314: How to Feel Less Busy With Laura Vanderkam

By June 27, 2018Podcasts

 

 

Laura Vanderkam gives her expert advice on feeling less busy, getting more done, and giving more value and meaning to your own time.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How those who feel their time is “vast” spend their day
  2. How to draw more energy by acknowledging the three selves
  3. How to stretch your experience of time

About Laura

Laura is the author of several time management and productivity books, like Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done, I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. Laura’s work has appeared in publications including The New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalUSA TodayCity Journal, Fortune, and Fast Company. She has appeared on numerous television programs, radio segments, and has spoken about time and productivity to audiences of all sizes. Her TED talk, “How to gain control of your free time,” has been viewed more than 5 million times. She is the co-host, with Sarah Hart-Unger, of the podcast Best of Both Worlds.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Laura Vanderkam Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Laura, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Laura Vanderkam
Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
First I want to hear about this story behind you singing at Carnegie Hall.

Laura Vanderkam
Yes, I included that as my odd thing about me. I’ve sung for many years in various choirs. I lived in New York for quite a while. One of the things that is sometimes an opportunity is that a choir might do a show in Carnegie Hall, either an orchestra needs a choir for a bit or a singer needs a backup or sometimes choirs will rent it out.

I had a couple of those different experiences where I’ve been able to sing in that amazing space.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, multiple times. Excellent.

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah. It’s really about proximity and then also taking up these opportunities. It’s a beautiful place to sing.

Pete Mockaitis
I have to ask, it’s so corny, but did you ever ask anyone for directions to Carnegie Hall and did you get the old joke response?

Laura Vanderkam
I believe that I have in the sense of I would get into a cab and say, “Please take me to Carnegie Hall,” and then somebody guffaws.

No I’m – it’s the same – you live in New York for a while, these things that are sort of cultural touchstones elsewhere, you realize are not necessarily. I used to think like Broadway – oh Broadway is this mythical place. Then I realized it’s a street and a district is named for a street.

It’s more that certain theatres are associated with being high-end first run plays and all that and so those are considered being on Broadway but it’s not like they’re only on Broadway. They’re on various streets around there as well. Yeah, you learn these things.

Pete Mockaitis
So the cab driver didn’t say, “Well, the only way to get there is practice, practice, practice?”

Laura Vanderkam
Is to practice and also that I’ll drive you there and you pay money.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, understood. Established. Well, tell us about your latest book. You’ve got several and this is your latest. It’s called Off the Clock. What’s the big idea here?

Laura Vanderkam
Off the Clock is about how to feel less busy while getting more done. In essence it’s about how some people who have a lot going on in their lives still have this sense of time freedom. They feel like they do have time for the things they want to do. They feel like time is expansive, that’s it’s not slipping away from them, that it feels good.

I wanted to learn these people’s secrets. What are they doing with their lives? What are they doing with their hours? What can the rest of us learn from that?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so fascinating. You use the term a lot time perception. Can you sort of define that in terms of how you think about it, what it looks, sounds, feels like as well as how you defined it precisely in your research?

Laura Vanderkam
Time perception is just what it sounds like, how you perceive time. Time obviously keeps moving along at the same rate regardless 24 hours a day, 168 hours a week. But you think about different times of our life feel very different.

Maybe like a week of summer camp when you were 12 felt very, very long, whereas for most people as adults, this past week probably didn’t feel that big for you. You may have very few memories of the past week of what makes it stand out for you more than anything else.

But it’s also about whether you feel like you have the time for the things that you want to do, like whether you feel in control of your time, whether you feel present or distracted, whether you simultaneously feel like time is rushing by too quickly at times and that also you spend a lot of time wishing minutes away.

That’s an unfortunate aspect of time perception. Many people are sitting there in a boring meeting being like I really wish it was 11 o’clock already. Time slipping from one side of the hourglass to the other and sometimes we’re trying to shove it along even more quickly.

Time perception in my research though had a more specific definition. I recruited for Off the Clock 900 people who had full time jobs and who also had families to track their time for a day. Monday, March 27, 2017 was the day. They recorded what they were doing on that day and then answered various questions about how they felt about their time.

