[00:00:19.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success; the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than two million downloads, listeners in over a hundred countries and part of the self-help for smart people podcast network.
In this episode, we tell the truth about time. We throw out the old and dated conceptions of time management and look at how time really works. We explore the fundamental way you must flip your approach to time, so that you can focus on what really matters in life. We look at how you can become an artist manipulating time at your will, stretching your best moments so that they last longer, and ruthlessly removing the things that clutter your life. If you feel pressed for time like there's never enough and want to figure out how to create time for what really matters, you're going to enjoy this episode with our guest, Laura Vanderkam.
Do you need more time; time for work time, for thinking and reading, time for the people in your life, time to accomplish your goals? This was the number one problem our listeners outlined and we created a new video guide that you can get completely for free when you sign up and join our e-mail list. It's called how you can create time for the things that really matter in life. You can get it completely for free when you sign up and join the e-mail list at successpodcast.com.
You're also going to get exclusive content that's only available to our e-mail subscribers. We recently pre-released an episode in an interview to our e-mail subscribers a week before it went live to our broader audience. That had tremendous implications, because there is a limited offer in there with only 50 available spots that got eaten up by the people who were on the e-mail list first. With that same interview, we also offered an exclusive opportunity for people on our e-mail list to engage one-on-one for over an hour with one of our guests in a live exclusive interview, just for e-mail subscribers.
There's some amazing stuff that's available only to e-mail subscribers that's only going on if you subscribe and sign up to the e-mail list. You can do that by going to successpodcast.com and signing up right on the homepage. Or, if you're driving around right now, if you're out and about and you're on the go, you don't have time, just text the word “smarter” to the number 44-222. That's S-M-A-R-T-E-R to the number 44-222.
In our previous episode, we showed you the science of communication. Have you ever been afraid to speak or present? Have you been worried that you don't have the skills, or tools to communicate your ideas to the world? We dug into the science and the strategies of mastering skills, like speaking and presenting, crushing the anxiety that often accompanies these high-stakes moments and sharing evidence-based strategies for becoming a master communicator with our guest, Matt Abrahams. If you want to learn how to speak and present with total confidence, check out our previous episode.
Now, for our interview with Laura.
[0:03:05.3] MB: Today, we have another exciting guest on the show; Laura Vanderkam. Laura is the author of several time management and productivity books. Her TED talk titled How to Gain Control of Your Free Time has been viewed over five million times and she's the co-host of the podcast, Best Of Both Worlds. Her work has appeared in publications including New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Fortune and much more. Laura, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:30.4] LV: Thank you so much for having me.
[0:03:31.9] MB: Well, we're super excited to have you on the show today. It's funny, we constantly try to pull the listeners and see what topics or themes are really important to them and top of mind for them and time management and how to get more time was actually the number one thing that our listeners wanted to hear about and want to learn more about. That's part of the reason we sought you out and we really wanted to have some more guests on the show where we got into the concept of time. Thank you for coming on the show.
[0:03:57.6] LV: Yeah. Well, I'm not surprised that people are concerned about time and trying to do the most with their time, because I mean, obviously 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. It's really this ongoing journey of all trying to use our time in better ways, so hopefully we can talk about some strategies today that will be helpful for people.
[0:04:23.0] MB: Definitely. I'd love to start out with this idea of, I think so many people when they think about time management and I don't even really the word time management, because I think there's so much baggage associated with it, but when people think about time in their lives, you've talked about a lot of misconceptions and ways that people don't really think about it correctly, or think about it from the wrong perspective. I'd love to hear your thoughts around that.
[0:04:46.7] LV: Well certainly, a lot of people when you say time management, what comes to mind 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 billion more chores done and all your e-mails answered by 2 PM, or whatever it is. It's not really about that. It's honestly about spending your time and your energy on the things that are most important to you, and on the things that will help you achieve your goals in life.
When you approach it from that perspective, 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, because they start leading to new opportunities. It's a very different mindset.
[0:05:40.2] MB: I love that idea of fundamentally flipping your approach, instead of trying to cram as much as possible into your day. You're saying it's really more about removing as much as possible, so that there's the space for what's truly important.
[0:05:53.7] LV: I mean, there's really no point in being busy just to be busy. I know, 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.
I've interviewed and studied the schedules of many very successful people over the years. I've always been surprised at how much open space there is in some people's schedules. These are people who clearly could fill every minute, if they chose to. 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.
Yeah, I think it's about asking for all our commitments, all our obligations; is this something that really is adding joy and meaning to my life and the life of people that I care about? If so, great, like double down on that. If not, maybe time to figure out how to scale it down, or get rid of it over the next few months.
[0:06:57.3] MB: Well, I think you touched on something that I'd love to dig into a little bit more, which is this idea that, and I know you've done a lot of work around studying really successful people, learning from them and then seeing at a really granular level how they spend and allocate their time. I'd love to unpack that a little bit more and hear more about what some of the surprising conclusions, or results were from that work.
[0:07:20.6] LV: Yes. I've done a couple different time diary projects for a book that came out a few years ago, I looked specifically at professional women who are also raising families, look at how they spent their time. I recently wrote a book called Off The Clock, that involved looking at the – a day in the life of 900 busy people with full-time jobs, other things going on in their personal lives. Had them track their time for a day, ask them questions about how they felt about their time, so I could look what the differences were in people's schedules between people who felt relaxed about time people, who felt time was abundant, with equivalently busy people, who felt time was getting away from them, most scarce, they were starved for time.
