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Off the Clock: Time Management with Laura Vanderkam
Our guest is all about time management and her name is Laura Vanderkam. She’s the author of several time management and productivity books, including Off the Clock. She’s also written I Know How She Does It, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast and 168 Hours. Her work has appeared in publications including New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Fortune, and so many others. She’s also the cohost with Sarah Hart-Unger of the podcast, Best of Both Worlds. She’s with her husband and her four children and she has an amazing blog at LauraVanderkam.com. Laura, welcome to the show.
Thanks so much for having me.
A lot of times I’ll interview people in different spaces where we can banter about different ideas and thoughts about productivity and time management. I’ve seen it. I’ve been following your work and we have a lot of similar thoughts in that. It’s not just about a time, as a matter of fact, it has nothing to do with that and it’s more about how we feel and how we show up for our time. I’m excited to talk a little bit more in-depth and get into your book, Off The Clock. One of the things that you said in your book or maybe it was on a blog that I read, is that we have this culture of being busy. Tell me more about your thoughts around this whole busy thing and how you go about to unwind being busy?
We do love to talk about how busy we are. You ask people, “How was your weekend?” They’re going to say, “It’s the same as usual, busy.” “How’s life?” “Busy.” It basically means fine, which is funny if you think about it. The state of being fine is defined as having a great deal to do. What we’re trying to say is, “Everybody wants a piece of me. I am just that important.” Saying we’re busy is a nicer way of saying that. The issue of going around talking about how busy we are is that we start to believe it. We start to believe that we don’t have time for the things that are important to us, how people are running themselves and be like, “I’m so busy at work. I’m so busy with my family. Of course, I don’t have time to read or exercise or volunteer or anything. I’d love to, but I am so busy.” I’ve seen thousands of people’s schedules at this point. People track their time. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t have some time that can be used for personal goals if they want. It’s just about being mindful about figuring out some strategies and fundamentally about believing that the time is there because we look for it.
I know when I want something, like I want to go to a concert, I move hell and high water to get there. We know we can do it if we want to do it. It’s all excuse. Busy is our excuse.
In my speeches, I tell a story often of a lady who was tracking her time for me. The particular week she was doing this, her hot water heater broke leading to their being water all over her basement. It’s one of those great, wonderful homeownership woes that happens. Her time dealing with this, with the immediate aftermath of finding water all over her basement and the plumbers and everything else, it winds up taking seven hours of her week, which is a lot of time. It was like finding an extra hour in the day because if we talked about this at the start of the week, “Let’s find seven hours for going to that concert, finding seven hours for training for a triathlon.” Most people would be like, “I cannot find seven hours.” If there’s water all over your basement, you’ll find seven hours. The time is there if you truly need or want to find it. It’s just about having that sense of urgency about things that are important to you.
I think that’s an important point, the sense of urgency about the things that are important. What do you think is the difference between priority and a sense of urgency that you bring that up?
The two are together and certainly making something a priority in your life means actually getting into it with this sense of urgency. That doesn’t, of course, mean that things that are priorities in your life will look like an exploding water heater. They’re usually not going to look like that. They’re going to look more in the sense of investing time and important relationships or maybe doing professional development work, taking care of your health. These are all things that are long-term and very important. It’s just that none of them are screaming until you get a health scare or until somebody you thought was your work allies suddenly doesn’t like you anymore. Then they become urgent. The question is how can you treat them with that sense of urgency prior to them actually melting down.
We have to schedule our priorities first because otherwise, we know we just never get to them, especially when they’re those long-term things for sure. You’ve interviewed thousands of people, you’ve taken so many different people’s time logs and you’ve looked at them. It’s almost an obsession with time management and time logs. What created all this? Where did you decide, “I’m going to invest much of my time and energy in and around time management?”
I started studying people who seem to have a good grasp of these things. The more I did and the more I studied the various time data that is out there, the more I saw that time is one of those topics where I think a lot of us have it wrong. A lot of the common wisdom about where the time goes is just wrong. People are not working more hours than they were in the past. They feel that they are, but they’re not. People are not sleeping less than they are in the past. In fact, the amount of sleep that the average American gets has gone up in the last fifteen years. Nobody believes that, but the time diary data is there. People have gobs of leisure time, it’s just mostly spent in front of the television.