These were various questions like “Yesterday, I generally felt present rather than distracted,” or “Yesterday, I generally felt I had enough time for the things that I wanted to do.’ Also questions about their life in general: “Broadly I have enough time for the things I want to do,” “I spend time in ways that make me happy,” various questions like this.

People get scores. They answer on these from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Assign those a one through seven point scale. The people at the high time perception scores were the ones who strongly agreed with various statements of time abundance like that. That they felt like they had enough time for the things that they wanted to do. People with low perception scores felt the opposite.

Then I could compare the schedules of people who had high time perception scores and people who had low time perception scores and see how their lives were actually different.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so what’s so intriguing there is it sounds like for the – more or less the amount of actual quote/unquote free time that they had was probably somewhat comparable, like they do have full time jobs and they do have children and spouses to tend to. They’re sort of in a similar band there.

Yet, I’d like to get a sense from you just how much of a spread was there between their time perception. If you’ve got a one to seven, did we get the full gamut there? We’ve got some full blow one’s and full blown sevens?

Laura Vanderkam
Pretty much yeah. People who are down in the – close to the single digits, probably not exactly in the single digits. With anything like this very few people put ones or sevens on everything. That’s one of the reasons we give so many options. In general, most people like to be in the middle.

But there’s – giving people seven allows them to have the degrees within that. People will give you a two or three answer. They will give you a five or six. Those are different. Most people won’t say a one or seven regardless.

But there were people who felt pretty bad about their time. Then there were people who felt pretty awesome about it too.

They were all sort of objectively the same amount of business. It was interesting to see what wasn’t different. Pretty much everyone in the sample worked somewhere between seven and nine hours on that March Monday, which makes sense. They all have full time jobs. That’s pretty much what a full time job means. All had various family obligations and such.

Yeah, we’re not talking a huge range in terms of what time was available. Some of the differences were really in how they spent that discretionary time.

People who felt like they had a lot of time, for instance, were more likely to do what I kind of consider higher quality leisure activities, things like actively getting together with family or friends, reading, exercise, doing various, what I call sort of memorable activities. They’d have little adventures in their evenings, more interesting than one might think for a Monday night.

Whereas the people who had low time perception scores were more likely to spend a big chuck of that time watching TV or being on social media or other such electronic ways of spending time.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so fascinating because wow. We do have the same hours in a day, just sort of the nature of the planet and the sun and how that works and yet the perceptions are vastly different. You can find that link there between their perception and the actual activities that they were engaged in.

It sounds like it wasn’t so much that the folks were reading or getting together with friends for more leisure hours than those who were on social media or TV hours.

Laura Vanderkam
No. The times themselves were not appreciatively different because, again, yes, we all have 24 hours in a day. But it’s just what you choose to do with this time that you do have available to you.

If you think about the time before you go to bed, many adults even those who are raising children have some quantity of leisure time before they go to bed in the evening. What do you choose to do with it?

It turns out that if you spend that time on Facebook looking at photos of people you didn’t like in high school anyway, you feel like you have less time. If you spend that time actually talking with your spouse or calling a friend or reading a book, that those are all sort of activities that make you feel like I’m the kind of person who has the time to do these things. That’s where the high time perception comes from.

Pete Mockaitis
Fascinating. Can you share a little bit in terms of – it certainly sounds more pleasant to operate in a world in which you perceive that you have enough time, but could you maybe unpack that all the further in terms of what are the advantages of having a high time perception?

Laura Vanderkam
Well, in general, you’ll probably be happier because feeling rushed and harried is obviously associated with high levels of stress and that’s no fun for anyone.

But it’s also about being effective because when you feel more in control of your time, then you’re more likely to spend it in ways that are meaningful for you. The people who felt like they generally had time for the things that they want to do, this is not particularly surprising, but they were highly likely to report that they had made progress on personal or professional goals in the previous 24 hours.

When you feel like you have enough time, you feel like you can allocate it to things that matter to you. That’s what people were doing.

