When Adrean Turner started a new role as a cost accountant, one of the tasks passed on to her from her predecessor was a monthly report that took almost two weeks to compile. She spent hours on it every month for her first few months at the company even as other responsibilities piled up on her desk.
Then she realized something. No one—not even her boss—had ever given her any feedback on the report. Turns out they weren’t looking at it, let alone digging into the data she was providing. To be frank, she had better things to do than spend so much time and put so much effort into something nobody got anything out of.
“I was looking for ways to be more effective and efficient,” says Turner, a Muse career coach and author of F.I.T. for Success. One of those ways would be to clear space in her schedule for things that made more of an impact.
We could all benefit from examining the things on our to-do lists and the hours in our days a little more closely. In the spirit of spring cleaning, or any-season cleaning, here are seven tips to help you get a handle on your schedule.
1. 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,” says Laura Vanderkam, author of Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. “People have a lot of stories they tell themselves about their time,” she adds, but those stories aren’t always accurate.
So she recommends tracking 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.
Vanderkam says you can channel Marie Kondo—Does 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,” she says. The idea is to ask, “What is causing the most pain? And what is something I can actually do something about?”
Turner does a similar exercise with clients who want to make a career change or pursue this or that but feel they are so busy they don’t have the time to devote to their goals. She has them keep a time log by the half hour for two weeks. They often realize that the time they’ve spent scrolling through social media or chatting about their favorite TV show on Slack adds up to a few hours they could’ve spent doing something more productive, or even just something they truly enjoy.
2. Purge Recurring Meetings and Tasks
Once you know what’s on your calendar, you can and should ask why, says Heather Yurovsky, a Muse career coach and founder of Shatter & Shine. “What is the purpose of each thing on here? Are we accomplishing that or does something need to change?” she explains. “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, since as Vanderkam points out, “each one doesn’t have to justify itself.”
If you’re the instigator of a recurring meeting, Yurovsky encourages you to 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, as Turner did with that monthly report. And if you do so by suggesting solutions rather than just posing questions or presenting problems, Turner says, 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.
3. Sort Things By Importance and Urgency
If you’ve tracked your time but are having trouble wrapping your head around what should stay and what should go, Turner suggests using the time management matrix featured in Stephen Covey’s classic business book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. 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,” she says. 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.
4. 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. To return to Turner’s example, she worked with her boss to revamp the reporting process so that she was sending quick monthly snapshots and only putting together a more in-depth report quarterly. It cleared up time for her while still getting her boss and colleagues the insights they needed. Whatever it is that feels like it’s encroaching on your schedule, see if there’s a way to do less of it.
5. Create Blocks
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.
Chelsea Williams, a Muse career coach and talent consultant, recommends 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 a space,” she says. And if you make these blocks recurring, she adds, they become a natural part of your weekly rhythm.
“I’m a huge fan of time blocking,” says Yurovsky, who also suggests anticipating and addressing other needs with this strategy. If you find yourself leaving the office harried and anxious, for example, she recommends 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.”
6. 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,” says Vanderkam. “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. For Vanderkam, reading is one of those things. “I’ve gotten much better making sure I’ve got good books to read,” she says, because “when I have a good book I’m reading that’s what I do as my default downtime choice.” When she doesn’t, she (like many of us) falls prey to the mindless social media scroll.
It’s not that you necessarily have to pencil downtime into your calendar (or, erm, click and type it in there)—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,” Vanderkam says. “That’s not the right comparison. The comparison is to all other things you can be doing.”
7. 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,” says Vanderkam. “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, Vanderkam cautions against making 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,” she says. “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.
Think of your schedule cleaning as a long-term goal. “I encourage people to be bold,” Vanderkam says. 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.