I can’t say that every day goes exactly according to plan. That’s not even possible. But, I can say, with confidence, that we now live the kind of lives we want to live. We focus our efforts on those things we value most.
We still don’t get everything done. We drop the ball sometimes. But we’re headed in the right direction. We have close, meaningful relationships with people that we love and we’re using our talents and experiences to do things that (we think) have meaning.
Each person’s life looks different. What’s important to me may not be what’s important to you. The “plan of attack” for regaining control of our schedules won’t look the same.
However, if your schedule feels like it’s a bit out of control, there are some universal steps you can take to begin finding a tailor-made approach.
Acknowledge the fact that you can’t do everything.
We can only do so much. We have unlimited options, but limited resources. We have to make important decisions to eliminate some things. When we’re feeling especially productive and superhuman, we struggle to admit this reality. But, we can’t do it all. We have to remove the clutter.
Clutter is the stuff that interferes with the life we want to live. It slows us down from doing the things we value most. It’s that unnecessary stuff that we entertain, but doesn’t help us get where we want to go. And it needs to be removed.
Take Stock and Track Your Time
You can’t really clean up your schedule if you don’t know what’s in it—and that includes all the things on your literal and official calendar and all the things that aren’t. I always say if you want to spend your time better, you have to figure out how you’re spending your time now. People have a lot of stories they tell themselves about their time but those stories aren’t always accurate.
Track your hours for a week or even a few days using an app, a spreadsheet, or a piece of paper. Once you’ve taken an objective look at where your time’s going now, you can start sorting through and deciding what needs to go.
VDoes that yoga class on Wednesdays spark joy? What about that show you’re binge watching?—but only to a point. It’s a ridiculous thing to think that everything will spark joy. You might love your job but your commute will not spark joy. You love your children but changing a diaper will not spark joy. The idea is to ask, “What is causing the most pain? And what is something I can actually do something about?”
Clarify what’s most important…to you!
The things that are important to you will affect how you make decisions and how you spend your days. If you don’t know where you’re going, why bother establishing a path? Before you start developing a plan, you have to know what you want to accomplish and what rules you will play by. You need a what and a why before you figure out how.
You’ll need clarity in at least 3 important areas:
- What kind of person do you want to be?
- What relationships are most important to you?
- What do you want to accomplish?
Determine what you have to do to live for those things.
Once you’ve identified your objective, you can begin to think about how you’ll get there. It is incredibly important to identify your goals and values. But if you don’t take the second step and think about your plan to live up to them, then they are only dreams.
You have to map out a route to your destination. You have to figure out the best way to be and do what you want to be and do. You have to determine what actions will be required and what tools you’ll need to accomplish them. If we don’t, we run the risk of just wandering around through life as a slave to our circumstances.
Purge Recurring Meetings and Tasks
Once you know what’s on your calendar, you can and should ask why. What is the purpose of each thing on here? Are we accomplishing that or does something need to change? The key is not being scared to question what’s on your calendar.
Start with recurring meetings, which can very easily build up and take over your calendar, each one doesn’t have to justify itself.
If you’re the instigator of a recurring meeting, pause once a month and ask, “Does this still make sense? Are we accomplishing what we set out to accomplish? Are people engaged and contributing? (A sign that a meeting doesn’t need to happen is that no one else is speaking.)” If the answers to these questions are no, consider canceling the meeting, making it shorter or less frequent, or communicating the relevant information via email.
Even if you’re not in charge, you can still take action. And if you do so by suggesting solutions rather than just posing questions or presenting problems, it makes you look like you’re invested in what you’re doing. If it’s someone else’s meeting, ask for an agenda and if there’s anything you should read up on or be prepared to discuss. You might just remind the organizer to question those meetings that have always been there, too.
Sort Things By Importance and Urgency
The idea is to sort activities by importance and urgency and put them in one of four quadrants:
- Quadrant I: Important, Urgent includes things like crises, last-minute meetings for important deadlines
- Quadrant II: Important, Not Urgent includes things like strategic planning, long-term goal setting
- Quadrant III: Not Important, Urgent includes things like certain emails, phone calls, meetings, and events
- Quadrant IV: Not Important, Not Urgent includes things like scrolling mindlessly through social media, binge watching TV you don’t really care about
Then you actually have to determine what you need to do more of and what you need to do less of to ensure you’re being as productive as possible. For example, you might be surprised to find that the majority of your daily activities fall in quadrants III and IV, so your goal might be to reduce those to make room for activities in quadrants I and II.