Whereas when you feel like time is just getting away from you, like you have no grasp on time, then you don’t feel in a powerful enough position to allocate those hours to the things that are important to you. Sort of just react to what’s coming in.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so it’s intriguing the specific uses of time, what folks were doing and how that played an impact or a role. I guess I’m wondering how does one cross the chasm there if you have a low time perception and you’re feeling like, “Oh my gosh, I don’t have enough hours in the day to handle everything,” to becoming one of those joyous folk who think that they’ve got plenty of time.

Laura Vanderkam
Well, that’s the goal of the self-help book. Those are the strategies I try to share in this book is what were these people doing differently because it’s one thing to tell you that yeah, some people perceive time differently than others, but that’s somewhat not helpful for anyone who would like to live a fulfilling and rewarding life.

There are seven strategies that I identified that people with high time perception scores were more likely to use. Just a few of them, just if people are thinking about this like what I can I do more immediately.

One thing is figure out where your time is actually going. I know that sounds like maybe something people don’t really want to do, but keeping track of your time is one of the best ways to see well, here’s where it’s actually going and then you can ask do I like this/do I not like this.

Being able to make that decision with good data allows you to make changes in a way that’s more effective than if you’re just sort of operating from various stories like, “Oh, I have no time for anything.” Well, if you are telling yourself you have no time for anything, it’s hard to do anything about that.

But if you track your time and say, “Oh, well I see that I was watching TV for two hours in the evening and I keep telling myself I’d like to read more. Maybe I could read for an hour and then turn on the TV. Wow, that’s an interesting idea.” Then it turns out you will probably feel like you have more time if you are willing to make a change like that.

One other finding that was somewhat surprising but was definitely there was that the people with the highest time perceptions scores were highly likely to do kind of interesting and out of the ordinary things even though this was a very normal March Monday that they were recording.

One person who responded to my survey had actually gone to salsa dancing lessons. That was on her time log for the evening. Somebody else went to like a big band concert on this Monday evening. There’s even more pedestrian stuff, like going to a movie on a Monday night or meeting a friend for a drink or taking the family to the park after dinner instead of sitting around watching TV.

Choosing to do interesting things with your time makes you feel like you’re the kind of person who does interesting things with his or her time. Again, that’s a thing that makes you feel in control, it makes you feel like you’re in a good place with this and can expand your experience of time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess where I think maybe the rubber meets the road in terms of am I going to watch TV or am I going to read a book, am I going to browse social media or am I going to get together with a friend, I think in those moments – well, one I guess it’s just kind of planning ahead in terms of you have a plan and you’re going to meet somebody.

But I think the other one is often just, “Oh, it just seems like so much work. I’d be so exhausted to change and leave the house and do this because I’ve just been beat down,” or whatever. It seems like the energy factor is huge in terms of what do folks think they can even handle taking on and doing say on a Monday evening. Do you address that perspective?

Laura Vanderkam
I do. I think what you need to realize with that energy question is that the self – please stick with me. People are going to turn off the podcast here. But I think this is an interesting point. The self – various psychologists have looked at this behavioral thing, but there’s really three selves.

There’s the part of you that is thinking forward to the future, so the anticipating self; the experiencing self, which is what you are feeling in the here and now, going through life; and then the remembering self, which is the part that is thinking back to things you have done in the past.

These are all three part of us, but the issue – and I quote this philosopher saying this is that we pamper the present like a spoiled child. We pay very much attention to our experiencing self, which makes sense. It’s how we’re going through life. But it’s really only one actor in what should be three-actor play.

Our anticipating self and our remembering selves are the ones who want us to go to salsa dancing lessons on a Monday night because it sounds awesome. When we get back we’ll be really happy we did it. Nobody ever exercises and is like, “Gosh, that was a horrible idea.” It feels great once you do it. Meeting your friends at the class, hearing the great music, it’s going to be awesome.

But you have to get yourself in the car and go do it. That’s when your experiencing self throws this temper tantrum like, “No, I don’t want to.”

