I’ve been following time management and productivity guru Laura Vandkeram long before her viral 2016 TED talk, “How to Gain Control of Your Free Time.” Our first books came out in the same year; we refer to ourselves as the “class of 2007” (though in other respects I have a few years on her!). Thanks to her obsession with understanding how successful people manage their time, Vanderkam has developed a deep understanding of why time can feel both abundant and scarce. Her latest book, Off the Clock: Feeling Less Busy While Getting More Done, is a tiny gem that feels like a distillation of everything she’s learned.
Her insights are smart and backed by research; Vanderkam has analyzed thousands of time diaries kept by people of all ages from all walks of life. And her approach reminds me of the movement away from dieting to wellness. It’s about fundamentally changing our relationship to time, rather than thinking about where to shave minutes here and there.
Exploring 2 Big Time Management Questions
As Vanderkam writes: “Time moves at different paces based on circumstances.” Her new book explores two powerful questions Vanderkam poses: “Can we alter our perception of time by interacting with it in different ways? And can we develop the skills necessary to make good times pass as slowly as bad times.”
Her work reminds me that our relationship to time is critical to anything we want to accomplish, whether it’s changing the world or enjoying a sunset. I’m keeping Off the Clock nearby, because I know I’ll want to return to it and be reminded of its lessons.
Recently, Vanderkam was kind enough to make time to answer my questions about time management and Off the Clock via email:
Marci Alboher: I’m persuaded by the stories you share about what people learn from keeping time diaries (especially the part about overestimating how much we work!). I still haven’t kept one because I fear I’d have to admit how much time I spend checking email and social media accounts. Any advice for those of us who get sucked into that always-checking cycle (whether my traps or others, like television or video games)?
Laura Vanderkam: The funny thing about time — or perhaps the depressing thing about time — is that it keeps passing whether or not we think about how we are spending it. So it’s easy to spend time mindlessly.
Social media checking, or other traps like TV or video games, are effortless, mildly pleasurable and mindless, so we tend to overspend time on these things. There are two ways to avoid this.
First, plan in fun and/or meaningful activities to your life. When you’re deeply absorbed in a volunteer project you’re passionate about, headline checking becomes less tempting.
Second, try to be a bit more mindful. I like to put my phone in airplane mode. I can still check headlines and social media alerts, but I have to go through an extra step of getting back online, and often that’s enough to make me ask if I really care.
So many of us wish we could read more books. But between keeping up with the news, magazines and reading for work, there never feels like enough time. You made a commitment to read more books and now you regularly read an astounding number. What’s your count so far this year and what’s made that possible?
I’ve read 40 books so far this year [through the end of May] so that’s about eight a month. Some are short, but that count includes Moby Dick, Ulysses and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. Last year, I read more than 120 books, including War and Peace.
What happened was that in April 2015, I decided to track my time for a year. I found that I read a lot — 327 hours, or nearly an hour a day! — that first year, but I couldn’t remember many good books from that total. I realized that I was telling myself I didn’t have much time to read, so I picked up whatever was easiest — generally magazines and clickbait articles. Once I realized that I did have time to read, I decided to be more mindful about it.
I built in book-planning time to my life; one great source of recommendations is ModernMrsDarcy.com and her podcast, What Should I Read Next?) I also put the Kindle app on my phone so I could use little bits of time to read instead of looking at social media alerts. I really did read War and Peace in those bits of time! (Tolstoy’s chapters are really short, so that works better than you might think.)
I interact with lots of people who are changing jobs and careers or wanting to give more time for a volunteer activity or a creative project. Often the challenge isn’t framed as time, but lack of energy after finishing a work day. What’s your take?
This is a real issue. Time is just time, but sometimes the confluence of energy levels and other people’s demands mean that some time is better suited for some things than others.
If you wait until the end of the day to see what time is left over for your creative project, well, my guess is that there isn’t going to be a lot of time left over. Or if there is time left over, you won’t have the energy to do much except watch TV.
I like to borrow some advice from the financial world: Pay yourself first. Anyone saving for retirement knows that if you wait until the end of the month to save what is left over, the sum might be on the small side. If you save first, though, somehow you’ll get through the month and you’ll build wealth at the same time. It’s the same thing with time.
If something is important to you, try doing it first thing in the morning. Maybe get up a little earlier and devote time to it. Or if you have some flexibility in your job, try going into work a little bit later.
Alternately, you might aim to do your project on Mondays when the emergencies of the week have yet to stack up.
And if none of that is possible? Know this: We do draw energy from meaningful things. So even if you don’t feel like going to volunteer on Saturday, you’ll probably be glad you went afterwards. Consider your remembering self, not just your experiencing self.
As a parent of four young children, you often focus on the particularities of that life stage — the tension between the tedium of certain kid-centric activities and the fleetingness of a beautiful moment. You’ve also studied the research on memories and what kinds of mental pictures we keep and lose over time. What have you learned about how time perception changes as we age and how we can add to the positive memories etched in the mind’s eye?
Most people think time moves faster as they get older. Time marches along at the same rate, so this is really about perception. As we get older, more of life is the same, day after day. When there is nothing to distinguish one day from another, whole years can start to disappear into memory sinkholes.
One way to guard against this is to consciously ask the question: Why is today different from other days? Plan in little adventures to your life. Stopping by a comedy club on Thursday night is going to be more memorable than going home and surfing the web until bed.
We can also make memories stronger after the fact by consciously tending to them. Get together with friends and family and talk about your memories. Study artifacts: old photos or songs that remind you of certain times. There’s nothing wrong with ‘dwelling in the past.’ It actually helps people feel like they have more time.
If you could ensure readers would take one key lesson from your book, what would it be?
I think time is precious and time is plentiful. People want to make good choices with time, but it’s easy to get so caught up in the busy-busy-busy narrative and feel like you can’t linger in good moments or try new adventures. Rather than say ‘I’m too busy,’ try walking around with the story that ‘I do have time for what matters to me.’ That little switch in worldview can really change everything.
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