Stretching your best moments so that they last longer sounds like an impossible task. So does ruthlessly eradicating the things that clutter your life and mind.
But that’s exactly what Laura Vanderkam wants to empower you to do.
Vanderkam isn’t trying to feed you some motivation about how you have to work hard, long hours and sacrifice your personal life for success. She’s the author of several time management and productivity books whose work has appeared in publications including the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Fortune, to name a few. Her TED talk on how to gain control of your free time has over five million views and she co-hosts the podcast Best Of Both Worlds.
When I told her our listeners want to get more time, she wasn’t surprised. Her take: “How we spend our hours has a big effect on how we live our lives, and anything we're going to accomplish is going to require putting time against it.”
When you think about your goals for the day, the week, the month, next year, or even your goals for life, you may experience an urgency to master time management so you can make it all happen.
But what is time management? I shared with Vanderkam that I don’t even like the phrase because of all the baggage associated with it. Her response? My disdain is totally understandable.
“What comes to mind [for many],” she says, “is trying to cram 30 more things into your day, which is really not the point. It's not about scheduling every single minute of your life or getting 10 zillion more chores done and all your e-mails answered by 2 p.m., or whatever it is.”
Sometimes doing more really does feel better, but it can also lead to burnout.
Vanderkam says healthy, sustainable time management is “about spending your time and your energy on the things that are most important to you—on the things that will help you achieve your goals in life.”
What Good Time Management has to do with Savoring
“When you approach it from that perspective,” she says, “you have a very different mindset about time. You stop trying to cram more, and in many cases, you start getting rid of things because you realize it would be more beneficial to have open space so you can think about things, or deal with situations as they come up, or linger in good conversations as they're happening”
She also challenges the idea that having a packed calendar is a badge of honor.
“People often like to talk about how busy they are and how much they have going on, which is a nice way to talk about how important we are. If the demand for our time is high, then we must be very important—that's why we're so busy.”
Of course, some of us associate a lack of scheduled activity with slothfulness. We don’t want to Netflix (or chill) all day. We want to live our lives intentionally and get things done.
Interestingly, Vanderkam’s research indicates that some very successful people have schedules with a surprising amount of open space.
“These are people who clearly could fill every minute if they chose to,” she says. “Certainly the demand for their time is there, but they choose not to. They choose to recognize that open space does invite opportunity into their lives because they have time to think—they have time to linger in good things and explore them and create new opportunities.”
She’s also studied the differences between people who feel relaxed about time—people, she says, who feel time is abundant—and those who are equally busy but feel time is more scarce and “getting away from them”...people who are starved for time.
One of her most illuminating findings:
“If you want to actually feel like you have more time, you need to create more memories and have this mindset toward having adventures in your life, even on normal days.”
Study participants who felt that time was more abundant were “doing things like going to salsa dancing lessons at night, or going to a big band concert, or going to a movie on a Monday night.”
More free time and spontaneity—isn’t that the opposite of time management?
Vanderkam acknowledges that for those of us who feel starved for time, adding in a dance class or buying tickets to see a show after a long day at the office might sound completely counterintuitive.
“[It] might seem a bit of a paradox, because committing to do stuff like that might make us feel we have less time. ‘I have something in my evening, therefore I have less time.’ But it turns out not to be the case. It turns out that by putting interesting things into our time, we make time memorable.”
She explains that when we make time memorable, we remember it. The same 24 hours we have in each and every day seem more abundant because, as she points out, when we invest in making memories, “we don't have this sense that time is just slipping from one side of the hourglass to the other.”
Make like a detective and see where your time is going.
If you want to spend your time better (and feel you have more of it), Vanderkam says the first step is trying to figure out where your time is actually going.
“This is another of those paradoxes,” she acknowledges. “I’m not saying, ‘Oh, people should feel relaxed and off the clock.’”
She wants you to know exactly where your time goes. “We have to pay attention to the clock first—before we can start feeling off the clock,” she says.
“One of the reasons people feel so overwhelmed and busy is they actually don't know where all their time is going.”
Vanderkam isn’t picky about what method you use. She says she keeps a spreadsheet. You could also consider using a time tracking app like Toggl if you prefer something more automated. Whatever you choose, aim to categorize your activity as honestly as possible.
Vanderkam (who obviously takes time tracking pretty seriously given that it’s the topic of her research!) says time tracking takes her about three minutes a day, which is approximately the same amount of time she spends brushing her teeth—“so not a huge commitment.”
Once you’ve tracked your time for a week, look at it and add it up. See how much time you are spending
In the car
And on any other important or regular activities.
