Laura Vanderkam is a time makeover expert. Her newest book Off The Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done holds nuggets of gold for anyone designing their second half.
She’s sharing all of her research and ideas you can implement today to improve your experience of time. By following her suggestions, you’ll make marvelous memories with your family and friends too.
Let me take a moment to tell you a little more about Laura. She’s written best-selling books. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Fortune and other publications. She’s been a guest on The Today Show and Fox and Friends. Her 2016 Ted Talk has been viewed more than 5 million times and she co-hosts the podcast The Best of Both Worlds.
Laura's done so much and she has a lot of great information that she discusses in this podcast. You're going to want to put it into practice. To help you, I’ve made a special checklist of the important concepts Laura shares that I think you'll want to remember. Don’t worry about taking notes. You can download that special checklist right here.
N: Hi Laura. Thank you so much for being here today. I really enjoyed your new book Off The Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. You shared so many great stories about being a busy mom of four young children and your work in the time management area.
I wanted to start by asking you to talk about the research in your book on how memories are made.
L: Thanks for having me on. I find the topic of memory absolutely fascinating, particularly how it plays into the concept of time and time perception. Time keeps marching along at the same pace it always does but there are interesting questions if you think about how we remember our time.
Why do certain periods of our lives feel like they were far more vast than others? Many people have more memories of high school or college whereas the past four years of our lives often don’t have as much sticking out as memory. The brain perceives time based on how many memory units are formed during that period of time.
I talked to a bunch of memory researchers who study this topic and measure how we perceive time and they found the more memory units you form of a given period of time, the longer you perceive that time as having been.
Think about going on a vacation somewhere exotic. The first day of vacation feels very long. Your brain is forming lots of new memories. You don’t know what you’ll need so your brain’s remembering all of it and then it winds up seeming very vast.
A normal day in life tends not to be like that. People get up, get dressed and do what they normally do. This isn’t memorable. Enough of this sameness stacks up and it begins to feel like time is slipping through our fingers.
One of the strategies I talk about in Off The Clock for feeling like we have more time is trying to make daily life a little bit more memorable. Put in little adventures here and there, little bits of novelty out of the ordinary. If you have a reason to remember a day because it was memorable, then it doesn’t disappear into this memory sink hole as if it never existed.
N: A lot of people create family rituals even with our adult children. Many vacation in the same place at the same time each year because it works for their family but is this the best way to build special memories? Would you encourage us to do something a little bit different each year?
L: There’s certainly nothing wrong with routines and it’s nice to have a place where you go every single year. I would just say within the context of that you could do something different as well. Maybe you could try a different restaurant while you’re there or go on a family hike or something you haven’t done before.
You might also try mixing it by going on a hike over Christmas or for a long weekend in the spring you get together somewhere different and do something different. There are ways to do something different and new and you form memories of these. It doesn’t have to be all new. This is not the way life works and then we don’t capitalize on our experience. We can have a different balance between novel and routine than we might naturally create.
N: Tell us about the story of Dorie Clark.
L: Dorie Clark is a great expert on personal branding and how people can become experts in their field. She’s got this great business that she runs coaching people on that, writing about it and speaking about it. She lives in New York City and at some point she realized ‘I’m living in New York City but a lot of work I’m doing I’m either traveling or on the phone with people. I could do that from anywhere so why am I living in the most expensive place possible if I’m not taking advantage of it?’
Her answer was not to move to somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Her answer was to try to take advantage of New York. She set a goal for herself to do one memorable only-in-New York thing every week for one year.
Fifty things! New York is a big city. She started being on the lookout for adventures. She put it in the calendar. She had this goal to do one uniquely New York adventure every week so she would find a week to do it.
She did all kinds of amazing things during the year ~ some of the touristy stuff, comedy clubs, little markets, eating in certain famous restaurants, going to certain parks that were out of the way. All these things were things that made New York more memorable for her and she wound up having a great time of it.
You can do that anywhere you are. You could say ‘I’m going to have fifty uniquely Chicago adventures or San Francisco adventures or Texas adventures’ Things you couldn’t do anywhere. You could see a movie anywhere but you couldn’t see a particular museum anywhere or this park or these people. Set a goal for yourself and you’ll nudge yourself to start putting more little adventures into your life.
N: How many of us live in a city and it’s not until our friends come from out of town that we really explore it and see places that we put off because we’re too busy with day to day life?
L: It doesn’t have to be one a week. Maybe that’s not the pace you want to assign for yourself but something. A lot of people get motivated by check lists or by specific goals so simply saying I want to enjoy my city, that’s hard to measure and execute against. Having a target of one day trip every other week you can measure. When something gets measured, it gets done. Put that same impulse into something that’s not work related— that’s fun related.
N: For me, it’s about putting it in the calendar. If it gets in the calendar, it gets done. You have this mantra plan it in and do it anyway. How did that come about for you?
L: What often happens is you might have said ‘On Saturday I’m going to go to this faraway park in Queens. Then on Saturday you’re kinda tired. You have errands to do. There’s a show you want to watch. Then you don’t do it. What’s happening? Your experiencing self is throwing a bit of a tantrum.
There’s really three selves. Psychologists and researchers have written about this aspect of the human personality. There’s the anticipating self who is looking forward to something that’s going to happen in the future.