What you really have to do is this idea of plan it in, do it anyway. You will draw energy from meaningful things. If you are not completely and totally exhausted, like you have some energy, like you could maybe walk out to your front door or something as opposed to being just completely passed out on the couch, if you could get yourself that far, probably you could make yourself do it.

If you think about how the other versions of yourself would react to this and pay attention to them, sometimes that can nudge you to pay a little bit less attention to the experiencing self.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, that is just a master key for life right there. Wow.

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah, paying attention to how you feel right now is not actually the best way to go through life because our physical bodies are not always happy to move, but then you’ll never do anything.

You’ll do only effortless fun, which is the TV and web surfing and you won’t do the effortful fun, which is getting together with a friend, which is going to the salsa dancing lesson, which is even just going for a walk with your family. These are things that they will be great once you’ve done them, but you have to make yourself do them.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s interesting in terms of just the anticipating part. You’re right in terms of you can draw energy from remembering, “Hey that was a cool thing that happened. Yeah, I’m glad I did that,” as well as, “There’s a cool thing that’s happening soon. I’m looking forward to that.” Then it sort of even making the present experiencing self a little bit more fueled to begin going there.

I’m sort of visualizing just a very beautiful virtuous cycle or a vicious cycle in terms of whether you start to build in some great stuff versus you are just always sort of devoid of great stuff in doing the low effort fun.

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah, because it’s the effortful fun that we really have the memories of. It’s the difference between looking at photos on Instagram of other people’s dinner parties or having your own dinner party.

They are both ways you can spend your leisure time. One obviously takes a lot more effort than the other, but one is going to be a lot more fun than the other. One will make you very, very happy, will create great memories, you can look forward to it, you can remember it afterwards, you will enjoy it a lot at the moment, but you also have to invite the people and get the food to your house.

That takes effort, but effortful fun tends to be the fun we remember.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, can you tell us about some of these other practices such as lingering?

Laura Vanderkam
Lingering is about being able to stretch the present. It’s not about enjoy every minute. You can’t enjoy every minute. Plenty of minutes in life are just not actually enjoyable. But you can choose to enjoy the enjoyable ones more and to sort of linger in their happening and thus stretch the experience of time.

Part of that is about the anticipating and remembering of it. If you plan stuff in ahead of time that you know will be enjoyable, you can look forward to it and that kind of makes it bigger in your mind.

You can also attempt to be fully present during the experience itself. You can note that you’re having fun. There’s a certain mental thing. It’s not enough to have fun; you want to be aware that you’re having fun. You can tell other people that you’re enjoying yourself. You can make sure you’re remembering details.

Then after the fact, you can tell people about your fun or journal about it or whatever you want to do, look through old photos because that makes the memory come back and then you experience the pleasure a second time. All of these things can make any given unit of time seem more vast by making it more memorable.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s interesting as you sort of unpack this, it seems like maybe one easy way to get started and have your cake and eat it too could just be looking at some of your photos. You don’t even have to change out of your pajamas to do that.

Then in looking at those, it brings back a memory, like, “Oh, yeah that was really cool.” Then it also provides kind of a nudge and inspiration for, “Hey, I should do some more of this stuff.” It kind of gets the train in motion.

Laura Vanderkam
It does. People talk about dwelling in the past as being a negative thing and I don’t think that’s the case at all. This is how we create our stories of who we are. This is a big part of our identity is what our past is. We can nurture this relationship with the past as well to make it more of this living thing that helps us through the present as opposed to something that’s kind of just buried in a dusty drawer somewhere.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really cool. I also wanted to get your take on people on a plane who are doing Facebook, how does that rub you?

Laura Vanderkam
Well, you do you. But it’s one of those – if you’re traveling, probably most of the people on the plane in the middle of the week are traveling for work. These are busy people. They’ve got a lot going on in their lives.

They’re probably the kind of people who are saying, “Oh, I never have time for X, Y, Z. I don’t have time to read. I don’t have time to think. I don’t have time to relax. I don’t have time to take a nap.” Well, the plane provides opportunities for all these things. You’re there for three hours. It’s relatively quiet or it can be if you put your headphones on.

