Here’s How to Tell If You Need to Declutter Your Schedule

published Apr 21, 2019
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(Image credit: Sylvie Li)

KonMari madness has taken hold of America. Purge your closet! Rid yourself of excess! Dump your bad boyfriends! Diagnosing clutter is easy when you’re being plonked on the head by expired cans of tuna every time you open an overstuffed closet—what’s more difficult to diagnose, however, is schedule clutter.

“A disorganized day is one overstuffed with more than you could possibly accomplish, and one in which those tasks are packed in with no particular order,” says productivity expert Julie Morgenstern, who is the author of six books, including “Time Management from the Inside Out.” As someone who can barely make time to feed her cat while trying to scratch out this 1,000-word article, writing six whole books makes Morgenstern my de facto time wizard.

“When you are disorganized, you start jamming tasks and appointments into any place in no particular order, and that haphazard arrangement means it is impossible to stay balanced,” she told Apartment Therapy. “You’re operating from a reactive instead of a proactive space, which leaves no room for creativity.”

Sound familiar? If you’ve found yourself munching on the particular pickle of schedule clutter, here’s how to hack your way out.

(Image credit: Minette Hand)

Step One: Take Inventory

As in all things, the first step to becoming more temporally organized is recognizing you have a problem. “The intangibility of time makes it harder to see the clutter, but if you think about it, a disorganized closet and a disorganized calendar are very similar,” Morgenstern says. “You’re dealing with a limited amount of space that is jammed with more items than you could possibly fit, and that haphazard arrangement makes it impossible to know what’s actually there. You could have 16 pairs of identical black pants and yet when you’re out, you’re like—I probably need black pants!”

This also happens with an overloaded schedule. People with cluttered schedules are much less confident in their own abilities and operate with a higher baseline of stress than those who have a strong grasp over their time and obligations. Maybe simple household tasks take longer than they should, or you get lost in research at work, reading the same paragraph over and over without absorbing the information. Your to-do list only grows; you become impatient with your kids or your partner. You used to be social—now, you decline invitations, believing yourself too busy. You’re getting less and less done, which creates enormous stress, which in turn leads to sleep deprivation. You’re wasting time on low-value tasks, rearranging your utensil drawer when you meant to be doing your taxes. In other words, your time no longer feels like your own. That’s schedule clutter, and it’s undermining your potential.

(Image credit: Ellie Arciaga Lillstrom)

Step Two: Identify Clutter

Morgenstern has her own version of the Kondo “joy sparking” litmus test: “One of the best ways to inventory your time is to ask of everything you’re doing: Does this fuel or strip my energy?”

According to Morgenstern, energy-stripping time clutter includes everything from responsibilities that really belong to someone else to meetings that don’t add value to long-unfinished projects. If an appointment or activity is draining rather than feeding you, it’s gotta go.

Sound extreme? The key is to ask not what you’re getting rid of, but what you’re making space for. “What are you not spending time on that would fulfill you or energize you or make you feel more happy and whole?” asks Morgenstern. Framing the decluttering as making space for bigger, better things should alleviate some of the guilt inherent in saying no.

And you shouldn’t do this alone: enlist the support of your colleagues and family. “Maybe you’re a manager but you have so many meetings on your schedule that you aren’t able to inspire your team effectively,” says Morgenstern. “That’s a huge loss for your company. So talk to your boss, explain that you want help to achieve your shared goals, and that attending this morning meeting doesn’t ladder up to that.”

(Image credit: Emma Fiala)

Step Three: Put Like with Like

When organizing a calendar, Morgenstern draws on the same principles she applied as a professional home organizer. “In a closet, you group similar items. You give everything a consistent home so you don’t waste time looking for things. You’re creating a visual menu of everything that is important to you.”

The same goes for your calendar. “The brain doesn’t do well when we have to switch back and forth between different functions—say, from the strategic to the social to the executive,” she tells me. As much as possible, give specific tasks specific homes: for example, creative work in the morning, paperwork in the afternoon, and evenings for social activity.

Deciding what goes where requires determining what suits your own work style best. Emily, a freelance writer, advocates for scheduling the things you’re most likely to put off first. “For me, that’s exercise and creative writing, because technically I don’t have to do either of them. So I do them first. If I schedule them for after all the things I really do have to do, I just won’t do them.”

(Image credit: Lauren Kolyn)

Step Four: Shut the Door

By now you might be thinking: doesn’t everyone feel stressed? Isn’t burnout just part of modern life? That may be true, but the cost is high. “When you are operating on empty, there’s no doubt that you aren’t getting done what needs to get done,” says Morgenstern.

That’s when Morgenstern calls on her PEP method: addressing your Physical needs, finding your Escapes, and nurturing relationships with People who feed you. PEP involves taking care of your body by getting enough sleep and exercise; escaping into hobbies that transport and relax you; and embracing the people in your life who remind you of how capable you are. And that means building in space into your calendar for all of these aspects, no matter what you might have to put off to do so.

Emily keeps burnout at bay by being vigilant about boundaries. “I don’t work on the weekends,” she tells me. “If someone emails me on a Friday night and then again on Saturday asking why they haven’t heard from me, I’ll let them know I don’t work on weekends and will get back to them on Monday.” These clear lines allow her the space she needs to recharge. If you struggle with this, start by turning off email notifications on your phone. Consider setting up an autoresponder for weekends or after hours, or simply institute technology “nap time” by stashing your phone and computer in a drawer for a set period of time.

“You are going to have to put things off,” says Morgenstern. “You have to sleep even if you didn’t finish that proposal. Go see a movie with a friend even though there are still 10 things on your to-do list. Go play with a dog in the park! Then you’ll come back and look at the problem you couldn’t solve, and you’ll see—wait a minute, all I need to do is XYZ, and it’s done in 15 minutes.”

(Image credit: Chinasa Cooper)

The work of decluttering your schedule is difficult: It’s saying no to people who depend on you; it’s taking a long, hard look at your commitments and potentially letting go of the things you cling to for structure or meaning. But the rewards, in turn, are huge.

“In a balanced schedule, you’ll have work that feels whole and important, and you’ll go home ready to relax at night,” says Morgenstern. “You’ll be able to say, I took care of my health and family, so now I’m ready for my work. I took care of my work, so now I’m ready to relax. You’re energized, not exhausted. My definition of good time management isn’t really about task management—it’s about managing your energy and your brain power for peak performance in everything you do.”