Do you think that the sleep has been affected in terms of the quality time because you know that’s what’s being deteriorated with the distractive nature of TV?
People have fallen asleep in front of the TV since TVs have existed. It’s always been in that sense, distracted. I think the actual rise and sleep is more related to the aging population. The slight rise is related to the average age going up and as people get older, sometimes there’s more sleep involved in their lives. The idea that Americans are increasingly sleep deprived is actually not true. We get interested in these figures during certain periods of our lives, which may feature a little bit more time constraints. It’s like the idea that parents have no leisure time. They most definitely do. People form their impressions of parenthood when they are plunged into parenthood, like when they have a baby. When you have a baby, you actually don’t have that much leisure time. You have some, but you don’t have very much. That mental model is still there even as the kids grow up and as more time starts to open up, you’re still like, “I have no free time whatsoever.”
Lower your expectations to exceed your expectations. Click To Tweet Any value or any belief system, we develop it from when we’re a kid too. It’s how do your parents relate and talk about time, just like how they relate and talk about money or relate and talk about anything. Then that must influence us as to how we grow up in and how society is organized around it as well.
The time when people have small kids is when they feel most crunched for time, especially if people are working and also have small kids. Those are the people who do tend to feel most they don’t have time. If that’s your impression from growing up, you will remember that.
I’m thinking because when I first had my kids, I felt like actually I had more time. We took naps together. Maybe it was just my mindset and that’s why I think maybe it had a little bit to do with what I thought about time beforehand. If I wanted to work out, I would work out with them. Like I do sit-ups but I sit up into them or where they’d be like on my knees or something. It’s how you’ve organized yourself before you get to that point also plays a big role in what happens when you’re there.
There are lots of ways you can combine it. The honest truth is you could run a marathon, you just have to decide to do it and make logistical arrangements. Which maybe it’s not a priority to do, but you can decide one way or the other.
When people do all these tips and tricks, we’re tool crazy. In a lot of the work that I do, people are like, “Tell me the latest tool.” I’m always like, “First of all, one tool isn’t going to work for everybody. Second of all, it’s not the tool. Every tool works. It’s a matter of whether you’re going to consistently use that tool.”
If you use it, that matters a lot.
Usually, we’ll use it for a little while and then we’ll stop with the continued behavior. If there was one thing that you said that people could change their relationship with time, what would it be for you?
For me, I like tracking my time. I have tracked my time continuously for a little over three years in half-hour blocks. I don’t check in every half hour. I check in three times a day and write down what I’ve done since the last time I checked in. It’s been amazing for me. Most people who track their time, even for just a week, get a very different sense of where the time goes. We’ve been telling ourselves again, all these stories about where the time goes. When you actually have to spell out where the whole 168 hours go to, you learn a lot about your life. You learn a lot about how time feels and what could fit or couldn’t fit. I think that a simple time log would be the biggest tool for you.
Some people use time tracking apps. Personally, I don’t. I just have a spreadsheet I like to use. The reason is that it’s the issue with all productivity apps. The more apps you have on your phone, the more interesting your phone is and the more likely you are to pick it up again to look at your productivity app. While you’re at your productivity app, you’re like, “Let me go check Facebook, let me check Instagram, let me go check Twitter. Let me go check the headlines.” Next thing you know, you have gone down this 45-minute internet rabbit hole. Your productivity app would have to be good to make up for that internet rabbit hole that you just fell down from checking it.
Productivity is getting what matters to you done. Click To Tweet You’ve got to avoid the temptation and if you’re putting yourself back into temptation each time, that’s setting you up for a challenge. There are probably people that think, and I know that I thought this for a while. I think tracking is important. If you think about weight loss, they’ll tell you to track what you eat, what you drink, and all of that is to give you greater awareness. There are a lot of people who they go, “Yes, but.” That but comes out in terms of it’s time-consuming. It requires a significant commitment in order to do that.