There’s generally very few distractions if you don’t choose to then get the Wi-Fi and start checking Facebook. It’s a great time for that kind of focused work that people say they never get a chance for. Or if you’re not comfortable working on the plane for whatever reason–it’s a great time to read. You can make it through a great book in the three hours you’re in the air.

Using this time intentionally as opposed to just using it for the same thing that people use their bits of time for the rest of their lives is a great way to actually feel like you have more time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you have a great line. I don’t know if it’s an original or if you’re quoting a third party here. You say, “The fear of boredom is a waste of time.”

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah. The original impetus for that came from a great novel. Edith Wharton, she’s best known for The Age of Innocence or Ethan Frome. But she has a book that most people I guess haven’t read because it went out of print at some point, but it’s called Twilight Sleep.

The heroine of this book is this bustling, productive woman. This is 1920, so it’s a different sort of productivity that we think of now. She is basically terrified of having an empty hour. She will fill it with whatever she possibly can just to avoid this sense of having to think of everything.

I think that happens for us too. If you think about why you reach for your phone when you’ve got a few minutes. You can tell yourself, “Oh look at me, I’m being productive. I’m deleting email,” but there’s nothing coming in you really need to delete at this moment, especially if you looked at it ten minutes ago. It’s not – there’s nothing there. It’s just that we don’t actually want to sit there and be bored.

That’s fine, but there’s other things you can do with little bits of time that might be more meaningful or enjoyable and help you feel like you actually do have more time than when you have leisure time, you chop it up into these tiny bits through checking your phone.

Pete Mockaitis
I want to talk about the tiny bits and the phone piece because you successfully read the entire book War and Peace I understand primarily using the Kindle app on your phone. Is this true?

Laura Vanderkam
That is true.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s wild in terms of because when-

Laura Vanderkam
People are going to tell me that my eyesight’s got to be going from doing that, but it was little bits here and there.

Pete Mockaitis
Well because I guess that’s sort of – we talk about the energy piece, I think sometimes when I – just even conceiving reading War and Peace sounds huge, epic, massive, and then taking a moment to read some.

I guess my brain goes to this place and it’s probably false, so set me straight here. It’s like, “Oh boy, War and Peace, that’s pretty intense. That’s going to really require a whole lot of cognitive capability from me. Got to bring some good, smart energy.

I probably can’t do this in a three-minute bit to make tiny bites of progress to finish it because I’ve got to remember where we were before and sort of get into the scene and the characters and the picture that’s being painted and the themes and all that.”

How do you think about to what extent is it really manageable and doable to chop up something into tiny bits and to have that work out for them?

Laura Vanderkam
Well, the great thing about Tolstoy is he does it for you. People think of War and Peace as being this huge, intense, long novel, and it is very long, but the chapters are actually very short. If you look at the print book, most of the chapters are two to three pages.

In fact, it’s a book that lends itself incredibly well to reading on say the Kindle app in five minute spurts while you are waiting for a phone call to start, while you are waiting for a bus, while you’re waiting for your kid at soccer practice or whatever because these chapters are literally five-minute reading material.

There are a lot of them, but they are very, very short, which it’s one of the ways that Tolstoy keeps the story moving along, but he’s a very good writer. There’s a reason this book is still around as opposed to it being disappeared into the ash heap of history as they say.

First I would say it’s not as intimidating as it might sound. You could read it in those five-minute chunks. But if it’s not War and Peace, you could read a poem in five minutes. That’s a unit of itself. Load a book of poems on your Kindle and then read one when you’ve got five minutes. If you like it, read it again the next time you open it. If you weren’t so cool on it, move to the next one.

But using those little chunks of time for reading poetry as opposed to deleting J. Crew ads that have been emailed you just feels entirely different.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Tell me more about how you would articulate the distinction in terms of J. Crew deletion versus reading a poem.

Laura Vanderkam
Well, one is really doing nothing for you I guess is the best way to say it. Deleting email feels incredibly productive. I know. The reason is that what gets measured, gets done. Who knows if we made progress on our most important personal and professional goals today, but I know for sure that I got down from 150 unread messages to 75, so yay, go me.