Then, Vanderkam says, it’s time to ask yourself the important questions: “Does this seem right? How do I feel about this?” and “Am I spending enough time on the things that are important to me? Or maybe I'm skimping in this area, or I'm spending too much time in this area?”
These are questions most of us ask ourselves on a daily basis, but without time tracking, they’re nebulous and can become the source of anxiety and stress.
Time Tracking = Freedom
Vanderkam suggests that time tracking affords people freedom from the stories we tell ourselves about where our time goes.
“People have all kinds of stories they tell themselves about where the time goes,” she says, “which may not be true. We have a tendency to view our weeks where we're working in the longest hours as typical.
She says it’s not uncommon for people to think “Oh, I was at the office until 9:00 p.m. on Wednesday. Therefore, I'm working always 12-hour days,” and conclude that they work 70-hour weeks when, in fact, “every other day, you weren't there until 9:00 p.m. and there were breaks during the day, Friday you came in late and left quite early, and those weekend e-mail checks only added up to an hour, even though it felt more than that.”
In short, the reality check that comes from tracking our time can help us move on from a victim mentality (Never enough time!) to embrace a more fulfilling and memorable way of being.
Vanderkam shares that “looking at our time logs, we can get a better sense that’s not in this story of overwhelm, this narrative of catastrophe.”
Stepping back and looking at the numbers, we see can see “Well, actually I am spending a little bit more time in the car than I'd like. Are there ways I could scale that down? Or I'm doing more errands than I'd like. Are there ways we could start ordering stuff online?”
Or, “I seem to be at work longer than I wish to be because I get really distracted in the middle of the afternoon [and] go down some internet rabbit hole. If I maybe figured out how to manage my energy and take real breaks, then I could actually focus for the afternoon [and] get out at a reasonable hour.”
In summary, she says there are lots of things we can discover.
The Magical Ability to Stretch Out Time
So maybe it’s not magic, but the powers of awareness we gain when we commit to time tracking can work in tandem with scientifically proven means of savoring good experiences that—in their way—allow our brains to stretch out time.
Vanderkam says, “In psychology, it's fascinating to see how people can take tough moments and be resilient in them, but it's also an equally interesting thing to see how people can take good moments and make them feel deeper and last longer.”
Some techniques you can use?
Create anticipation. It’s not just that good things that come to those who wait.
Vanderkam says that when we know something good is coming up (like a vacation, a concert, or a great meal), “the anticipation can stretch the pleasure for quite a bit of time.” Essentially, you’re investing in your enjoyment of the experience and dedicating extra time to it by planning ahead and thinking about what’s to come.
Be fully present. When you’re in a good moment, don’t let your awareness wander off anywhere else. “Just notice details and think about how you might describe this to someone afterwards,” Vanderkam suggests. “If you have somebody there with you,” whether it’s a child, a date, or a travel companion, “talk about how much you're enjoying yourselves.”
Vanderkam says “actually calling that out to each other is a good way to remind yourself that you are enjoying yourselves, and to focus on that.”
Plan your weekends. Vanderkam says when helping people time track, sometimes they just stop on the weekends. “Did life stop then? It did not continue? What happened?” she asks.
She says “being intentional about our weekends is a great way to maximize our fun, leisurely, enjoyable time and make sure we're spending that in ways that are rejuvenating to ourselves as opposed to just spending the whole weekend on chores and errands, or else attempting to do nothing [and having that nothing turn into] stuff that we didn't really want to do.”
Don’t invite your phone to the party. Some of Vanderkam’s research involves reporting on time perception scores—a metric that assigns a higher numeric value to feeling satisfied with time or experiencing an abundance of time rather than a lack of it.
One of her most interesting findings: “People who had the highest time perception scores checked their phones about half as frequently as the people who had the lowest time perception scores.”
Do involve your senses. Our brains don’t rely on the white space on our calendars to determine how much time we have. Instead, they rely on how many memory units we’ve formed.
What’s a memory unit? Vanderkam says “If you think about the first day of a vacation, it tends to seem very long if you're traveling somewhere exotic because your brain has no idea what it needs to know, so it's remembering everything that you encounter.”
Of course, all that new input can make the day seem epically long (and worth retelling for years to come). The question Vanderkam asks is “Well, can you do that in normal life too...can you have new experiences, novel experiences, can you plan in things that will be memorable?”
If yes, she says, you’ll remember those days. So, sniff the soap in your hotel room, listen to your favorite song on repeat (and sing along), take yourself somewhere new during a lunch break, schedule a meeting in the park, and give your brain something to remember your time by.
Think less about managing and more about creating, and you’ll be well on your way to stretching time.
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