wasn’t the cause, per se—but it may have been the collective taking in of breath and deciding factor for workers to act on their mounting dissatisfaction. Many of us are looking for ways to restore wellbeing, and our professional lives are a natural place to ponder.

Just as pausing to engage in deep breathing, meditation, and other coping strategies helps our mental health, the collective pause caused by COVID-19 has helped create a shift in priorities. It allowed us time to reevaluate society. What’s working? What isn’t? What can I do about it? How am I spending my time, which is ultimately my life? Rethinking the workplace—where, how, and why we work—is part and parcel of that process. After all, one-third of the average American’s life is spent at work. Some may prefer to work remotely, work less, go into private practice, switch jobs, or any number of configurations that align more closely with their idea of meaning and success.

One method to considering how you spend your time is viewing time management not through the lens of productivity but that of mortality. Rather than cramming in as many work products as you can into every hour, attempting perfection, or delaying creative work because of busy culture, scale grander. As Oliver Burkeman writes in the book 4,000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, we suffer when we engage in “causal catastrophe,” or treating every moment as a means to some future end. He, like many others, stresses the importance of enjoying the now and connecting with others.

How COVID-19 Revived Self-Care

The pandemic lockdown was a poignant reminder that loneliness hurts our health. Being isolated can have serious consequences on our minds and bodies. We are, after all, social animals. Presented with a widespread public health problem, we reconsidered what it means to be happy and live a fulfilling and purposeful life. In addition to shifts in the way we work, we are starting to see a revived focus on mental wellness and self-care as a result of those inquiries.

With COVID’s stark reminder that life is short, Americans are slowly unraveling the myths of the busyness badge and that taking time to take care for oneself is frivolous. Self-care is not self-indulgence. As therapists, we know it’s a vital part of coping with stress and restoring mental wellbeing.

In addition to more importance placed upon mental health and wellness, another silver lining from the pandemic for mental and behavioral health services may be that access to care has increased as a result of telehealth. It’s become much more commonplace to remotely visit a therapist or substance use counselor, which has important implications for how we can provide support to rural patients across the large state of Maine. Telehealth has removed geographical barriers to mental health services that some have unfortunately experienced in the past. And the more normalized work-from-home office has helped some people find the flexibility in their work schedules to attend therapy appointments.

COVID-19: Imagination Mode

The calls for “back to normal” we heard mid-pandemic were largely calls coming from those who profited by what normal was pre-pandemic. It’s imperative that we continue to question and reflect on our values and imagine and shape our collective future accordingly. What can you picture? How can you align your life to your values? How can we reimagine and rebuild society so that it values equality, justice, and collaboration, or any number of core values that resonate with us? What does it look like to become a nation where, as Jean Accius of AARP puts it, “race and other social demographic factors do not determine your ability to live a longer, healthier and more productive life”?

We’ve had COVID-19 survival and reflection modes. Let’s enter a COVID-19 imagination mode. Let’s ask ourselves: What future do we want to create?

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As we approach the third anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic and are hopefully transitioning to an endemic phase, we’re pausing to honor the 6.6 million lives lost, reflect on the profound experience this disease has had on us as survivors, and look for meaningful paths forward. In this article, part one of a two-part series on moving from a state of survival to conditions for thriving, we look at how American lives have collectively changed over the course of an ongoing public health crisis.

COVID-19: Surviving Survival Mode

In the beginning of the COVID pandemic, Americans went into survival mode. Many sheltered in place if they could; many experienced personal tragedies, from the deaths and prolonged illnesses of friends and family. We changed our behavior with social distancing; some of us shifted to unemployment or remote work; we developed coping strategies for the extreme stress, anxiety, and depression we were experiencing.

The trauma of COVID-19 caused such stress that our brains functioned in a different manner. Our prefrontal cortex, where executive functioning skills come from, turned the reins over to our survival brain. For adults, being in survival mode might look like:

  • A lack of focus.
  • Changes in memory. Your days may blend together, or you might not remember what happened earlier.
  • Low energy and fatigue. This includes your body and your mind.
  • Insomnia.
  • Emotionally reactive and/or withdrawn.
  • Forgetting basic needs.
  • More impulsive. Many Americans ate and drank more, for example.

For those who were able to develop healthy responses to the ongoing stress, they started to exercise and physically move, such as getting out of the house for a daily walk; to reach out and connect with others, perhaps through Zoom; and to practice self-care, including getting quality sleep, developing a new pandemic routine, making time for a new hobby like baking bread, or seeking out moments of joy and laughter. In other words, they developed a resilience toolkit. These Americans were able to slowly exit survival mode, or at least manage the chronic stress well. For many, though, stress management was not quite that simple—and chronic stress was not necessarily a new experience.