Whereas, many other things do not lend themselves so easily to numbers, so it’s harder to necessarily feel productive doing them.

But poetry takes the brain to great places. It’s how we can see things that we wouldn’t have brought our minds to before, great emotions, ideas in history or that real people have gone through or memories. It can evoke memories if we have something similar to what it’s getting at. Just taking the brain into a completely different and higher level than making sure the inbox goes from 150 down to 75.

If you want to view it in terms of productivity, I don’t know if poetry lends itself to productivity, but I do know that giving our brains space to think about bigger things is often where we start to get good ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. That notion that sort of there’s a theme associated with those who have high time perception is that they’re doing things that are kind of unique and broke up the monotony. A poem, I think it’s very clever is that that’s a short way that goes about breaking up that monotony.

One thing I do – it’s kind of weird, but I don’t care I love it – is I will take a short break and sort of go to my backyard and jump on a trampoline for just a couple minutes. That is kind of like the opposite of being at a computer in terms of I’m standing, I’m bouncing, I’m outdoors. It’s very quick.

Sure enough, there’s something to that notion of doing something that is just the opposite or very much different on multiple dimensions than the baseline.

Laura Vanderkam
That’s a great idea. One of the things I talk about people should do is planning in breaks during their days in order to manage their energy.

What happens is people are like, “Oh look at me. I’m working all hard. I’m working through lunch. Look at how productive I’m being.” Then around 2:30 – 3 o’clock in the afternoon they’re reading the same email six times in a row and then falling down some sort of internet rabbit hole because their brain needs a break and they’re not taking one, so the brain forces the issues.

Whereas your trampoline break hits on all sorts of different dimensions. A) You’re outside, so getting fresh air adds to most people’s energy levels. You’re getting physical activity, another thing that adds to most people’s energy levels. This is a great way to just – whatever you were depleted from before to recharge yourself so you can get right back to work.

Pete Mockaitis
You had a nice turn of phrase about we’re often in denial about taking a break. What does that look like in practice and how can we break better?

Laura Vanderkam
Well, if you think about most of these social media breaks that people take during the day, a lot of those are kind of these fake breaks. But you think you’re still being productive because look at me, I’m still sitting at my computer. If somebody walked by, it looks like I’m still working.

But no, you are not. You’re on whatever thing. You’re reading headlines that are not remotely associated with your job. It’s just you need a break from whatever it was you were doing, so you go over and do this other thing that is sort of effortlessly pleasurable and is a break. But then you don’t consider it a break.

It’s not actually all that rejuvenating either. It doesn’t necessarily add to your energy levels to read headlines. Often it takes from it. It makes you stressed out about whatever is going on in the world.

Better to take a real break, to go jump on your trampoline if that’s what you do or go read for five minutes, read something real away from your screen or go outside or have a cup of tea or whatever it is, but go talk to a work friend whose company you really enjoy. Do something that is a true break because then you’ll be able to come back to work restored.

The fake breaks just don’t do that. Then we’re still dealing with the low energy levels afterwards.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a personal take on work time versus break time, the right rhythm intervals, flow ratio there.

Laura Vanderkam
I don’t know. There’s been various studies and people trot out – in the productivity world in trying to find what it is. I would assume most people couldn’t go more than 90 minutes before taking some sort of break. In many cases it’s probably less if it’s more intense type of work.

You can kind of make yourself do it to a degree by drinking a lot of water and you have to get up and refill your bottle or go to the bathroom. Those are all ways to kind of force yourself to get up and stand.

But I think it’s less time than you might thing. If you’re trying to work straight through in the afternoon, like 1 o’clock to 5 o’clock probably you’re not being as efficient as you would be if you put a break somewhere in the middle of that.

Pete Mockaitis
I want to make sure before we kind of shift gears to your favorite things that this time diaries approach, I think that it’s easy to start to do and fail if you’re trying to take an honest account and inventory of how you’re spending your time. What are your pro tips, best practices for executing this well?