I found a couple of interesting things. First, that the people who felt most relaxed about their time were highly likely to plan, what I call, like many adventures into their lives, that I had people track just a normal March Monday, and the people with the most abundant perspective on time we're 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.
On some of that that 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. But when we make time memorable, then we remember it. We don't have this sense that time is just slipping from one side of the hourglass to the other.
I found that quite fascinating, that 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.
[0:09:06.9] MB: I think that's great. It comes back to the paradox that you talked a little bit about, is this idea that the people who are often the most successful, don't necessarily subscribe to this cult of busyness and constantly telling everyone how busy you are and constantly feeling overwhelmed and busy. It's really, they have a much more slow and intentional approach to their time in many cases.
[0:09:30.0] LV: Yeah, they don't fill their time with stuff they don't want to do, because they want to leave it open for the things that they do want to do. It's pretty simple when it comes down to it, but it has profound implications. I mean, I remember one of the gentlemen I interviewed for off the clock, he’s managing teams in three different continents in corporate America. Of course, they would say, “Oh, he must be in meetings all the time, like I'm trying to get on his calendar, like I'm going to e-mail him and ask for some time and I'll probably be offered 15 minutes on a Wednesday three weeks from now.”
He sent me back a note and it was just like, “Yeah, I'm pretty free on Thursday and Friday this week, so why don't you just pick a time that works for you.” I’m like, “What? What is this?” He was intentionally leaving his schedule very blank and he wanted to talk with me and he had open time on these days, and it's not that he didn't have anything to do. I mean, he has teams on multiple continents, but he made sure that he wasn't packing his calendar with meetings. He had a very good rapport with his teams, where they could come to him with anything and they could come to him at any time, but they knew they didn't need to set up a formal hour-long meeting to get an answer on something. That allowed him to be very nimble and make decisions very quickly and also allowed them to make decisions very quickly. I thought that was pretty profound.
[0:10:40.6] MB: For somebody who's caught up in this this reactionary state of constantly feeling busy and feeling overwhelmed, how can they start to open up to this new approach, or this new perspective around thinking about time differently?
[0:10:57.2] LV: Whenever anyone wants to spend their time better, I always suggest that they first try to figure out where their time is really going now. This is another one of those paradoxes. I'm not saying, “Oh, people should feel relaxed and off the clock,” but I want 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. Because one of the reasons people feel so overwhelmed and busy, if they actually don't know where all their time is going.
They don't know, 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? If you don't know for sure, it can become the source of anxiety and stress. I have people track their time for a week. It's not as difficult as it sounds. I know probably people are like, “Oh, no. Not that.”
I use a spreadsheet. I've actually been tracking my time for a little over three years continuously now, which nobody else needs to do that. I want to be very clear, I'm not expecting anyone else to track their time for three years, but just a week gives a very good perspective on your life and where your time really goes. I just use a pretty simple spreadsheet that's got half-hour blocks along the left, days of the week along the top. There's a 168 hours in a week, so there's 336 cells on this particular spreadsheet, and I just write down what I'm doing, check in three times a day, fill in roughly what I've done since the last time I checked in.
It takes about three minutes a day, which is the same amount of time I spend brushing my teeth, so not a huge commitment. Yeah, just look at it at the end and add it up, see well, how much time are you working for instance, or how much are you spending in the car, how much time are you sleeping, how much your TV time, or exercise time, or volunteering time, or friend time, or family time, whatever it is that you happen to do with yourself.
Then when you look at the categories, you can decide, “Well, does this seem right? How do I feel about this?” The fascinating things, people have all kinds of stories they tell themselves about where the time goes, which may not be true. We have a tendency to view our weeks where we're working in the longest hours as typical. In our minds maybe we’re like, “Oh, I was at the office until 9:00 p.m. on Wednesday. Therefore, I'm working always 12-hour days. If I think of five days a week, that's 60 hours and I'm working on weekends too sometimes, so that doing things, and so it must be 70 hours a week.” It turns out 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.
The number will come out to like 48 hours, and people are like, “Wait. Wait. 48 hours, that's a very different number than 70,” but that's what happens, or people tend to remember their shortest night as typical, because again, it really stinks to not sleep we tend to remember the night where we didn't sleep and that stands out in our minds.
I found looking at people's time logs, the vast majority of people sleep more than seven hours per day when you average it over the whole week, even very high earning people, successful people, people with a lot of responsibility, people with young kids, we have people listening to a podcast in that situation. Even so, it does tend to add up over the week. Not for everybody, but for the vast majority of people.
Often looking at our time logs, we can get a better sense that's not in this story of overwhelm, this narrative of catastrophe. When we sent back from that, just look at the numbers, then we can decide, “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, 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, maybe I could get out a reasonable hour.” Lots of things you can discover.
[0:14:34.7] MB: It's so true, the mind and we talk about this all the time in the show and actually, our very first episode ever of the Science of Success was called the biological limits of the human mind. The mind is such an inaccurate tool sometimes. There's so many biases and shortcuts etc. Often are our own perceptions of the way things are, even about our own lives are really inaccurate and it's not until we measure them that we can really get a true picture of what's really happening.
[0:15:00.3] LV: Yeah. I mean, I talk about this all the time, and yet, I do it myself. That was certainly one of the things I discovered when I started tracking my time continuously. I had this idea that I worked 50 hours a week, because I had tracked my time for a few weeks here and there over the years and I had always worked about 50 hours a week during those weeks. Then I started tracking my time continuously and I realized that in the past, I had chosen very specific weeks to track, namely the weeks when I was working 50 hours a week, because I had in my mind that was who I am, I'm this professional working long hours and I want to show these weeks to the world that showed that.
