How to Simplify Your Schedule

New York City is one of my favorite places to visit. It's a magical city with countless things to do, places to explore, and, for a theatre-lover like myself, a plethora of shows to see.

If you've ever been to New York City, you know it has a certain vibe. Even if you happen to catch the city on a particular day where there doesn't seem to be much happening, you can still feel the hustle and bustle in the air. It's an almost palpable feeling that makes you understand why they call New York the city that never sleeps.

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Even if you don't live in a metropolitan area like New York or DC, if you're like the average American, busyness has crept into your life.

Growing up in the DC area, busyness wasn't just normal, it was expected. If you didn't have multiple extracurriculars on your schedule, then you were clearly doing something wrong. Weekends weren't made for resting — they were for debate and travel soccer tournaments, two show days and catching up on all the homework you weren't able to finish during the week.

When you grow up with busyness and an overloaded schedule as the norm, it can be hard to even begin thinking about simplifying it. Especially if you're a recovering people pleaser like me, all sorts of fears start to pop up. What if I let people down? What if they get mad? What if they stop asking me to come to things? What if they think I'm being selfish? 

But beyond all those what if fears, when life is so busy, it can be hard to determine where to even begin simplifying. How do you figure out what's important, what needs to stay, and what needs to go when you can barely catch your breath?

IDENTIFY THE PRIORITIES

It probably goes without saying, but simplifying your schedule will be near impossible if you aren't clear on what your priorities are. Is it time with family or friends? Health? Faith? Rest? Developing a new habit? Growing a business?

According to Merriam-Webster, a priority is "something that is more important than other things and that needs to be done or dealt with first."

Did you catch that last part? First. By definition, only one thing can be first, so having multiple priorities is somewhat counterintuitive to defining a priority in the first place. That doesn't mean you can't have multiple priorities, it just means you need to be clear on what is THE top priority and where the other priorities fall in relation.

In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown has you ask yourself one question — if you could only do one thing, what would it be? Where is your highest contribution to the world and how might the other things in your schedule be negatively impacting your ability to do that one thing well?

If you're having a hard time determining what your priorities are or what you want them to be, think about where you want to be when you're 80. What are the things you want to say you've accomplished? How do you want to have spent your time? Thinking about priorities in terms of your whole life often really puts things into perspective and makes it a lot easier to identify what's important.

Asking that question of myself, I immediately knew I want to be able to say I loved the Lord and I loved people well. There are other things I want to accomplish too, but those two goals ultimately take precedence over everything else.

LIST IT OUT

Once you've identified what you want those priorities to be, you need to get a grasp on how your current schedule and activities actually line up. To do this, list out everything you do on any given day, even down to the minute details. 

After you've gotten a list of all the things you do from day to do, categorize them according to those priorities. If something fits within one of your top priorities, label it as such. For all those things that don't obviously fit into one of your identified priorities, label it as essential or non-essential and consider what of those essential things falls into your top priorities, just in a less obvious way.

Let's take laundry, for example. Unless you consider your clothing disposable, it isn't something you can avoid. It simply has to be done and it probably doesn't naturally fall into one of your top priorities, particularly if you feel like all the time you spend doing laundry distracts you from doing the things you actually care about.

What if one of your top priorities is to love your family members well? Have you considered the fact that doing the laundry to ensure your family is dressed in clean clothes is a way of showing love to them? It might not seem like it first, but it is — especially if someone in your family has Acts of Service as their top love language.

DEFINE THE IDEAL

Now that you've got a better idea of how you want to spend your time and how you actually spend your time, it's time to think about how you want to spend your time in a bit more detail.

Instead of writing out the things you spend your time doing, outline your ideal week.

Looking at that list of priorities you made before, if you could set up your week in any way, how would you do it? When and how long would you sleep? What would your morning routine look like? How would you spend your days, afternoons, and evenings? 

It might not seem that helpful to define an ideal week, particularly if obligations to your family or your job make the ideal an impossibility, but it's still a helpful practice because it allows you to identify the gaps between your current schedule and your ideal schedule and then figure out how to close those gaps, even within the restraints of your current responsibilities.

For example, in your ideal week, you might get eight hours of sleep every day. If you have to be up for work at a certain time or have children who are early risers, then the exact hours might need to shift a little bit, but if health and the proper amount of sleep is a priority, that can still happen. 