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah, I’m a bit of a time management freak. I’ve actually been tracking my time for more than three years continuously now, which nobody else needs to do. I’ll put out there. But I do think it’s good to track your time for a week to see where it really goes.

I use just a spreadsheet that’s got the days of the week along the top. It’s got half hour blocks along the left going from 5 AM to 5AM, so if you think about the week, it’s 5 AM Monday to 5 AM Monday in half hour blocks.

I try to not to be perfectionist about it. I just check in three – four times a day and write down what I was doing since the last time. It’s okay to just put stuff like work, hangout with kids, eat dinner, drive to store, sleep, read.

The goal is not being so granular that you get every bathroom trip every time you went to the kitchen for whatever. It’s more that you broadly see where the time goes. Just doing that, even with those sort of fairly broad categories, it can still be enlightening.

I know in my case, I was spending a lot more time in the car than I thought I was because I usually work out of my home office when I’m not travelling for speeches or things like that, so I don’t have a daily commute, so time in the car wasn’t really registering to me as a category of my time and yet when I looked at my time logs it was a pretty big category of my time.

That’s good to know because I was just listening to the radio. I don’t even really like top 40 radio, but that was what was on, so I really needed to think about how can I spend that time better.

Pete Mockaitis
With the spreadsheet, is it just kind of in the background? Do you just click open the window from time to time on your computer or your print out and write in it, color coding, highlighters? How does it go down?

Laura Vanderkam
There’s no color coding. It’s on my computer, on my laptop. My laptop does tend to travel with me, so it’s not something where it’s ever gone very far. Because I have the home office, it’s there on the weekend too, so I can just stop in and write it down.

For different people you might want to do different things. Time tracking apps might be useful for people who don’t have a situation where a laptop is very accessible to them big chunks of the time.

You can just use a notebook too. If you want to write down during the week what you’re doing on your work computer and then on the weekend sort of write it down in a notebook and fill in the log when you come back on Monday for instance. That would be a good sort of compromise between those things.

It’s really what works for you and don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I get people sending me these time logs that are in 15 minutes and they’ve color-coded everything in order to have certain categories that they want to be mutually exclusive and comprehensively exhaustive. It’s like, “Ah.” You don’t have to do that. It’s good.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s so funny. When you say MECE. I am a former strategy consultant. You’re talking about a spreadsheet.

Laura Vanderkam
Yup, I’m glad you got that.

Pete Mockaitis
So I am thinking, “Okay, once I’ve collected the data how do I go about working with it.” I would imagine … pivot table.

Laura Vanderkam
You don’t actually have to produce a pie chart. Okay, you don’t actually have to produce a pie chart, which means that your categories don’t actually have to be the MECE acronym.

It’s fine just to say, “This is the amount of time I spend in a car.” Maybe, “This is the amount of time I spent watching TV,” or “This is the amount of time I spent reading.” If there’s a big chunk of multitasked time, that’s okay. It’s just good to know that too. You don’t necessarily have to try to categorize it per se.

Pete Mockaitis
Very good. Well, Laura, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Laura Vanderkam
No, I think we’ve covered a lot of it. That was great.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool, all right. Then can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Laura Vanderkam
I actually put a ton of quotes in Off the Clock just at the start of every chapter. But one of my favorites was at the absolute start, the introduction. Mary Oliver, who is a poet. Most people know her line of, “What do you want to do with your one wild and precious life.” I’m misquoting that. That’s not my quote.

But she has – in one of her poems she has this line, “I look upon time as no more than an idea.” I really like that, that time is something we can maybe think about as an artist might use her materials as opposed to this kind of steady drumbeat marching toward doom. Having this sense of it as an idea you can kind of play around with is a lot more positive and implies that you can do a lot more with it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and the notion of an artist and materials is delightful. It just makes you think “Ah, what shall I create here?” It has a whole different feel. Yes, thank you.

How about a favorite study or experiment or a bit of research?

Laura Vanderkam
One that I find myself citing over and over again was done by Daniel Kahneman and Alan Krueger and a bunch of other people who are sort of known in the field of behavioral science and things like that. But they actually had people track through the day how happy they were as they were doing different things.