When I tracked my time continuously, I couldn't do that and I found that the average was a lot closer to 40, which is a different number than 50. 10 hours that now I need to account for. Where are they going? I don't know. Well I found out. You need to track your time to start getting that data.
[0:15:50.0] MB: I found, this is getting deeper down the rabbit hole, but in talking back, there's an importance of measurement. One of the things that I've taken some time to do for myself is map out what an ideal day would look like for a 24-hour cycle and basically say every hour, how do I want to allocate and be spending that time? Then started measuring that against not only what my actual days look like and how I was spending those hours, but even spot checking or looking at certain items like for example, flagging. How many hours a week do I spend in meetings?
Going back through my calendar for a month or two and tracking okay, every week I had 15 hours this week, 22 hours this week, all that stuff and starting to see whether it's meetings, or time wasted browsing on my phone, or different core almost red flag items, finding those opportunities that’s okay, maybe if I tweak this thing and set more of a budget for how much time I'm going to spend on these activities, suddenly you can really start to free up hours a week that you didn't realize we're getting wasted down a certain rabbit hole, or sucked into a certain activity.
[0:16:54.6] LV: I think that's a really smart idea. I like the idea of creating, I like to call it a realistic ideal day. I mean, so it's not a perfect day, because then we'd have flying cars, but a realistic ideal day that, what would your schedule look like?
You don't need to separate – I mean, how about a realistic ideal week? Because again, a week is the cycle of life as you live it. When you're thinking of that ideal day, you're often picturing, say a work day, but we have weekends as well and we should think about them, because 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 yet, the nothing turns into stuff that we didn't really want to do, and so you hit Monday not feeling so great about it.
[0:17:42.8] MB: I know you wrote about some of these strategies for as you call it, making life memorable and the idea of not filling time and lingering. I'd love to dig into that a little bit more and maybe talk about how we can savor some of the finer moments of life.
[0:17:59.9] LV: Yeah. I mean, one of the things about time is it does keep passing. We can learn how to make some of the good moments pass as slowly as what we have with the bad moment. Say you think you're something stuck in a boring meeting, you’re looking at the clock counting seconds, hoping it's going to be 11:00 soon, you can get out of there. That time seems to pass really slowly and yet, good moments seem to often go by very quickly.
The question is can we become better stewards of time, or artists manipulating time by really lingering in these good moments and trying to stretch them? There turns out to be a couple techniques that really work. I found some research on this. There's a book called Savoring that came out in I think 2006, by a couple researchers who had really delved into this topic, of how people learn to stretch good experiences.
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. A big chunk of that is knowing that they are coming up, because when we know something good is going to happen, then we can anticipate it. The anticipation can stretch the pleasure for quite a bit of time.
That concert with your favorite artist is only going to last two, three hours, but if you get the tickets two months ahead of time, you can think about it for two months and you can have some of the pleasure of knowing you're going to go hear it for two months, so that's one way to stretch out the pleasure.
Certainly, while the good event is happening, you want to do your best to be fully present, to take in as many of the details as possible, that's one way to keep your mind from wandering to your utility bills or something like that. Just notice details and think about how you might describe this to someone afterwards, and the stories of it. If you have somebody there with you, talk about how much you're enjoying yourselves. Actually calling that out to each other is a good way to remind yourself that you are enjoying yourselves, and to focus on that.
Then after the fact, you think about how you can – you do recount it to someone, like you tell the story, you tell the story again, if you can, because the more times you tell it, you get a little bit of pleasure from it each time. Think about ways that you can commemorate it, if there's any artifacts you can take from the time. That's why people buy concert t-shirts. It's a way to get at that, to get some of that pleasure from it.
Sometimes you can even consciously do this with things that you know you're going to want to remember later. I had a great conversation with a lady the other day who told me that she had gone to Europe one summer when she was a young person. One of her companions on this trip kept playing the same song over and over again like, “Why are you doing this? Why do you keep playing this song?” Her companion said at one point, “Listen, every time for the rest of your life that you hear this song, you are going to think about the summer.” It is true. They do. Every time they hear that song, that is the summer that comes to mind. They have those memories of their summer in Europe and what they did, long after the relationships themselves have gone away, they still have this song which allows them to stretch back that memory, to still have that memory, even when so much of life tends to fade.
[0:20:59.4] MB: That's a great example, and I can think of a personal instance of a trip that I took with my wife and some friends a couple years ago, and we were all obsessed with this one song and we played it over and over and over again. Now every time we're together and we hear it, we all think back to that trip, and it's encoded to that memory.
[0:21:15.3] LV: You can do that. I mean, you could even do it with your hotel soap, or something if you're trying to remember a vacation. Sniff the soap, and then for the rest of your life, that olfactory memory is going to be associated with this time. Having those artifacts is what tends to unlock this and allows us to relive, and the more memories you have of a unit of time, the more time seems to expand. That's how our brain and judges how much time we have is how many memory units we have formed.
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. That can make that day seem very, very long. The question is well, can you do that in normal life too, right? Can you have new experiences, novel experiences, can you plan in things that will be memorable? Because then, you will remember those days.
[0:22:06.3] MB: I want to come back to getting back to that concept more broadly of how we conceive of time. I know you've shared, or talked to a phrase about the idea that time is highly elastic. I'd love to incorporate that into the conversation we've already been having and explain that topic a little bit more.