COVID-19: Stuck in Survival Mode

When you’re stuck in survival mode and experiencing chronic stress—because, say, you’re a frontline worker in constant danger of contracting COVID-19 who can’t work remotely or afford to look for another job or take time off—it affects your productivity, relationships, and health. You’re more likely to have serious diseases, such as heart disease, obesity, and Type II diabetes; have an addiction, such as with alcohol, nicotine, and/or prescription drugs, as well as the internet, food, or gambling; and have mood and anxiety disorders. Whether it’s from the pandemic or it’s more related to poverty, discrimination, or a combination, overexposure to cortisol—the “stress hormone”—disrupts almost all of the human body’s processes.

COVID upended everyone’s lives. But it most significantly impacted BIPOC communities. Blacks, Latinos, and other people of color have suffered higher rates of COVID-19 infection and morbidity. They are more likely to be essential workers, and they were more likely to be unemployed as a result of the pandemic—especially Black and Latinx women.

Furthermore, and important to our work in mental health, Black, Indigenous, and people of color are less likely to have access to and seek out mental health services, and they are less likely to receive needed care. When they do receive mental health services, they are more likely to receive low-quality care and end care prematurely. The vast majority of mental health treatment providers in the United States are white, and some research shows that provider bias and stereotyping are factors affecting health disparities. It is imperative that in our field especially we increase cultural competency trainings, diversify workforces, and reduce stigma of mental illness.

All told, COVID-19 helped expose huge disparities in health, wealth, and healthcare access for Americans of color as compared to white Americans. With such a wide discrepancy between how some Americans were affected by COVID-19 compared to others, Americans were confronted with the stark differences in their lives due to privilege. This led to public outrage and was partly why—in addition to police brutality, growing economic and political divides, and building momentum toward racial consciousness, among other factors—Black Lives Matter protests drew record-breaking crowds. An estimated 26 million people took to the streets in the United States in the summer of 2020 to draw attention to and decry systemic injustice.

COVID-19: Moving toward Reflection

With a more-widespread understanding and management of chronic stress, proclamations in support of racial justice, and a gradual acclimation to life during the COVID-19 pandemic, more people began to move from survival mode toward a mode of reflection. We considered essential questions about our lives aroused by the pandemic. Presented with so many deaths in a short time span, we asked ourselves: How do we live a life of meaning? We’ll look at this question in depth in part two of “Coming Out of the Pandemic: From Surviving to Thriving.”

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For independently licensed mental health professionals who own their practices, time management is an essential skill. You are juggling your caseload, your schedule, attentive care to your clients, and running your own business. Not to mention personal and family responsibilities – your plate is full.

To avoid overwhelm and the feeling that you just can’t get everything done, consider trying a few things to help with overall time management. Remember back in December when we talked about the issues with multi-tasking? Well, we’re revisiting the topic in order to help you strengthen your own time management talents.

Focusing on a single task at a time is a more effective time management skill because multitasking is distracting, slows you down, impairs executive function, and makes you make more mistakes. Some studies estimate that when you attempt to multitask, you actually end up taking 40 percent longer to finish the project than you would have taken if you’d given it your complete attention.

What to manage your time more effectively? Try to avoid:

  • Bouncing from one device to another; it’s just as distracting as bouncing from one task to another. Avoid spending time on multiple devices at once (aka media multitasking).
  • Constantly checking your phone or email.
  • Interrupting others who are in focused activities.

Instead, try this:

  • Self-regulate to purposefully avoid multitasking.
  • Time blocking – a powerful way to maintain control over your schedule by blocking off time on your calendar each day for specific tasks
  • Turn off electronic devices.
  • When interrupted, finish what you started first, if you can.
  • Silence online notifications. These are mini distractions!
  • Engage in single-tasking as much as possible.
  • Say no sometimes – it’s okay; we all take on too much at times.
  • Give others your full attention.
  • Model the behavior you wish to see.
  • Encourage and make time for mindfulness and mental wellness.
  • “Chunk” (single-task) your time, setting aside 25 minutes to two hours for each activity.

Is all Multitasking Bad for You?

While the research is pretty clear that multitasking isn’t healthy for you, there is some nuance in the study results. Not all tasks require our complete concentration and focus. We can, for example, fairly effectively sing and take a shower at the same time.

The human mind is “evolutionarily scripted for monotasking,” writes psychologist Jeff Comer, Psy.D. As tasks increase in complexity (and thus need more of our cognitive skills available), our ability to be efficient decreases when we multitask. So next time you are inclined to “get more done” and, say, text and write a paper, or finish up that email while you’re listening to a Zoom call? Think again. There is a real cost to your productivity and performance.