It was a study of like 900 Texas women as they went about a day. They would report if they were happy, if they were unhappy, what they were feeling at the time. You can see just this hierarchy of human happiness. As it turns out commuting to work is the low point of people’s day.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, but not if they listen to the How to Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Laura Vanderkam
Not if you’re listening to – well, that’s why you’ve got to listen to podcasts because anything you can do to take a minute that would be in this absolutely unenjoyable category at the bottom of human happiness and move it into something that’s actually more enjoyable. That’s a huge happiness booster right there. Yes, listen to your podcast, listen to great music and you’ll feel like you have more time.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Thank you. How about a favorite book?

Laura Vanderkam
I have too many to really say. I would say that the one I have reread probably the most frequently is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. It’s a short novel. It’s very lyrical. It’s just beautifully written. I’ve enjoyed reading it over and over again. I find something new every time. It’s one of those novels that can be reread and you see new things every time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, how about a favorite habit?

Laura Vanderkam
I am one of those crazy people who runs every single day. I’ve been doing that since December 24, 2016. I’ve run at least a mile a day. That’s a little over 500 days now.

A mile isn’t that much, so it usually doesn’t take me more than like 10 minutes. It’s pretty hard to tell myself I can’t find ten minutes to exercise somewhere in my day. But usually by the time I’ve done the first mile, I’m happy to keep going.

It’s been good in getting me to run more and thinking more strategically about when I might exercise because if you know you need to run the mile a day, the question is not am I going to exercise, it’s when am I got to exercise. Then that’s just about problem solving as opposed to motivation.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious what was it about that Christmas Eve that made you say today I run.

Laura Vanderkam
Today I run and I will not stop. It was nothing. It was more that I ran that day and then we were – I was off work. We weren’t travelling anywhere that particular vacation, so I wound up running I think seven days in a row. I was like, “Oh, I wonder if I just kept going. What if I continue?”

It was around New Years as well and people often have these New Year’s resolutions. I thought well, I’ll just try it for a while, see if I can run 30 days straight. Then I was like, “Well let me see if I run 60 days straight.” By the time you’ve run 60 days straight, you’ve pretty much worked it into your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Laura, is there a particular nugget or piece that you share that really seems to connect, resonate, to get retweeted when you convey it?

Laura Vanderkam
One of my favorite thoughts for people is any time you’re going to say, “I don’t have time,” substitute the language, “It’s not a priority,” because that’s probably actually more accurate.

Whatever it is, you’re saying, “I don’t have time to iron my sheets,” but if somebody offered to pay you 100,000 dollars to iron your sheets, you would do it. It would go up the priority list very quickly. It’s not about lacking time. It’s that you don’t want to do it. You may not necessarily want to tell other people that whatever it is that they’re asking you to do is just not a priority for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Your wedding is not a priority.

Laura Vanderkam
Your wedding is not a priority. But if it’s true, it’s true. Own this truth about your desires in life and how you wish to spend your time because usually this language puts us back in control of it. It’s not the universe keeping us down. We actually do have many choices.

Even if life is in many constrained circumstances, there’s often at least choices with small bits of time. Once we can start to see that, then often we can expand that sphere of influence over time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, Laura, if folks want to get in touch or learn more, where would you point them?

Laura Vanderkam
You can come visit my website, which is LauraVanderkam.com. I hope some of your listeners will check out some of my time management books as well. The new one Off the Clock is just out, but there are a few others. If you are looking for more time management titles, there’s a shelf full. I can hopefully help you rethink how you spend your time.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Laura Vanderkam
I think that being intentional about how you spend your time is really the most important time management tip. Don’t show up at work without having thought through what would make this an awesome day.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you will inevitably do that thing that will make it an awesome day. Stuff does come back, but at least having an idea of why this day will be special and memorable and amazing for you can help you be awesome at your job.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Laura, thank you so much for sharing this good stuff. It’s eye opening. It’s powerful. I wish you and Off the Clock tons of luck and success and sales and all that good stuff.

Laura Vanderkam
Thank you so much.

Leave a Reply