[0:22:23.3] LV: Yeah. I mean, time is what it is, but I always say that time stretches to accommodate what we need, or want to put into it. In my TED Talk you mentioned, in the intro I tell a story of a lady who could track her time for me. Very, very busy, many things going on in her life, but she goes out for a Wednesday night for something. She comes home and finds that her water heater has broken, and so there's water all over her basement, so she obviously has to deal with this. Sit down the minute aftermath that night, the plumbers and the cleaning crew, because her carpet is all destroyed and everything.
All this is being recorded on the time log for the week and it winds up taking about seven hours of her week. If you think about a lot of time management literature that is out there, it’s all structured along those ideas of, “Oh, we're going to help our readers, or viewers, or listeners find an extra hour in the day. We're going to shave bits of time off everyday activities added up, we'll have time for the good stuff. We're going to find an extra hour on the day.”
Well, if you think about it, finding seven hours in a week to deal with this water heater explosion is like finding an extra hour in a day. Obviously, if she'd been thinking at the start of the week like, “Oh, let me find seven hours to whatever, train for a triathlon.” I think, most of us – she would have not been able to find the seven hours to do that, but then when she had to find seven hours because there's water everywhere, she finds seven hours.
Really what this gets at, is that time is elastic. It's not that she had a magical seven hours somewhere, so that when something was important enough to her, when it was I'm getting water all over her basement, she had to deal with it, and so she found the seven hours. Really the key to time management in general, it's treating whatever is important to us as the equivalent of this broken water heater. We decide that we are going to get to it. We are going to make the time in our lives, in our busy lives for it.
A less extreme example, but you might see this all the time, if you've ever picked up a real page-turner of a book, or started a real binge worthy series, it is somewhat magical how you find extra time to read the next few pages, or to watch the next episode. Where did that time come from? Well what it is is that you had something you really want to do with it, and so you made the time. That time is very elastic. It will accommodate what you decide to put into it. Make sure that you are putting the important stuff in first and everything else will fit around that.
[0:24:36.3] MB: I think this hints at, or not even hints, but really gets at the core of one of my favorite quotes, which is there's no such thing as lack of time, there's only lack of priorities.
[0:24:46.0] LV: Yeah, that's a similar version of this a very busy woman I once interviewed put it to me like, I don't – I never say I don't do – I don't have time to do X, Y, or Z. I don't do X, Y, or Z, because it's not a priority. That basically I don't have time, means it's not a priority, which is true, if you think about it. I mean, whatever it is you're saying is not a – it's not that you don't have time for, if somebody offered to pay you a $100,000 to do it, it would probably become a priority.
If you think about it that way, whatever it is, you'd probably do it, you'd find the time. Obviously that's not going to happen for most things, but putting it that way can help us see the reality. In most cases and if it's not a priority, we're not choosing and we're choosing not to do it. It doesn't mean that it wouldn't be a priority for someone else. It doesn't mean that it's not a good thing. It just means that for whatever reason in your life right now, it is not a priority. I think we're better off just owning that and being honest with ourselves, rather than hiding behind this excuse of lacking time.
[0:25:43.6] MB: This week’s episode is brought to you by our partners at Brilliant. Brilliant is a math and science enrichment learning tool. You can learn concepts by solving fascinating challenging problems. Brilliant explores probability, computer science, machine learning, the physics of everyday life, complex Algebra and much more. They do this with addictive interactive experiences that are enjoyed by over 5 million students, professionals and enthusiasts around the world.
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You can do that by going to brilliant.org/scienceofsuccess. I’m a huge fan of STEM learning and that’s why I’m so excited that Brilliant is sponsoring this episode. They’ve been a sponsor of the show for a long time and there’s a reason; they make learning math and science fun and engaging and exciting.
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[0:27:51.0] MB: I think many people's lives, they never even pause to take 10 seconds and consider what their priorities actually are, and end up almost like a pinball, just bouncing between commitment, commitment, reaction, reaction, reaction. How do we start to break out of that?
[0:28:09.3] LV: Yeah, it's very easy to be reactive when it comes to time, because time keeps passing, whether we think about how we're spending it or not. It's like you're in a boat in the middle of the stream, it's hard to direct things from there. You have to pause and get yourself over to the side and see where the current is going.
The people who manage to do that are the people who feel they have a better control of their time and their schedule and where their lives are going. In this time diary study I did for off the clock, I found that people who had the highest time perception scores were also the most likely to engage in what I call reflective activities. Those things like journaling, or meditating, or praying, just these things that have you step back from your life and think about your life.
The people at the highest time perception scores did these on average pretty much every other day. The people with the lowest time perception scores, at least have never done it, never did those things. Again, these are all equivalently busy people, these are all people who are working full time, are all working within a range of hours, they're pretty normal. All have commitments in their personal lives.
It doesn't take much time to write the journal or meditate. You can do it in five minutes. In fact, the people with low time perception scores, spent more time watching TV, or on social media. Again, they had leisure time. They were just not spending it in ways that allowed them to think and reflect on their lives. If you do want to feel like you have more time, you might try and there's little bits of time we all have when you're waiting for a phone call to start, you’re waiting for the bus, something like that. Instead of picking up your phone and deleting e-mail, or looking at headlines, or looking at social media, you might try just thinking about your life, or writing in a journal, meditating, any of those things. Because if you do those things, you will start to feel you have more time.
[0:29:50.1] MB: We've often on the show heard those reflective activities and also called contemplative routines. There's a lot of science around how powerful those are in shaping your priorities and your ability to step back and really determine what the most important things to focus on in life are.