I don’t think it does. I think that’s an excuse. People are like, “I don’t have time to track my time,” which is patently false. People don’t want to is what it is. It takes me three minutes a day. That would be 21 minutes a week. You’ve got 29 minutes somewhere. It’s like the amount of time I spend brushing my teeth, which is an activity I’ve yet to see fit to question.
You don’t hear people saying that because they’re part of their rituals.
I think it’s that people don’t want to, and the reasons they don’t want to are numerous. One of them is, “I’d feel constrained.” If it makes you feel constrained, it’s like one week, it’s not the rest of your life. I’m not saying do this for three years like I’ve done. Sometimes people track their time for work and so it’s got these bad associations with them of like having to bill others in minutes or something. It’s one week, and it will help you see where your other time goes so you can treat it with that level of intensity that you do those six-minute build increments at work.
I think the biggest reason people have the resistance to it though is that they know it’ll just show how much time they’re wasting. That’s the honest truth. They don’t want to face it. They don’t want to face, “I was on Instagram for two hours looking at photos of other people.” There’s nothing wrong with doing that per se, but I just don’t like the disconnect of people being like, “I’m so busy. I have no time for anything. I need to spend my time better. I’ve got to figure this out. I don’t want to track my time,” but you find the two-hour Instagram under looking at things.
We all do waste time. Once we just get that out of the way, we all waste time. It’s not about saying, “You waste all this time.” It’s about being mindful, being aware of it so that once we have the right stories, we’re telling ourselves about our time, then we can say, “I have some leisure time, it is not as much as I want, and it tends to come at times where it’s very hard to use it. That’s why I’m using it to scroll around on Instagram because I have no energy. I’m tired, I’m hungry.” Those are problems you can then start to address and say, “How can I reconfigure my time? Some of my leisure time appears at times I am prepared to seize it. At times that I could do something, I enjoy with it. I could spend it with people whose company I enjoy. That’s the more useful question I think comes out of tracking your time.
I think that it’s easy for us to get caught up in our excuses because it gives us the excuse not to take ownership of what’s going on. It’s easy to complain and all of that. It’s one of the things that I talked to people about, is to take a look at what their excuses are and own them. Instead of saying, “I don’t have the time, it’s not a priority for me.” At least you’re honest with yourself.
I’m not saying you have to say that to anyone else, “You’re just not a priority for me.” Knowing that is the truth of it is an empowering position to be in. There are all things that might not be a priority for you in life. I could certainly see that there are phases of life, maybe exercise is not a priority for someone. Reading is not a priority for someone. There could be an intense period at work where the family is not a priority for you. There may also be times where your family is needing a lot, and work is not a priority for you. There are all kinds of reasons. They can be very good ones. It’s not a pejorative thing to say. Not having time means it’s not a priority. It’s just about acknowledging that we pay attention to what we wish to pay attention to. If we’re not, there’s probably a reason and we should just make sure we’re okay with that reason.
Not having time means it's not a priority. Click To Tweet One of the other things that I liked about what you had in your book is talking about expectations around time. Tell us more about your point of view on expectations and how they impact our relationship with time.
We all have the same amount of time. Our relationship with time and how abundant and relaxed we perceive it to be as largely about what we expect to be able to do with any given unit of time. If you have ten items on your to-do list and you do seven, you feel bad. If you had three items on your to-do list and you do five things, you feel awesome. All it is in one world you did less than the other, but you feel much better about it. It’s all about calibrating your expectations to where reality is. As part of that, I believe that we need to lower our expectations for shorter units of time. What you can do on any given day is limited. The flip side of that is what you can do over the long haul is amazing. You underestimate that. Like somebody who could be writing a book a year and it seems like a very prolific author to write a book a year. Let’s say that’s an 80,000-word book. What they’re thinking is 50 weeks. That’s 1,600 words a week. I can write 400 words Monday through Thursday. Writing 400 words is nothing.
It’s what you send in emails to schedule a meeting at 10:00 on Tuesday, there are 400 words in there. You just do that and then you do it the next day and you do it the next day and you keep going and at the end of the year, you have your 80,000 words. 80,000 seems like a lot. You’re not going to do that in a day, but if you just commit to writing the equivalent of a few emails every day and just keep going. Lower your expectations in the short run and that will allow you to achieve big things in the long run.
