Prioritizing time to do things for yourself will not only make you happy and keep you sane, but it will probably also make you more efficient when tackling the less fun aspects of your schedule and to-do lists. We talked to some experts to break down how you can wade through the chaos and carve out some much-needed me-time.

1. Step Back (For a Second)

Figure out why you want more free time. You’ll be more motivated to change if you have a specific goal.

Make a wish list. Write down all the activities that you long to do more of―whether they’re things that make you happy, relaxed, sane(r), or all three. Rank the items in order of importance to you, then pick one or two to focus on. (Once you get the hang of this system, you can address the rest.)

Now write down how you really spend your time. If it’s all one make-lunch-carpool-run-around-like-crazy blur, keep a detailed diary for a few days. You might be surprised by how little time you spend doing things you love most. The key question to keep asking is, “Are you spending your time on the right things?”

2. Give Up What You Can

Consider this: Devoting more time to what you love can help you get more done overall. Research shows that to be productive and creative, you must make time for recreation and relaxation. Trying to skimp on them hurts your motivation and often leads you to procrastinate.  Plus, being a little selfish will keep you from becoming burned out or cranky. To find ways to free up time, take a look at your list of current activities and ask yourself four questions:

What can I delegate?  Hand over that task and you’ve got 10 minutes to spend on something more fulfilling. If you’ve reflexively been handling most of the household duties, turn some of them over to your spouse. Try similar strategies at work: Give junior staffers assignments that stretch their capabilities rather than doing the job yourself.

What can I outsource? House Cleaning is an obvious answer, but also think about things like tutoring for your kids. Before you decide you can’t afford this, scrutinize your spending. Chances are, there’s a way to reallocate your resources. 

What can I do less well (at least sometimes)? When something you’re working on is good enough, stop. It’s a waste of time to do everything perfectly, such as polishing the underside of the banister. Instead, focus on doing the important things adequately.

What distractions can I limit, if not eliminate?

Shut the door. Seriously. If you have work to do, make it clear that you need to be left alone.

At work, check your email only twice a day,  and use the auto-response feature: When you’re swamped, direct e-mailers to an assistant or, with his or her permission, a colleague. At home, give your phone a rest.

As for TV, watch an episode of a show you love, then turn off the set. 

3. Reschedule Your Schedule

Now that you’ve freed up precious minutes, decide how you want to spend your energy.

Establish one or two “non-negotiables” and work your schedule around them. For example, eight hours of sleep a night, two hours of exercise a week, or one night out for fun.

Create your daily to-do list on an index card. Write down only what you can realistically accomplish in a day―three to five items. Then make sure at least one item from the top of your wish list is part of your weekly plan. Yes, that means writing in “30 minutes on the hammock with my book.”

Schedule a quick and brainless task first. This lets you cross off something right away and start the day feeling accomplished.

Schedule your most onerous task second. Whether it’s a difficult conversation with a friend or a tedious email to a colleague, plan to get it over with next. 

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