[0:30:06.1] LV: Yeah. I'm sure there's, whatever you want to call them, but the science is pretty good on it. It makes sense, right? I think the key thing for people is that it doesn't have to be the hour-long session. You don't have to go off on the silent retreats for three days. It's really about just taking little bits of time and choosing to do something, other than being on e-mail, not really doing anything productive, but thinking we are. Because what happens is people have leisure time, but then we tend to chop it up with these phone checks. I found that the 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.
[0:30:42.7] MB: Just briefly, I'd love to dig in a little bit, tell me what exactly is a time perception score and how does that factor into – I mean, I think we could assume it, but I just want to make sure we have a really clear understanding of what it is and how that's shaped by people's behavior.
[0:30:56.8] LV: Yeah. I realized I was just throwing that out there and didn’t mention what it was. When I had people track their time for a day, these 900 people, and then I asked them, it was like 13 questions that was getting at various aspects of time perception. Yesterday, I felt present rather than distracted, or generally in life, I have time for the things that are important to me, or yesterday I spent time on things that made me happy, generally make time for people who are important to me, just all these different things that we're getting at, feeling like you had enough time, right?
People could answer from strongly disagree, one, to strongly agree, seven. Then I would assign them a score, so the people who had most 7s on all these questions were at the top of the time perception score. The people with the most ones in the lowest scores were on the bottom. I could break out, there's 900 people, so yeah, I can cut it a little bit and say the top 20% and the top 3%, the bottom 20% and bottom 3% compared to the average and see what was the different –
What was interesting to me is some of the things that weren't different. You might think that the people at the lowest time perception cores were working really extreme hours, for instance and that turned out not to be the case. Almost everyone I studied worked between seven and nine hours on this March Monday, and the people who had the lowest time perception scores were really not that – I mean, was minutes off the average. It was not very different from the average at all. It's not that they were working around the clock or anything like that, it's just how we choose to spend that discretionary time we have, has a big effect on how we perceive time.
[0:32:24.1] MB: I think that's a really critical point, which is that it's not – that people who feel distracted, or they don't have time for what's really important, it's not that they're necessarily working harder, it's that their time is getting sucked into things like browsing their phone, or getting sucked into Facebook, or social media, instead of being consciously invested in things that are really important, or really high-value to them.
[0:32:47.4] LV: Definitely. I've seen this in various schedules of high profile people I've studied. I talked about how I've tracked my time and I can look at the days they're tracking. I see, like I might be working more hours than these people, but it's not because the demand for my time is higher, these people these are people who could pack every minute of the day if they want to do, is that they're choosing not to. They're embracing their power by saying, “My schedule is mine. If I only wish to have seven hours of work commitments for the day, that's great. I'm going to leave open space in the middle of the day, so I can relax, or think, take a real break, or if things run over, then I have space for it without making the rest of the day be a disaster.”
It’s really their power move is not to pack every minute. I think that's fascinating. Being busy is not always an example of how important you are. It's really sometimes more an example that you have not yet claimed your control over your calendar.
[0:33:41.7] MB: It's funny, we've talked about this in a couple previous interviews. One of them with Greg McKeown, the author of Essentialism, where we really dug into the a cult of busyness and how, if you ask someone how they're doing in the United States today, almost always their response is, “Oh, busy. Busy good and busy.”
[0:33:58.9] LV: I’m fine. Busy. Just fascinating, right?
[0:34:02.4] MB: It’s so funny, because we get caught up in that self-importance of busyness, but ever since really going, starting to go down this rabbit hole of time management and using contemplatively routines to determine the most important things to focus on, not only have I tried to not tell people that I'm busy, but I also when someone says that they're busy, I almost view that as a marker that they don't really have – they haven't really invested the time in these reflective activities to cultivate actual control over their time.
[0:34:31.5] LV: Yeah. If they did, I think they'd get a very different perspective. Hopefully people listening to this will take that to heart.
[0:34:37.8] MB: I want to get into some of the specific tactics and strategies for implementing some of these ideas and themes. Specifically, I know we touched on and you talked a little bit about this idea of a time log, or a time diary. I'd love to learn a little bit more about how the listeners could concretely implement that.
[0:34:57.0] LV: Yeah, tracking your time doesn't have to be very complicated. I use a very simple spreadsheet, and if people want to come to my website, it's just my name, lauravanderkam.com; you can get e-mailed one there. You can make your own. It's really just Excel. Or you can use – there's dozens of time tracking apps on the market. Often, it's like billing software for instance, so people buy it for their companies because they need to build their time to different things, but you can repurpose that to build all the projects in your personal life too, if you felt like it.
Or you can even just walk around with a little notebook and write not what you're doing. The tool itself is really not all that important. What's important is that you just try to stick with it and don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, like you don't have to record every bathroom break, you don't have to record every time you got up and filled your water bottle at the water cooler. It's really more about just having this holistic perspective, and where the time goes, so that you know roughly like, “Okay, I was working during this time and I took a break here and this is what I did with my break. Yeah, this is when I got in the car and this is when I got home and this is what I did after I got home, this is when I ate dinner, this is what I did afterwards, this is when to bed.”
Then on weekends too, make sure you track a weekend. I find people – I ask people to do this sometimes and then they just stop on Friday afternoon. Did life stop then? It did not continue? What happened? I mean, it's fine if you don't want to share what you did on your weekend with me, that's perfectly fine. I understand that. It's usually not about that. It's just that they didn't even think it was important to track the weekend. I think part of feeling off the clock and relaxed about our time is knowing where our potential leisure time is and knowing that we're spending it on things that we truly enjoy. One of the best ways to figure that out is to actually track a weekend to say, what are you doing with the 60 hours between 6 p.m. Friday and 6 a.m. Monday, and how are you happy with that? Did it go the way you like? What did you not do? What did you do? How do you feel about that?
