Time is arguably our most valuable commodity. Although it may take effort, there are always ways to replace money we’ve lost or squandered unwisely, but time wasted is gone forever. So it only makes sense that if we want to live our best life, we need to carefully budget how we spend our time, plan how we invest it, and study our options to get the greatest returns.
Unfortunately, many of us (myself included!) tend to treat time as if it were a high-limit credit card, trying to squeeze in more and more activities until we’re maxxed out, frazzled, and exhausted. These days, when we ask the question, “How are you?” we frequently hear: “Busy” “Just trying to keep my head above water” “Surviving.” We race from activity to activity, often thinking more about where we need to go or what we need to do next, rather than being present and enjoying where we are right now. We feel like we’re running on a treadmill that’s constantly speeding up, and we’re not always sure we’re going in the right direction, if we’re even going anywhere at all.
I’ve certainly experienced the “too busy” syndrome many times in my own life. Sometimes it’s been a result of focusing too much on work, taking on so much that it squeezed out any chance of actually having a life. Other times it’s been because I said yes when I should have said no, leading to a calendar peppered with commitments I grew to dread. And other times, it resulted from an accumulation of groups and activities that were a good fit at one stage of my life, but which no longer fit the current version of me.
In each of these cases, my schedule was so stuffed I didn’t have space for activities that recharged and re-energized me, or moved me closer to the life I really wanted. In fact, I was so busy, I didn’t even have time or energy to think about what I really wanted, or to create a coherent plan of how to get there. It was like having an overstuffed closet but not being able to find anything to wear because it was full of clothes that didn’t fit, or were out of fashion, with no room to bring in anything new.
And the overstuffed closet analogy is a good one, because the solution to an overstuffed calendar is exactly the same. We need to de-clutter our schedule just as we would purge our closet.
So where do we start when it comes to clearing the clutter off our calendar?
Step 1. Inventory Your Recurring Activities
Just as you would pull everything out of your closet in order to see and evaluate what you have, the first step in regaining control of your time is to make a comprehensive list of all the ways you spend it. Write down everything you do regularly, whether it comes up daily, weekly, monthly, or even yearly. Be sure to include job and family-related obligations, committees and organizations you belong to, hobbies and clubs, exercise, doctor and dentist visits, spiritual activities, holiday traditions, and leisure time with friends and/or family. If you have children, include your kids’ activities if they require your involvement. And don’t forget to add commitments and projects on your to-do list that are hanging over your head.
It may take more than one sitting, and you may want to keep a running list for a few days as more things come to mind, but get it all out on paper. Every little thing.
Step 2. Find Your “Keepers”
The purpose of this step is to find your “treasures”, as Julie Morgenstern (“SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life”) would say. You first want to find those activities you definitely want to keep – the ones that fill your tank, give you energy, and make life worth living.
Think about each item on your list individually. How does each activity and/or the people involved make you feel? Energized? Inspired? Loved and appreciated? Recharged? Or do you dread the activity each time it comes around? Do you walk away afterwards feeling you wasted hours of your life? Are the people involved in the activity toxic, leaving you drained emotionally?
A few questions I’ve started asking myself to help evaluate existing time commitments and potential new opportunities:
- Does this activity move me closer to my personal, professional, health/fitness, or spiritual goals? Or to put it another way, does it align with my highest priority values?
- Does this activity involve people who inspire me, teach me, or challenge me to rise to new levels? Does being around them energize me or drain me?
- Does this activity bring me joy?
For myself, I’ve made the commitment that if an activity or group doesn’t tick at least one of these boxes, it no longer has a place in my life. But this list doesn’t mean everything I do has to be a hyper-focused means to an end – question three creates space for things that are fun just for the sake of being fun – watching a sunset, reading a novel, planting a flower garden, or playing with my cat.
Let go of any preconceived ideas about which activities are “good” or “worthwhile”. Forget about what you “should” do. Just listen to your inner voice for right now. Put a big star next to the items that make you feel really good. These go on your “keeper” list.
Step 3: Identify the Time Trash
Now that you’ve identified the time gems in your calendar, it’s time to start sorting through the “non-treasure” commitments. Once again, analyze each activity individually.
When clearing physical clutter, stuff falls into three general categories: Keep, Donate/Sell, and Trash. You’re going to create a similar set of “boxes” for sorting your time commitments: Keep, Delegate, and Drop.
Start with the low-hanging fruit – activities that fall into obvious Keep or Drop boxes. You may dislike your job, but you probably need to keep it for now (and in the meantime, begin to develop a concrete plan to create a more fulfilling career path). Doctor and dentist appointments probably don’t bring you joy, but they’re necessary too. On the flip side, you can probably find at least a few activities that you don’t enjoy that will be fairly easy to drop.