The point isn't to totally flip your life upside down so you can have your ideal week. The point is to identify the small changes you can make to the life you're currently living to actually prioritize the things that matter most to you.

SET SEASONAL GOALS

If you're someone like me who has a lot of different interests and hobbies, setting a limited number of priorities can seem not just daunting, but near impossible. This is where seasonal goals come in.

I've always been a person with a ton of different projects going at any given time and I like it that way. I thrive on variety, so having my hand in a bunch of different pots at one time makes life interesting and a lot of fun. But depending on the season, sometimes I have to pull back from one project a bit so I can focus on another.

When you think about it, the thought process is natural. As the saying goes, "Nothing in nature blooms all year long." There are rhythms of rest and activity built into the very fabric of nature and you can build those same rhythms into your own schedule and priorities. 

If you're a parent who has children in school, you can potentially use the school year to ramp up on some of your own projects and goals, while taking a step back during breaks like Christmas and summer to really be present with your kids and prioritize family time.

On the flip side, if you're a wedding photographer whose busy season is the summer, then use that season to really strip down other commitments and responsibilities to focus on giving your clients the best experience possible. Then, when life slows down a little bit, you can adjust and set some goals for that new season of life.

BATCH YOUR SCHEDULE

Let's go back to those essentials for just a second. Things like laundry, cleaning the house, and updating the budget can be super frustrating when you're trying to simplify your schedule and make time for the things that are most important to you, but you can't neglect those things or you'd likely have a revolt on your hands.

This is where batch scheduling comes in.

Now, you might've heard of batch scheduling in terms of daily tasks like handling your email for a dedicated 30 minutes with no distractions, then an hour of something else, etc. Well, the same principle can work for your days and help make handling those essential but sometimes irritating tasks so much easier!

One of the easiest ways to do this is by designating a monthly duty day. Think through all of those things you have to do just once a month and designate one day a month to take care of them all. It might mean hiring a sitter for a couple of hours or spending the evening after work knocking everything out, but once it's done, it's done for an entire month!

You can also apply the same principle to your weeks by designating certain tasks for certain days. You can set certain days for laundry, cleaning tasks, or anything else that needs to be done on a regular basis. Once you get into a routine, it makes staying on top of all those little tasks that can pile up and feel like they're taking over your life so much easier!

DISCIPLINE YOURSELF TO SAY "NO"

Now comes the hard part. You can identify your priorities, define your ideal schedule, set seasonal goals, batch tasks, and more, but sooner or later, you're going to have to discipline yourself to say "no."

Chances are, there are things in your life that are going to have to go. Just like with physical clutter, organizing it better is hardly ever the solution. It's still clutter, even if it looks prettier.

The same goes for your schedule — those things that distract from your priorities and the life you want to be living are still clutter in your schedule, even if it's been organized to look and feel more manageable.

In the beginning, saying no can feel super scary. Especially if you've been a "yes" person for a long time. People will probably be disappointed. They might even get angry or frustrated or say unkind things about you. But remember that this is your life, not theirs. There will be someone else who can do the thing they asked you to do and it's not your responsibility to worry or stress about that.

But there's another element of saying no that we don't often think about — saying no to yourself. If you're like a lot of people, when you sat down and identified the things you do and the things you want to be doing, you might've noticed that activities like scrolling through social media or binging a show on Netflix take up a whole lot more time than you wish they did. This is where the discipline of saying no to yourself becomes crucial. 

In the end, it's your choice. You have the ability to decide what's important, what stays, and what goes. And it doesn't mean you can't ever spend time on social media or watch TV or whatever your time sucking habit may be. But you'll need to learn to set boundaries, to be intentional about only spending 15 minutes on Facebook instead of hours and only watching one episode on Netflix instead of five, allowing you to spend more times on those things that are important to you.

LEAVE WHITE SPACE

The most important element of simplifying your schedule is remembering to leave white space.

I'm a paper planner person and I've always loved seeing those pages filled up with activities and to dos. Emily Ley, the creator of the Simplified Planner (which is what I use), encourages everyone who uses the planner to leave white space — to not feel the need to fill up every hour of every day with activities and things to do.

Leave room for your heart and your soul to breathe. Leave room for spontaneity. Leave room for unexpected stories and adventures or for a day spent doing absolutely nothing. Those days can be just as productive as one where you check off an entire to do list.