Yeah, just try for a week and then look at the major categories and ask yourself what you like about it. There's probably something that's going great and you should celebrate whatever that is. You can ask what you want to do more of with your time and you can also ask what you want to spend less time doing. I think if you focus on all those questions and ramp up the things you do want to do and ramp down the things you don't, then over time you'll start to spend your time better.
[0:37:12.6] MB: It's such an important point that you shouldn't get caught up and letting perfect be the enemy of good. I think people so often get trapped in this fear that they have to be capturing everything, they have to be measuring it perfectly, and there's a really a good mental model that we talk a lot about on the show as well, which is the idea of being roughly right, is often better than being precisely wrong. The idea is generally, if you're approximately correct, you can actually get a ton of value out of that. If you try to refine it too much, oftentimes you end up derailing yourself for not doing it, or whatever. Sometimes the freedom of just getting it approximately correct is a really effective strategy.
[0:37:52.2] LV: Yeah, it also saves time too.
[0:37:54.0] MB: That’s right.
[0:37:54.9] LV: Letting go of expert to expectations of perfection is one of the best time management strategies I've ever encountered, because it's probably good enough. The vast majority of things, like going from the 95th percentile to the 99th is not really getting you much and probably is wasting a lot of time.
[0:38:10.3] MB: One of the other themes, or ideas that I know you've talked about and it dovetails obviously with everything we've been discussing today, but I think it's really worth digging into and sharing is this idea of putting your priorities into your schedule first, and then filling everything else. I'd love to hear you explain that and tell a little bit more about that.
[0:38:28.5] LV: Yeah. I mean, you read a lot of time management literature, which everyone talks about this, because it's what really matters that you put what is important to you in your schedule first. Some people go as far as why would we even bother making a to-do list, if it doesn't have a time attached to it, like what is that? It's these things that we want to do take time. Our time is represented by a calendar, like we only have so much time. If it doesn't have an assigned time, it can't happen. Better to think about the assigned time for these tasks that you're deciding to do, as opposed to just listing them and hoping that they will happen at some point.
I try to put important stuff in my schedule first, by planning my weeks before I'm in them. I try to do this on Friday afternoon, which is something I actually picked up from David Allen, productivity expert; I'm sure many of your listeners are familiar with. He said a lot of his clients were planning their weeks and doing the weekly review on Friday afternoon. What I do is I make a three category list for the week ahead; career, relationships and self.
The reason to have a three-category priority list is it will nudge you to put something in all three categories. It's pretty hard to make a three-category list and then leave one of the categories blank. That's just not how people tend to make lists, so it's a little trick right there to nudge you to have a more balanced life. Just a short list. You can put two to three items in each, probably not more than eight, 10. If it's more than 10, they're not really priorities, then it's just your laundry list of everything you need to do.
The good thing about this is you've got your work stuff there. Most people know roughly what the good things they should be doing on the work front beyond what they absolutely have to do. Nudging yourself to create things, like personal priorities, or relationship priorities even more so, it makes those things happen, because when you start saying, “Oh, what is my relationship priority for the next week? Well, my spouse and I haven't been out to eat in a while. Let me ask this person what would be a good night for that, and then we can maybe make a restaurant reservation somewhere,” and if there needs to be a babysitter involved, you’re in that stage, then you make it happen.
You get the logistics and then you both have it on your calendar, you're both looking forward to, you got a reservation somewhere, it's probably going to happen. Whereas, if you just generally have in your mind like, “Yeah, we should spend time together,” yeah, that's not going to happen. Or getting together with friends. Many of the people who are happiest about their time, the high-time perception scores in my studies are the people who spent the most time with friends, because they are the people who make us feel time is good, like we have time for the things we want to do.
You look at your priority list for the next week and say, “Oh, actually I really want to get together with this friend I haven't seen in ages. Let's see if we can go out for a drink together sometime during the week.” You e-mail that person, you look at your calendar, see when it can happen, all of a sudden, wow, you're meeting for a drink on Thursday night. How exciting is that? How awesome is that? You're going to look forward to that all week. That's how you schedule these priorities. That's how you think about what you'd like to be doing, get it on the calendar and then these things happen.
[0:41:18.3] MB: I love the two of the themes from that. One, the planning your week before you get in them, phenomenal tactic, and I borrowed a very similar strategy from – you see the author of GTD?
[0:41:29.8] LV: Yeah, getting things done, yes.
[0:41:31.1] MB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, same thing. I use the same exact methodology. I do it on Sundays. I spend an hour or two of planning out my whole week and setting my most important tasks for every single day, and that really helps me feel like I'm starting the week with a foot ahead basically. The other thing that I found really interesting is that you – everybody's to-do list, or priority list often is almost exclusively career focus. I love that you included relationships, but also really self on there. It's such an important bucket and I feel like many cases gets almost completely left off and neglected.
[0:42:03.8] LV: Yeah, but it's really what makes life feel doable. I mean, if you have on there like, it doesn't even have to be the things you do regularly. If you run five times a week already, that doesn't have to be one of your personal priorities. That's probably already going to happen. You're good about that. Maybe it's that you want to instead of just doing your three miles on the treadmill in the morning, someday you're going to go find beautiful park and run there.