A Healthier Approach to Time Management

To complete a task, we must set a goal, identify the information we need to achieve it, and disregard irrelevant distractions. When we invite irrelevant distractions by attempting to focus on more than one task at once, we take away from our ability to complete the tasks. Over time, this behavior leads to more distraction. Research is ongoing to determine the long-term effects of multitasking on our brain function. For now, we know that studies show there are short-term negative consequences. To combat the erosion of concentration and focus that multitasking can produce, we can develop stronger mindfulness habits and engage in single-tasking.

Perhaps it’s worth pulling back and considering why we invest in time management techniques in the first place. As Anne Helen Petersen recently asked in her article, “The Diminishing Returns of Calendar Culture,” what would happen if we decouple time management and optimization from our ideas of “success” altogether?

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As Americans, we like to think of ourselves as rugged individualists, self-sufficient and driven to succeed. So, it’s no surprise that when it comes to our New Year’s resolutions or other big goals, we rely on our willpower and sheer determination to change our habits. After all, we can do it! But nearly 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail within a month. It may be wise to consider how humans can effectively implement personal change and use an alternative approach to make your goals—and ultimately your life—successful.

Who to Blame When Goals Fail

We tend to blame our lack of willpower for failed New Year’s resolutions, and equate this with a countrywide decline in self-control. Science does not back up our propensity to insist that we and our peers follow the age-old, all-American advice to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” though. In fact, it’s nearly the opposite.

It’s true that there is some work you can do by yourself to make change impactful and lasting. A deep understanding of how and why you operate the way you do is beneficial in many areas of life, not least of which for behaviors you’d like to change. When you truly grasp your mindset and core values, as well as what’s holding you back and limiting you, you will be more effective at changing your habits. An action you want to achieve that speaks to your core values, life purpose, and sense of meaning is an action you are more likely to take. And when you make it a SMART goal, you are more likely to succeed with that action.

That said, big personal change and goal achievement doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You need to make a sustained effort to change your habits over the long term, and one of the more effective ways to get there is by shaping your external environment—not focusing on your internal “lack” of self-control or otherwise blaming yourself for missteps or failures.

How to Make Goals Successful: Our Environment

We need to face facts. We will always have temptations thwarting our best intentions: the free candy when you’re trying to reduce added sugars in your diet, the compelling clickbait article when you’re trying to lower how much time you spend in front of a screen. There will always be obstacles in our way to a better life; we can’t control these. We can, however, exert some influence on our social and physical surroundings. Research shows that rather than rely solely on willpower to achieve our resolutions, we need to shape our environment to make self-control and accountability simple, easy, and convenient. Think of it as preparing the groundwork to then be lazy!

You have likely heard of the term “accountability partner” in reference to goal setting—and with good reason. When you shape your environment to achieve lasting change, put help via outside accountability high on your to-do list. This may come in the form of a formal or informal support group, online or in-person, who are making similar changes themselves, or it could be an individual accountability partner: a coach, a mental health practitioner, or someone else who is committed to helping you make the change you wish to see. Whichever it is, check in regularly.

That may sound like more work, and it is, but it substantially increases your chances of being successful with your stretch goals. We are, after all, social animals. Keep in mind that by adopting a support network, it may mean more internal work, too, in that you may need to not only hear constructive criticism, but embrace it. By welcoming external feedback, you can discover what went wrong and find ways to fix it, thereby improving yourself and moving ever closer to your big goals.

In addition to finding others to support us, another method to creating a fertile field for change is to design our physical environment. When we optimize our environment, we make self-control easier. If your goal is, for example, to spend less time with your smartphone, you could change your physical surroundings by putting your cell phone in a hard-to-reach place or disabling apps that might be tempting. The farther away and the more effort you have to make to indulge a temptation, the better. Make the good choice the easy choice by default.

Willpower is a limited resource, just like attention. Don’t make it do all the work to change—shape your support network and design your surroundings so you are set up for success.

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With the winter holidays upon us, we may feel the additional pressure to go, go, go: making holiday cookies, selecting gifts, getting twinkly lights up, seeing family and friends—all on top of our everyday lives, a mile-long to-do list, and what may feel like perpetual busyness. While your natural inclination may be to multitask and make it all happen, a smile plastered on your face all the way to the finish line, let’s pause for a moment and consider: is multitasking a healthy way to live?

What Is Multitasking?

Before we look at whether multitasking is a healthy habit, we need to define what multitasking is. Multitasking is, essentially, the performance of more than one task simultaneously. We all know what that looks like: wrapping up an email while we talk on the phone, responding to an instant message while we’re on a Zoom conference call.