Minimize or Outsource
In some cases you can just say no (nicely) to adding a certain event to your calendar or task to your list. Other things just have to get done. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make them take up less time or that you have to be the one to do them.
Is there a task at work that you could delegate or outsource? As a manager, it’s more immediately feasible to pass on a task to one of your direct reports. But even if you’re not in a supervisory position, think about small ways you could do the same. Are you spending hours manually updating a database or system? Would it be possible to partner with an engineer to find a more automated process? Or can you trade off doing that tedious office housework so that no one person gets stuck doing it every time?
If you can’t pass off certain tasks to others wholesale, try to minimize the time and effort they require. Whatever it is that feels like it’s encroaching on your schedule, see if there’s a way to do less of it.
It’s easy to look away and come back to find your calendar bursting with various meetings and obligations. Whether it’s you or colleagues dropping each individual item on there, it leaves you with only slivers of heads-down time and little hope of accomplishing some of the biggest tasks on your plate. Part of cleaning up your schedule is finding strategies to prevent it from getting cluttered again—just as you would if you were organizing a physical space.
Blocking chunks of time on your calendar when you won’t be available to answer emails or phone calls or to attend meetings. You can use it for higher-level strategizing or focused project time (think quadrant II activities). Because it’s already reserved and visible on your calendar, it prevents other things from accumulating and impinging on the time you need. You create
If you find yourself leaving the office harried and anxious, for example, blocking off the last 30 or 45 minutes of the day. You can avoid running out the door immediately after a meeting and give yourself the chance to wind down and transition more smoothly. Wherever you time block you start to feel refreshed.
Don’t Forget Downtime
Time management isn’t just about squeezing in as much work as humanly possible into your schedule or completely clearing it so you can do absolutely nothing. It’s also about making room for the non-work things you love and those that allow you to recharge.
You want to have consciously chosen downtime. Think about what is it that really rejuvenates me? It might be nature, exercise, friends, art, baking, or anything else you enjoy that fills your metaphorical batteries.
It’s not that you necessarily have to pencil downtime into your calendar or however you jot down your meetings and schedules to remind yourself—although if that’s what you prefer, go for it! Just remember that it should be an intentional part of the equation. We have a tendency to fill open space because we’re comparing the thing we’re asked to do or thinking about doing with nothing. That’s not the right comparison. The comparison is to all other things you can be doing.
Pretend Future You Is Present You
When you’re talking about a Thursday three weeks away, it’s easy to think, Oh sure I’m free then, sounds great! and pop it onto your calendar without considering whether you’ll feel the same way on Wednesday three weeks minus a day from now.
But when you’re thinking about something in the future, ask yourself if you’d do it tomorrow. You know how much energy you have now and presume it’ll be pretty similar tomorrow. That allows you to be a little more judicious. In short, if you wouldn’t be excited to do it today or tomorrow, you probably won’t be excited to do it three months from now, so make your decisions accordingly. Because eventually the future will be tomorrow.
That being said, don’t make a habit of canceling long-held plans at the last minute. If you’ve committed to do something and if it’s with people you value, possibly you should just treat this as a learning experience. Remind yourself this is not a good feeling and how can I avoid this in the future?
In other words, cleaning up your schedule isn’t always about removing things that are already on there—possibly at the risk of damaging professional or personal relationships. It’s about getting a handle on your time and keeping it tidy going forward.
Find what motivates you and use it.
Study yourself and figure out what makes you tick. What makes you come alive? What makes you feel human and reminds you that you are not just a robot with a job and a checkbook? What tugs at your heart? What reminds you of the things you value most?
It may be: listening to music, blogging, dancing, painting, singing, jogging, lifting weights, or something really random and strange that you just love to do.
It’s okay if it isn’t related to your “greater purpose” or if it even makes sense to other people. If it motivates you (and it’s legal), do it!
Life’s too short to spend our days in constant frustration.
Don’t allow things of lesser importance to rob you of the life you could be living. Take a good look at your life and be honest. Do the work and declutter your schedule. You can do this!
Think of your schedule cleaning as a long-term goal. I encourage people to be bold. If you’re a little brave and lot intentional, you’ll be able to do less of what you don’t like and more of what you do.