Like you look at the upcoming weather for the week and see that one day, it's going to be a really great weather and you want to go to this park and you can carve out time for that to happen, wow, you’re going to have a great run, you're going to look forward to it, you're going to enjoy it, you're going to think about it afterwards. Something like that could go in there, or time for a hobby perhaps, or even reading 100 pages in the novel that has been sitting on your bedside stand for the last six months. That could be a personal priority that you want to get through to the next week.
Yeah, elevating these things to the same status as your work priority list, your work to-do list, just massively increases the chances that they happen, and it treats them with the importance that these things deserve, because they are important. This is an important part of life. Life isn't just work. Work is a wonderful part of life, hopefully. Work is a very enjoyable, meaningful, fulfilling part of life, but it tends not to be the only thing. Treating ourselves and our relationships with prior – as important as well, can really make us feel like whole people.
[0:43:19.6] MB: I want to jump into another tactic that I've heard you share that I think is really impactful and I wanted to share with the audience, which is this idea of writing your next year's review, or writing your next year family letter.
[0:43:33.6] LV: Yeah. This is a way to start thinking about your goals, but putting your goals into a near-term thing, like the next six to 12 months. One way you can think about this is writing your own year in performance review, either for the end of this year, or if you're listening to this at the end of the year, maybe think about the next calendar year.
Let's say it's been an amazing year for you professionally and you're giving yourself this performance review that's making you pop the champagne corks, because it's been so awesome. What three things would you have done professionally in the course of the year that would make it so amazing? You think about what these goals would be, these things you would write in a prospective performance review, because those are the things that made an amazing year professionally, so those are really your top career goals.
You can do this in your personal life too, if you think about what you might write in a holiday letter if you have listeners who are young enough who've never gotten one of these really ridiculous misses that people have mail out around the holidays. You just think about it yourself being like a holiday party in December, and you're telling your friends and family what you did in your personal life that mattered to you in the course of the year. You can look forward to December think about, “Well, what would these things be?” If this were to be a really amazing year, the year that I'm just on fire at this party telling people about. What would those three things be?
Maybe it's the year that you took the extended family trip to Ireland, or the year you ran that 10k, or the year you joined a choir, or did a community theater production, or whatever it is. What would be so cool in your personal life that you would really just want to tell people about it at this party? List three things. Now between the prospective performance review and this holiday party chitchat, you have six top goals. These are six top priorities for the next six to 12 months, whatever time of the year it happens to be.
You should put this list somewhere really prominently. Put it on your desk, put it on a post-it note on your computer. You want to look at this list all the time, because this list can start informing your schedule choices. If you plan your weeks on Friday like I do, or Sunday like you do, look at that post, look at the six things and say, “Well, what am I actually doing in the next week that would get me toward those goals? Am I making any steps toward those? Because if I can, well those should definitely be on the priority list.” If this is the year you're going to run that 10k, you should for the next year, next week you can definitely make it a priority to research which 10k you think you could do, and maybe find a training book somewhere and find your training shoes, your running shoes that you have to dig out of the closet and find somebody who'll go run with you. These are all steps you can take that will get you toward those goals.
[0:46:01.3] MB: It's funny, the same Sunday review that I do, sort of your Friday review, I keep a list of all of my medium-term goals, and then I'll look at those and then say, “All right, how am I going to – this next week, how am I going to take action towards as many of those as possible?” Monday, I'm going to take action on this one, Tuesday I'm going to take action on this one, etc. It's a great way to chunk those down and keep meaningful progress going every single day, or every single week.
[0:46:27.5] LV: That's great. I love that you're thinking about putting it in Monday and Tuesday, because I think that's the real pro tip here for your listeners is when you make that priority list, put as much of it as possible toward the front of the week. The reason is it's A, it's treating it as a priority, so you want to do it first. Also stuff is going to come up. I mean, the reality of life is that things will happen. Like I don't know, be a big snowstorm, or power outage at the office, or work emergency, major client calls, you need X, Y, or Z. The closer these priorities are toward the front of the week, the emergency either have yet to happen, or if you do have stuff come up, then you have the rest of the week to reschedule this stuff.
Whereas, if you put it off till the end of the week and say, “Oh, I'm going to do all that Friday afternoon.” Well, you might not, because you'll be tired on Friday afternoon. You won't have energy to start these new projects. If you're racing to get to the weekend with stuff that's come up during the week, then that's these high-priority, but maybe not urgent stuff is going to get jettisoned. As much as possible, if you can do Monday or Tuesday, the better off you'll be.
[0:47:25.7] MB: I want to zoom in, we've been talking about time in a broader sense. I want to zoom in a really specific day part and see what from your work and research have you seen around the most effective morning and evening routines.
[0:47:39.7] LV: Yeah. Well morning routines are always a big draw in the productivity world. We all want to find the perfect morning routine that's going to help us get so much done and start the day on the right foot. I think mornings can really be great. I mean, I love when I see people with morning routines. I want to stress for people, it doesn't have to be this great thing, it doesn't have to be long, it doesn't have to be elaborate. If you're doing the stuff in life that you find important to you, like if you are finding time for exercise and any creative pursuits you want to do and spending time with friends and family, you probably don't actually even need some elaborate morning routine.
It's more that for many people who have full-time jobs that are in offices and have family commitments, or personal life commitments, morning tends to be the time that you can get to these things that are important to you, before everybody else wants a piece of you the rest of the day, before you wind up with all the work emergencies, the personal demands. If there is something that is important to you, that life has a way of crowding out, then morning is often the best time to do those things.
