It’s that time of year: Spring cleaning. It’s an annual tradition that goes back forever, and most of us get a piece of the action. Seven in ten Americans participate every year.
You can find countless spring-cleaning checklists, tips, and shortcuts. But most of these lists miss the messiest part of our lives: our to-do lists.
Nothing gets filled up with useless odds and ends like a calendar—too many urgent but unimportant activities; yeses to other people’s projects; past commitments that don’t fit present circumstances; breakfast meetings, lunch meetings, and dinner dates with clients, colleagues, and old friends you were never close with to begin with.
Between work, kids, friends, church, and our own desperate need for sleep, there aren’t enough hours. We get 168 a week, but it usually feels like we’re trying to get by on half that.
Time to clean this mess up. The good news is that there are really only five steps to finally find and protect the breathing room you need.
1. Clarify your priorities
We do what we value. Sometimes we identify pursuits—downtime, family meals, weekend rest—as priorities. Meanwhile, our late-night emails, drive-through windows, and hectic Saturdays tell a different story.
Spring cleaning your to-do list starts with reflecting on what matters most to you. Is it achieving a major goal, completing a key project at work, spending more time with loved ones, pursuing a new hobby? If it’s all of the above, how do they rank?
Once you determine what you truly value, you can honestly assess what’s worth doing and what’s not.
2. Triage your task list and calendar
Once you know your true priorities, you can start cleaning up the rest. There are three aspects to task-list and calendar triage:
- Protect the basics by ensuring you have enough time reserved for essentials.
- Eliminate everything that doesn’t fit your current list of priorities.
- Defer and reschedule all the important-but-not-urgent stuff that remains.
You’ll probably face some costs to reassessing—especially when looking at what to eliminate. But if you follow through, you’ll also experience major gains. Remember, you’re trying to clear space for what matters most of all. FOMO is real, but it’s not worth very much.
3. Create a Not-to-Do List
To keep your to-do’s clean, you need a list of to-don’ts. The triage work you just did will help you build this list pretty easily. You’ve already identified your priorities, along with activities that distract you from those priorities.
Flag any questionable activities or commitments that might come up again. Include meetings in your inventory. Now scan the list for anything significant enough to officially declare that you won’t do or attend it in the future. Place those items on their own list under the header “Not-to-Do List.” Simple as that.
4. Create your Ideal Week
Now that your to-do’s are clean, it’s time to create some structure that will allow you to keep your schedule in order. The long-term win is not just fewer commitments; it’s having the right commitments.
Given your priorities, what would your Ideal Week look like? You can download our Ideal Week template to get started. You can also get your calendar and start blocking time accordingly. This is your opportunity to start reserving time for what really matters.
Use your Ideal Week to help you plan meetings, time for projects, downtime, and more. Courtney Baker and Joel Miller recently talked about how to use an Ideal Week on the BusinessAccelerator podcast.
5. Manage your sanity with a well-spoken no.
Once we’ve cleaned our task lists and calendars and established the order we so desperately need, we have to maintain what we’ve cleaned. The most important tool for that task has only two letters. It’s the word no.
Try this on for size: “I’m sorry. I’d love to, but to honor my existing commitments, I’m going to have to say no.”
You can word it a hundred different ways, but a response like this does a lot of work. Not only does it convey respect to the person making the request, it also protects the time you’ve reserved for yourself and other people that matter in your life.
A well-spoken no serves to keep the clutter out and protect the space you’ve already cleaned. And don’t forget: You have to use this step on yourself. Stand up for yourself and your priorities by telling yourself no when you need to.
Don’t let this season get away from you. More importantly, don’t let it run away with the life you deserve and want to live. Spring clean your to-do list and reclaim valuable margin for the things that matter most of all.
And if you need a little motivation, just ask yourself: What would reclaiming your time make possible for you this week?
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