A 2017 study published in Applied Ergonomics delves further in and differentiates between three types of multitasking:

Concurrent multitasking is when you conduct two or more tasks at the same time.

Interleaved multitasking, or task switching, is when you switch between two or more tasks as they develop.

Combined multitasking is a combination of the two types above; it is when you execute two or more tasks concurrently while switching between tasks as they develop.

In general, when folks refer to multitasking, they are referring to combined multitasking.

Is Multitasking Bad for You?

With job descriptions routinely advertising for employees who can juggle multiple tasks and lives that seem to get busier and busier, multitasking can seem like a knee-jerk response to getting more done in a day. It’s worthwhile, however, to pause and look at the research done on time management techniques and consider whether multitasking is a healthy or unhealthy practice to partake in.

People who multitask are less efficient than those who focus on one project at a time, according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. In fact, Stanford University studies show that productivity can be reduced by as much as 40% when we multitask. With substandard results in our performance, why do we persist in our attempts to multitask, and continue to believe it’s an efficient, productive way to work when, in fact, it’s not?

When you multitask, it seems like you’re accomplishing many things at the same time. But rather than getting more done, what you are really doing is quickly shifting your attention and focus from one thing to the next. It’s this switching, or interleaved multitasking, that slows you down and stresses you out.

How Does Task Switching Affect Me?

Multitasking is managed by your brain’s executive functions, which determine how, when, and in what order tasks are done. There are two stages to the executive control process: goal shifting (deciding to do one thing instead of another) and rule activation (changing from one task’s rules to the rules for a new task). When you multitask, you incur what psychologists call “task switch costs,” or the negative effects resulting from switching among tasks.

Research has shown that when we grow accustomed to frequent interruptions, we develop a short attention span and even begin to self-interrupt, which leads to a longer-term problem, as it extends the amount of time needed to finish tasks.

What Happens When I Multitask?

People tend to overestimate their ability to multitask, and those who multitask the most demonstrate more impulsivity, less executive control, are more easily distracted, and tend to downplay the negative effects of their behavior.

Intense multitasking can induce a stress response, according to Dr. David Meyer, a psychology professor and codirector of the Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. This further degrades cognitive processing, says Dr. Jeff Comer.

Multitasking results in:

  • Diminished ability to concentrate
  • Decreased ability to pay attention to details
  • Lower competency in organization skills
  • Being perceived as disrespectful
  • Delayed task-completion
  • Increase in stress
  • Increased impulsiveness
  • Lower recall
  • More frequent memory lapses
  • More frequent accidents and errors
  • May worsen work and/or school performance
  • Burnout

The Importance of Breaks

Guess what? Multitasking makes us very tired. By quickly switching between activities, even minor ones, we use up our precious supplies of oxygenated glucose in our brains—the very same fuel we need to focus on a task! To compensate, many folks reach for more coffee (caffeine), more food—in other words, more energy. Instead, Dr. Daniel Levitin, professor of behavioral neuroscience at McGill University, speaks to the benefit of regular breaks. When we take 15-minute breaks every couple of hours and allow our minds to truly wander, we’re more productive. Your brain is, after all, a muscle, and it needs time to rest and recover after it’s worked out.

One way to think about multitasking is purposefully giving ourselves distractions in the form of other tasks. But switching tasks is stressful, and on average it takes us twenty-three minutes to return to our work when we’re interrupted, according to Dr. Gloria Mark at the University of California, Irvine. To avoid that switch-induced delay caused by multitasking, she advises “chunking” your time. Also known as time blocking, monotasking, or single-tasking, this method of scheduling your day can give you a sense of control over your time and make you more productive.

What Is Single-Tasking?

Single-tasking is the opposite of multitasking. With single-tasking, you balance competing tasks. When you become a single-tasker, you are filtering tasks, determining priorities, setting goals, and completing the many items on your to-do list. You maximize your productivity by setting aside specific times for completing your most important work. You can do this by focusing on creating a prioritized to-do list and then time blocking.

Single-tasking (aka time blocking) is a time management technique that is as simple as it sounds: block off a period of time to complete a particular task. By setting aside specific times to respond to emails, return calls, and focus on important projects throughout your day, you can improve your focus and deter any tendency you might have to procrastinate. Best yet, at the end of the day, you’ll feel like you accomplished something—because you likely did!

As we move through the hectic holiday season, consider taking a break from multitasking and purposefully engage in a time management technique that will reduce stress, improve your focus, and help you happily, healthfully conquer your never-ending to-dos.

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