Probably, you don't have to wake up at the crack of dawn, you probably don't even have to sleep less. Many people when they track their time, they discover that they are not spending the hours before they go to sleep in particularly wonderful ways. This tends to be the time when people are just watching TV that they didn't mean to watch, puttering around the house, surfing the web, two-hour Instagram, I don't know what it is. People are doing stuff before bed that they're just tired, and so it just keeps going.
If you can put a stop to it a little bit earlier, go to bed a little bit earlier, wake up a little bit earlier, and you can then have time in the morning for these things that do require focus and discipline, like exercise, or writing that novel, or any other creative pursuit that you wish to do, or even family breakfast, or something like that, if you have a family and family dinner is difficult to make happen because people are all these different places, family breakfast could be a great substitute.
Yeah, it's whatever is important to you that life has a way of crowding out. I think for most people, the evening routine is about enabling the morning routine, so the evening routine is about making sure that you are going to bed at a time that will allow you to wake up rested and ready to go. Sadly enough, I do think that going to bed early is how grown-ups sleep in.
[0:49:50.9] MB: Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think the idea of flipping the unproductive evening time into really productive morning time is a great hack, because it's so easy to get sucked into just sitting on your phone and looking at Instagram for an hour before you go to sleep, and yet, that time is completely wasted. Whereas, if you would have just gone to bed and then gotten up an hour early, you could do some really fruitful and productive work first thing in the morning.
[0:50:18.0] LV: Exactly. Easier said than done of course, but yes, that is the goal.
[0:50:21.6] MB: I mean, I think it comes back to one of the themes we've talked about earlier in the conversation, which is the idea of measurement, right? If you're if you're not measuring and tracking that time, you might not even really be aware that you're – how much time you're really spending browsing your phone, or watching TV, or doing things that maybe you don't want to spend five hours a day on your phone, maybe three hours a day would be plenty of time texting and chatting and that stuff.
[0:50:46.6] LV: Then you get two hours back. Yeah. Or else, you're walking around with this story that you're not a morning person, and I hear this from people all the time, “Oh, I'm not a morning person.” Well sure, I mean, there are people who are night owls and I'm sure many of your listeners truly are. The way to know is if you are doing your best work at night, like if you are running that side hustle at night, you're writing the Great American Novel at night, you're doing your paintings, or composing your music, or whatever it is. If you are doing that at night, great, you're a night owl.
For most people, what they mean when they say they're not a morning person is that they're tired in the morning, but they haven't really thought through, “Well, why am I tired in the morning? Well, maybe it's because I am on Instagram for an hour before bed every night, and my life would be improved in all sorts of ways if I stop doing that and you get an extra hour of sleep, or maybe just get an extra half hour sleep and wake up half an hour earlier and have time to write in a journal, or meditate, or go for a run, or actually spend some relaxed time with your spouse, or kids.” These are all things that you can do if you had a bit more control over getting to bed at a reasonable time, so you could wake up refreshed.
[0:51:42.3] MB: For listeners who want to concretely implement some of the ideas, or themes that we've talked about today, what would be a starting point, or a first piece of homework you would give them as an action item to begin implementing some of these things?
[0:51:57.2] LV: Well, I hope people would try tracking their time for a week. If you can't get through a week, just try for day, right? Try one weekday and one weekend day and see what you learn from that. Often, that can wet your appetite for keeping it going for a week. One fun exercise that might help you have a different perspective on time is to try planning in one of these little adventures during your week.
Think about tomorrow, probably if you're listening to this during the week, tomorrow's a normal workday, nothing crazy going on, but look at your schedule, think about how you plan to spend your time and think about, well what one out of the ordinary, memorable fun thing could I do with my time tomorrow? It doesn't have to be elaborate. I mean, it could be that you take a colleague you've been meaning to chat with and the two of you go to a new restaurant that opened up down the street, or maybe you're working closely with a team, you all know each other pretty well, you decide to go to a park for that meeting instead of sitting in your conference room.
Or maybe it's that you park your car in a different garage and walk a slightly different route into work, and then on the way to your car in the evening, you stop in some cool little store that you saw on the way in and you explore that for a few minutes before you go brave the traffic on the way home. Or maybe at night, it's that you go for a walk after dinner, or you go someplace interesting to have a drink with a friend. Just anything that would be different, that would be a little adventure you can put into your life.
Think about what that might be and make that happen for tomorrow. I promise you that you will remember the day a little bit better, and it will also make you feel you have more time, mostly because you start to see yourself as the person who has the time to do these adventures. That's really all about the mental game. It's all about time is how we perceive it. We do all have the same amount of time and time doesn't stop for anyone, but we do so many things with our amazing brains to change our interaction with it, and that change our perception of it.
[0:53:47.8] MB: For listeners who want to learn more, who want to find you and your work online, what is the best place for them to do that?
[0:53:53.5] LV: Well, you can come visit my website, which is lauravanderkam.com. I'm one of those old school people who's still blogging four times a week, I guess I never left 2007. I enjoy it still. If you listen to all your episodes, or the Science of Success you're looking for other podcasts, I run one called The Best of Both Worlds, with my co-host Sarah Hart-Unger.
I also hope some of your listeners will check out the book that just came out, Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. A lot of these strategies that we talked about in this episode on how to make more memories, how to feel more in control of our time, how to feel more time is fun, as opposed to this drum beat marching toward doom.
[0:54:31.8] MB: Well Laura, thank you so much for coming on the show, for sharing your time with us today and for sharing all these insightful lessons and strategies.
[0:54:39.4] LV: Well, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
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