Now comes the tough part – dealing with activities and commitments that you don’t really enjoy, and which are not essential to sustain life, but where you feel an obligation of some type. These may require some deep thinking and soul-searching to sort into the proper “box”.
Think very carefully about why you participate in each activity in this gray area. A few of the most common reasons we wind up with obligations we don’t want on our calendar are:
- A misplaced sense of responsibility – if I don’t do it, who will? But think about it another way: if no one else thinks it’s important enough to invest their own time and energy, maybe it’s just not that important or necessary.
- Guilt or obligation – we feel like we owe a debt that we have to repay. Consider how real that debt or obligation is – maybe it’s only your perception. Morgenstern writes, “We often make incorrect assumptions about what people actually expect from us and confuse our own need to be liked or accepted with others’ needs or wants. Many people are paralyzed with fear of disappointing their boss, spouse, friends, coworkers, or kids, only to discover that the other party is shockingly OK with their decision to release a non-fueling obligation.” Maybe it’s someone else’s way of manipulating a situation. Or maybe the obligation is real, but perhaps there’s a better, more creative way to meet it, one that’s in line with your interests and skills.
- Competitiveness – we’re trying to meet standards set by someone else, following an external list of “shoulds.” The solution here is to be very clear about our own goals and priorities, our vision of the life we want to lead, our personal definition of success. When we have clarity about where we want to go, it’s a lot easier to see these distractions for what they are – unnecessary detours that actually take us away from where we want to be. The key is having confidence in your own path.
- Habit – sometimes we’ve done something for so long, we don’t even remember why we’re doing it. It may have met a need at one point in our life, but maybe that need is gone, or maybe there are better ways to meet it today.
Step 4: Delegate or Drop
As you think through Step 3, you’ve no doubt found several activities that you’re ready to let go of. In some cases, if you’re the only one involved, or you play only a minor role (such as a participant in a large group), it’s easy enough to simply walk away. But in other cases, particularly if other people are counting on you, it may take a little more effort to extricate yourself. A few options include:
- Delegating or getting help. You are not superhuman and you do not have to do it all. It’s okay to hand off the tasks that are not your strengths to others, in order to focus on what you do best. And remember that by handing them off, you give others a chance to grow and develop their talents.
- Stepping away diplomatically and responsibly, but decisively. Maybe you’re in some sort of leadership position and you need to finish out your term, but you can make it clear that you won’t be taking on new responsibilities at the end of that time. You don’t owe anyone a lengthy explanation – a simple “I’ve stretched myself thin, so I’ve decided to cut back in some areas in order to better focus on my current priorities,” suffices.
Step 5. Proactively Manage Your Calendar Going Forward
As soon as we clear some space in our schedule and have a little room to breathe, there’s a natural temptation to start filling up those empty blocks of time again.
RESIST THE TEMPTATION!
In his book “Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives”, Richard A. Swenson, MD, uses the analogy of white space in a book. Imagine trying to read a book if the type ran edge to edge, with no breaks – it would be a stressful and mind-numbing experience. Yet that’s exactly what we do when we overbook our days and weeks. To stay sane and productive, we need to keep some white space in our schedules – so resist the pressure to fill up every available moment.
We also want to maintain the flexibility to say yes to the right opportunities as they arise. There are few things more tragic than missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime because you were too busy to see it or take advantage of it.
Carefully evaluate new opportunities as they arise – just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. Think about how this activity aligns with your goals and priorities at this stage in your life. Think about whether it’s something you feel excited about doing, or whether you feel pressured, either internally or externally. If it is something that you feel strongly about doing, consider what you could cut out of your schedule in exchange.
The goal here is to maintain enough free space on your calendar that you can go through life with a greater sense of peace and the ability to fully engage in the activities that remain, with the flexibility to say yes to activities and opportunities that move you closer to the life of your dreams.
So, what are some strategies that you’ve found effective to take control of your calendar? What lessons have you learned along the way? Please share in the comments below!
As I wrote this post, I realized what a huge topic clearing out time clutter was, and for as long as this post is, I’ve just scratched the surface. If this is an area that you struggle with in your own life, there are many good books out there that tackle this topic in depth. A few of my favorites:
- “SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life” by Julie Morgenstern
- “Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives” by Richard A. Swenson, MD
- “The Best Yes: Making Wise Decisions in the Midst of Endless Demands” by Lysa TerKeurst