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When Ellany Lea was a teenager, her calendar was jam-packed. Most of her schedule was devoted to charity work, helping at home, leading school clubs, and earning straight As. She didn’t have free time. “I had no way to discern what was a priority,” she recalls. “Everything that everybody else wanted and expected of me was a priority.”

Her solution? “I became hyperefficient at fitting everything in.”

Overwhelmed and exhausted at 18, Lea awoke one morning feverish and unable to bend or lift her arms. She was hospitalized for four days, and though doctors couldn’t come up with a diagnosis, she’s certain she was suffering symptoms of burnout.

Lea’s case was extreme, but many of us can relate to her overwhelming, overscheduled days. Adding to the stress of our crammed calendars is the realization that we’re committing to activities that may be out of step with how we really want to spend our time and live our lives.

The cost of our overstuffed schedules and half-hearted commitments is borne by our health, relationships, and peace of mind. Nonetheless, many of us try to solve the problem — as Lea once did — by trying to become even more efficient and productive, rather than by cutting back and creating space.

Perhaps we do this because many people see busyness as a badge of honor and a symbol of success in our current culture. An article published in the Journal of Consumer Research, based on a series of studies, noted that busy people are perceived as having a higher social status than their less-frazzled peers. Or, as “life hacker” and professional organizer Andrew Mellen suggests, maybe our cluttered calendars help us avoid things we don’t want to face: “namely conflict, intimacy, money, mortality, and being uncomfortable.”

Some people feel so uneasy when they’re idle that, according to several studies, they would rather give themselves electric shocks than spend six to 15 minutes alone with their thoughts. Neuroscientists aren’t surprised: Every time we engage in activities that our brains perceive as productive — checking our phone or email, or even actively worrying — we’re flooded with dopamine.

For Mellen, author of Unstuff Your Life!, learning to free up a cluttered schedule is a matter of importance and urgency.

“You’re going to get to the end of your life, and you’re either going to be satisfied or dissatisfied,” he cautions. “What difference do you want to make? What impact do you want to have? What choices do you need to make to live a life of meaning and significance instead of sleepwalking through it?”

The following strategies can help you start clearing your calendar so you have more time for what matters to you.

1) Identify Your Core Values

Before you can decide what should stay on your schedule and what should go, you must identify what’s important to you. “If your values aren’t crystal clear,” says Mellen, “you’re likely making decisions counter to them in the big picture, because you’re instead focused on short-term comfort.”

Recalling moments in your life that were particularly sweet — instances when you felt most alive — can help you identify your core values. Create a short list of the beliefs that those events illuminated or honored and assess whether the activities on your current calendar (and opportunities that may arise in the future) align with it.

Then, when you set your sights on specific life goals, such as more traveling or volunteering, try to clear your schedule of activities that are of “no value or consequence to you,” he says. This will open up time to dream, prepare, and pursue the items you find most meaningful.

Identifying core values can be especially helpful for creating cohesive work teams and families, Mellen adds. When everyone participates in the process of recognizing what’s important to the group, each person becomes more committed to those values. That group alignment simplifies scheduling decisions.

2) Take Inventory of Your Schedule

To get a better handle on your time, you need to know how you actually spend it. “Track everything you’re spending your time on for a week,” says Mellen. “Record everything you do, including eating, biobreaks, commuting — all of it.”

You can use a stopwatch to clock each activity and jot down the time you spend on a tracking sheet. Or you could chronicle your days in a personalized journaling system like a bullet journal, which is designed to help you record things you consider important. (For guidance on getting started with this journaling method, go to “Life Log: The Bullet Journal Method.”) You could also color-code activities on a digital calendar or use a time-tracking tool such as Toggl.

“The process will open your eyes,” Mellen says. The numbers often reveal a story about your time use that’s completely different from what you imagined. This is especially true of those who linger online, he notes.

“People think they are ninjas with their internet skills. They think they’re slicing in and out. In fact, they go link to link, wandering around aimlessly in the world’s biggest shopping mall for hours.”

At the end of each day, reflect upon your activity and consider what’s working and what’s not. If you determine you’re not spending your time in satisfying ways, you can choose to do things differently.

3) Create More Open Space

Several years ago, to overcome the need to always be busy, Lea — now a success coach — started dedicating a full week each month to “scheduled spontaneity.”

Her first experience was an epiphany. “I had a two-hour lunch with a friend rather than eating at my computer and found freedom. I went for half-day leisurely strolls along the seawall and found peace. I went out on a date to watch the sunset from a boat and found radiance,” she says. “I had no idea that time was meant to be enjoyed — and that I was allowed to enjoy it.”

That revelation inspired Lea to start blocking time on her work schedule to focus on single tasks without interruption. In her personal life, she began making choices based on her identified values of freedom, peace, and joy.

When her clients report out-of-alignment schedules, Lea has often recommended a “freedom week” to reset their relationship with time. “Cancel everything in your calendar for just one week,” she advises. “Tell people you can’t make it, with no justifications and no excuses.”

This is a great way for some people to learn how to reclaim their time and transform how they schedule it in the future.

Even if taking a whole week off isn’t possible, small changes can be just as powerful, Lea maintains. For example, schedule regular chunks of Web-free time and restrict social media visits to brief periods each day. You may find these little windows open opportunities to relax, see a problem in a new way, or redirect energy toward the things in life you cherish most.

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This originally appeared as “Calendar Cleanup” in the April 2018 print issue of Experience Life.

Karen Olson

Karen Olson is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.

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