When I taught high school English, I had to be in class by 8am, teach according to my schedule, and fit in lesson planning and grading around that.

Almost anyone who works for someone else will have their own version of this — meetings and deadlines and emails that structure their days.

Schedules are not inherently bad, don’t get me wrong. They are especially necessary when hundreds of students and teachers need to share a building, collaborate on projects, and take school buses together.

But inevitably different stakeholders’ needs vie for attention and I often felt pulled in different directions. Fitting it all in wasn’t the hard part; it was my ability to maintain my energy and productivity that was eventually compromised. I’d meet that student after school or attend that meeting during my planning period, only to become too exhausted at the end of the day to play with my kids or call a friend to catch up.

The scary part? It took me years to notice.

After all, from the moment we start elementary school, the slow rhythm of the endless days of childhood ends. By the time we’re in middle school we write down our homework in an agenda and cross out items as they’re done. We soon discover the “hit” we get from crossing off multiple items on a to-do list and become addicted.

And that “hit” is very real. Dopamine is released when we do anything pleasurable, including crossing something off a to-do list. And so we quickly learn to do more of that pleasurable thing, even if it only gives us short-term pleasure and comes at the expense of something bigger and more real.

Fast forward to my current gap year. It’s been a return to childhood in some ways, an “unlearning” of those early lessons in productivity. It’s a different kind of high now, a slower, longer, more constant euphoria. Rediscovering the feeling of being in the zone, being truly present, have reframed what it means to be productive. No anxiety, no adrenaline, no rushing.

But at the start, as I first embarked on this gap year, it didn’t look like this at all. The first thing I noticed was my deep sense of needing to have a schedule, a routine.

But my body struggled. Which in turn caused me frustration and shame … Was I undisciplined? Unproductive?

Not to mention overwhelmed — there were just too many things I wanted to do! I’d identified 3 main projects for my gap year; and of course had a long list of things I wanted to do in addition, including exercise, time for friends, time for reading … time for my house, my kids …

It seemed that I was so used to facing a never-ending list of projects, of always having something looming, that here I’d gone and made sure I was going to be just as “busy” as when I’d been working full time for someone else.

But as time went on and I felt my way around in the dark on this one, things VERY slowly shifted and settled and began to take shape. The results surprised me, and my days and weeks now look nothing like I thought they would.

What I noticed was a pattern, or a rhythm, of alternating periods of inward focus, outward expansion, and physical activity. Periods of creative productivity and fertile voids. Weeks where I didn’t leave the house at all, offset by a day or two where I was hardly home.

I realized my body had been rebelling against the schedule, the level of productivity, the workload I had been trying to subject it to. Could it be I was addicted to busyness?

Following my intuition, I started to educate myself.

The three principles around which I now base my “schedule,” which I probably shouldn’t call a schedule at all, are as follows.

1. Holistic Productivity Expectations:

Circadian rhythms explained why I was less able to focus and write in the early afternoon. Since I only wanted to “work” while my kids were at school, I could realistically only expect myself to write from 9 a.m. until noon.

Instead of spinning my wheels staring at a computer screen in the afternoon, when it is difficult for me to focus, I now exercise, do housework, run errands or meet friends during that time.

2. Letting Go and Embracing Minimalism:

Once I realised I was only going to devote about three hours a day to “work,” I was able to let go of lots of shoulds. I ended up dropping one project all together; and put another one on hold.

And I stopped trying to get the house tidy before I sat down to write, knowing doing so would be “stealing” from my most focused and productive time of day. I now leave the kitchen an untouched horror until lunchtime, when I swoop in to clean up the breakfast dishes and the mess from making school lunches earlier that morning. I don’t even go upstairs to tidy up, do laundry, or anything else that may tempt me with its chaotic disorder.

Doing less really did result in me doing more.

3. A Little Bit of Hedonism, or Gut-checking:

This is perhaps the foundation of it all. And be warned: it only works if what you want is truly aligned with your life’s values and goals. But since I am crystal clear about my goals, projects, and how I’m going to get there, as well as how I want to feel each day (thank you Danielle LaPorte and Desire Mapping!), I never feel anxious or guilty about missing a day of “work,” allowing a great conversation with a new friend to run its course or to spontaneously go for a walk. The old me would have been checking the time anxiously and cut the conversation short, or gone without the walk so that I could do the things I “should” do.

Your turn:

What shifts could you make in your daily routine to maximise your productivity and minimise frustrations?

If you are completely honest, what to-do list items would you love to drop?

What would you really like to be doing each day?

Head over to my blog and let me know in the comments.

And if you’ve found this useful, please share it with a friend! I’d be extremely grateful!

Originally published at cecilepopp.com


  • Cecile Popp

    Educator, Writer, Mother of three, Canadian expat living in Turkey

    Cecile Popp is a Canadian educator and writer living in southern Turkey. For over a decade she taught English Language Arts at Turkish high schools, most recently at Robert College in Istanbul, where she worked for seven years. Now, seeking a quieter life, she has returned to the south to write and work on other projects, most notably a memoir about her Baltic German grandparents. Her YouTube channel, From Canada to Adana, features visual essays about her life in Turkey. She lives in Adana with her husband and their three sons and teaches at the university.