I love that because I think that we do put a lot of pressure on ourselves. In my book, I talk about the swing between procrastination and perfectionism. I think there are a lot of people, I know myself, I swing to the perfectionist side. I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself to do more and to set high expectations. Of course, I go to procrastination because I can’t live up to my own standards and expectations. It’s crazy eight type of a flow. I think that I found also in relationships, in everything that we do, if we can reduce the expectations that we have, the happier we are going to be. It only makes us more rules and expectations to live up to make it more difficult to meet them.
Everything in life involves some degree of settling. Click To Tweet The issue is that of course, people are like, “I don’t want to settle.” “Why not? We settle all the time.” If you think about it, everything in life involves some degree of settling. In terms of relationships, do you honestly think that you are the best friend ever? Probably your friends are settling to have you as a friend in their life? Are you the best spouse ever? No. Your spouse is on some degree settling for you. You’re probably not the best, whatever your profession is, your employer is on some degree settling on you. We’re just doing the best we can. Once you get that in your head, it’s liberating. We settle all the time.
You can even look at it like that. From my perspective, I don’t necessarily see it as settling either. If you have them and you don’t need them, then maybe it’s settling. If you just eliminate them, not all, you have boundaries where you say, “This is a must and must not.” These are the boundaries. Instead of all those rules that go in between, they give you this space, you’re just having the must and must-nots. Somebody has to be honest, those things that are show-stoppers, and then it’s how somebody expresses their love. It doesn’t have to be that they call me at 7:00 in the morning every day or I get a text message before bed. Sometimes those are the rules, they’re so tight and we do that with our time as well. I like the idea of how freeing it is to let go of expectations. I never thought about it around time. That’s a cool thing that I’ll be taking away and thinking about, is what kind of expectations am I putting my time.
Lowering expectations is a great way to exceed them.
We’re coming to the end of our time together. I know I’ve already said the tools are not the most important thing, but is there some type of app or tool that you personally get the most out of, that if you only had one you’d use this one?
Honestly, it’s probably Google Maps because that’s how I get around, or Uber. These are not productivity apps, but there are things that are actually useful in your life. That’s what I see. Something like Uber has made a life for people who travel for work and somebody like me to different places to give speeches. I could never leave the hotel other than going to the venue like whatever the transportation was because you’re outside of New York or downtowns in big cities, there are no cabs. How are you going to go anywhere like you go to a restaurant and you can’t get back? That’s a game-changer.
What’s your definition of productivity?
I think that productivity is getting what matters to you done. Whatever that is that matters to you, it could be work related, personal related. Hopefully, it’s a bit of both. It doesn’t mean that you managed to fold all the laundry while dictating something, all your emails and getting exercise at the same time by pacing and play. That’s not what it’s all about. In fact, many people who are incredibly productive have a lot of relaxed, open time because they’ve chosen not to fill it. They’re doing what they intend to do at that time. If you’re doing what you intend to do, then I’d say that’s pretty productive.
Is there anything else that you wanted to share with the audience?
This has been great. Thanks for chatting productivity with me. I always like to talk about the topic.
There’s so much more to talk about as well. Your book has a lot more tips and tricks for people in terms of how, for instance, spending time with family can actually make you more productive. That’s just a little teaser for people who are listening to go get that book, Off the Clock. Is there one that’s better than the other that they should go to?
Come visit my website, LauraVanderkam.com. I am still blogging. It’s like 2006 over there, blogging four times a week. I just come up with ideas and I want to share them. You can come visit me there and read about productivity and family and I post notes on my own podcast up there. Please give a visit.
Thank you so much for being here and thank you all for being here. All the guests who are investing your time so that you can learn more tips, tricks, and hear from great people like Laura Vanderkam on Take Back Time. I’ll see you in the next episode.
- Laura Vanderkam
- Off the Clock
- I Know How She Does It
- What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast
- 168 Hours
- Best of Both Worlds