An experiment in unplanning
Or, more ways to add space to your days
I love planning. I love making lists, updating my calendar and adding things to my to-do list app. And I’m good at it: I seem to be one of those people who intuitively know how much time something will take. I pretty much always stick to my plan (and yes, more than one person in my life has told me that they find this annoying).
But over the past couple of months I’ve been embracing unplanning. I’ve been emptying my to-do list app. I’ve been making fewer lists.
I know that this is probably counterintuitive, especially in light of all the productivity advice out there. We’re supposed to plan! If we don’t plan we don’t…succeed? Are not “productive”?
Today I want to share my experiment with you, and invite you to try it as well.
Receive more tips, strategies and inspiration like this in your inbox.
There’s a sort of tipping point when it comes to lists and planning and schedules. At some point, the plans and lists no longer help to combat the chaos. They no longer create a feeling of clarity. They become restricting and suffocating.
I like to call myself a recovering productivity-ninja. Part of that recovery has been recognizing that my making of plans and schedules doesn’t always serve me. It’s been recognizing that even though I might in the past have wanted to be a robot who got done whatever was on the list, I no longer want to live this way.
Making this change from productivity-ninja to someone who lives and works with her energy, seasons and rhythms has taken years (and it’s absolutely not always easy). I am a hundred times more in tune with my body, my mental health and needs. Unplanning has been the last frontier when it comes to dealing with productivity culture.
See the thing is, plans and schedules and list can be great. They can provide clarity and structure, and help us stay on track.
But what happens if you’ve planned to write a newsletter on Tuesday and once Tuesday rolls around you feel tired, drained, overwhelmed, or when something else in your life might prevent you from doing the task?
The me of ten years ago would’ve told myself to suck it up. That me didn’t believe in inspiration. She believed in sitting down, no matter what, and doing the work.
Plans and schedules and lists can be great. But they can also be suffocating, overwhelming and restricting.
Looking back I realise that I was afraid. I was afraid that if I didn’t stick with my plan and schedule things wouldn’t get done. I wouldn’t write the newsletter. And if I wouldn’t write the newsletter, then I might not do other things either.
On top of that, if I didn’t write the newsletter on Tuesday, when was I supposed to write it? I had such a thought-out schedule that there was no room on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or any other day to write the newsletter. It had to happen on Tuesday (and don’t even think about not doing it at all).
In dealing with some mental health challenges over the past year, I’ve been confronted once again with the impossibility of making plans when you’re unwell, dealing with a chronic condition, or with any other unpredictable things in your life. If “pushing through” leads to a flare up of symptoms or to deep pain and misery, it’s simply not an option.
But what about my lists? And my schedules? And my plans? How was I supposed to live with my energy and rhythms yet still look forward, and make plans for my business, for my part-time teaching job, for quality time with J, for garden projects and more?
How do you combine following your energy with making plans?
This is where unplanning came in.
Unplanning: the deliberate and intentional making of loose plans to create room in your days, weeks and months.
Unplanning in practice
Unknowingly, I had already taken a first step in unplanning when I started working more with project lists rather than to-do lists.
On a project list, I still write down all the steps. And I’ll add a due date if there is one. But rather than forcing myself to do something on a certain date, I check in with projects lists regularly, picking and choosing things as I feel drawn to them (the me of ten years ago thinks that this approach is horribly frivolous and irresponsible).
Unplanning started with taking a really good look at the things I planned. I’d already let quite some things go by putting them on my project list, but some things seemed resistant to that approach.
I want to send out a regular newsletter twice a month. So, I’d need to sit down twice a month to write it.
When I work with a mentoring client, I prepare our calls. This preparation needs to happen by a certain date: by the time of the call.
In my part-time teaching job, I teach every Wednesday. I need to prep those classes—before the class takes place.
Unplanning started with finding the flexibility in plans and schedules that seemed most resistant to my project list approach.
When I took a good list at these things, I realised that there was some flexibility in them.
For instance, I aim to send out a newsletter twice a month, but there have been months without a newsletter. Or with just one. More importantly, there is absolutely no need for me to write the first newsletter at the beginning of the month and the second halfway through the month. I can write both of them at the same time. If I wanted to, I could write them months in advance! So newsletters are on their own project list now, which I check in with regularly.
When it comes to client calls, I have flexibility here too. There’s no need to prepare a client call the day before the call. I usually have at least one week between the moment of booking and the actual call, leaving me with an entire week to do the preparation. Since I check in with my calendar for the upcoming week every Friday, I’ve not yet been surprised by a client call that I need to prepare last minute.
The same goes for teaching prep. I have a lead time, as it were, between now and the class I’m teaching on Wednesday. I really enjoy preparing these classes, and can do so any time in the weeks before the class. Some weeks I’m ahead a couple of classes in terms of prep. In other weeks, I’m not.
Practicalities aside, this approach is giving me so much freedom. I’ll probably always need a structure of some kind—that’s just how I’m wired. But the structure is a lot looser now. I have actual breathing room. And I’m leaning into the trust that things will get done even if I don’t put them on my to-do list with a date attached to it.
Take a moment to think or journal about these questions:
Where and when do you feel the pressure of your plans and schedules?
Take a good look at your plans: what really needs to happen on a certain day? Can you do it earlier, or later? Can you leave yourself a little bit of breathing room? What can you unplan?
Can you trust yourself that things will get done? If this scares you, start small with just one project or task.
More inspiration: many of the small business owners I interview on my blog touch on how they add more space to their days, and more room to follow their energy.
a book | Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety* scratches the itch in me that craves stories that span decades coupled with stories about writers and academics. I loved rereading this (affiliate link).
an interview | Steph Walstead recently interviewed me for her Rise and Ground Substack. You can read my answers here + I’d encourage you to browse the archive, filled with interviews with inspiring people.
a guest post | Katie Sadler works with authors around their marketing, and she asked me to write a guest post for her blog on marketing without social media. This is a topic I’m passionate about!
tea | I have to admit that I’m more than a little sceptical about all the “product”-advent calendars that are sold every year. But I can’t resist this tea Advent calendar, with 24 bags of glorious Betjeman & Barton tea.
undergrowth: I love reading Alice Vincent’s writing, and her recent post on her garden, happy abandonment and letting go is particularly good.
What’s on your favourites list this week? What makes you happy, personally and in your business? Do leave a comment and join the conversation.
A focus + follow-through session gives you my support when you need it without the long-term commitment.
Clients have used these sessions to make a plan for the next steps in their business, reviewed their marketing strategy with me, gained focus on the boundaries they need to set and more.
a 60-minute call, followed by a 30-minute accountability check-in a few weeks later
£150 | €170
I also offer packages of calls + the occasional special offer—find all the latest details on my website. I look forward to supporting you as you create a slow, gentle and profitable business.
Do you have your own version of unplanning? Or are you going to give it a try? How do you feel about using plans and schedules in business and life? I’d love to know!