There’s the experiencing self in the here and now. It’s your temporal body going through life. And there’s the remembering self, the keeper of our memories. If you’re telling friends a story about what you did on the weekend, that’s your remembering self.
The issue is that all three selves are part of us but we pay a lot more attention to the experiencing self in any given moment because the experiencing self actually has to do it. So you may have planned some grand adventure into your life and then you’re like ‘yeah, but I just got home from work and it’s raining and I don’t feel like it. I’m tired. Then people cancel plans and decide not to go. The problem is you do the easy, effortless bits of fun like watching TV or sitting around the house but then you don’t have any memory of it. That time kinda disappears as if it didn’t exist. So I’m always challenging people to only treat the experiencing self as one actor in what is actually a three actor play. There should not be a monologue.
One way to get myself to think of this is to say ‘plan it in, do it anyway.’ Putting something on the calendar makes it more likely that it’s going to happen. If you just tell yourself I should do this, it might never happen but if it’s on the calendar for a specific time, that’s the first nut. Then you’re looking forward to it. You get the anticipation.
When you get to that moment and you say, ‘Oh, I’m tired’ just do it anyway. Maybe if you’re so tired you can’t get yourself to the door, that’s one thing but if you’re able to get around and turn on the TV then you probably have enough energy to get in your car and go somewhere.
If you do it anyway, what ends up happening is that we draw energy from meaningful things. Once you’re going, you’ll probably enjoy it. Afterwards you’ll be glad you did it. Go and be the kind of person who goes on adventures with friends on Monday nights.
N: Sometimes we become hesitant about going and doing something new. It’s a little bit scary and people start rethinking what the plan was. Your comment to go for it because you’re going to enjoy it once you get there is very useful.
L: I remember I went zip lining on a trip to Central America. We were supposed to zip line through the rain forest canopy. Sounds cool and a little scary. I’m afraid of heights. I told myself beforehand ‘in 90 minutes this will be done. I can have the memory of having done this 90 minutes from now or not. I may as well do it and afterward I can say I’m the kind of person who zip lines through the rainforest.’
N: I want to ask you about the journaling you recommend, journaling your time. How have you seen this work for people?
L: I love that you call it time journaling. It sounds nicer than time tracking.
Keep track of where your time goes. I’ve been tracking my time continuously for a little over three years now. If people are curious about how they’re spending their time and if they’d like to spend their time better or in a different way, tracking your time is always going to be the first step because if you don’t know where your time is going, how do you know what you should be changing?
If you don’t have good data, you can’t make good decisions. It’s the same thing with time. You want to know where the time is going so you can decide ‘I have too much time going to X category and I have too little time in Y category so I want to spend more time there.
What I’ve found over many years of studying people’s schedules is that many people have no idea where their time is really going. They have ideas but the ideas can be wrong. They are influenced by energy levels, cultural narrative, and a lot of things.
A lot of my work has been aimed at working parents. A lot of people in that stage of life say ‘I never see my kids.’ I have them track their time and they see their children a lot. But there’s this story out there if you work full time, you’ll never see your family because full time must mean all your time. Then people don’t notice the time they’re with their families. Time tracking shows us there’s 168 hours in a week. If you’re working 40 of those house, sleeping 8 hours a night ~ that’s 56 hours a week ~ so there’s still 72 hours for other things. Often people are seeing their families for most of that time. But that’s not the story they have in their heads.
I like to look at the data. I tell people to track for a week. Look at the major categories and ask yourself, do I like this? What do I want to scale up? What do I want to scale down? Then you can start looking for ways to make those changes.
N: I took you up on the challenge and tracked my time for two days. I found I was letting a lot of other things creep in where it wasn’t the best place or time for them. It was messing up my rhythm on other tasks. It’s a very interesting idea to journal your time. I like the word journaling because it helps to think through what you’re doing with time and question how you’re experiencing your day.
You talk about investing in your happiness. If you don’t have the demanding schedule, how does this play out?
L: Anyone can choose to invest in their happiness. People who do have more time for whatever reason, maybe they’re newly retired or between jobs or their kids have moved out and they’re empty nesters, it can be easy to spend that time on things like random housework or errands or something someone else suggested and you do it just because they suggested it.
Those are not always the way you do wish to be spending your time. It can be very easy to be influenced by other people because you have this time. Time is still limited. I challenge people to think ‘what would make me happy? What activities really bring joy and meaning to my life? How can I make sure to protect those first to make sure they have a prominent spot in my schedule and that other things bend around that as opposed to those things always bending based on other people’s demands?
For many people, mornings are a really good time for doing whatever it is that’s important to them. For people working full time with families, the mornings tend to be what you absolutely have to use because there isn’t that much other time available for things like exercising or if you have creative aspirations. If you want to write that novel, it’s probably not going to happen late at night when you have no energy to do anything except watch TV.
It’s the same thing if people have more space in their lives because people tend to have that space disappear. You say ‘I have plenty of time. I’ll get to it eventually.’ Then it’s mid-afternoon and you don’t have any energy and you say ‘maybe I’ll do it tomorrow.’ The other upside of doing your personal passions first is you’ve already done something really worthwhile and productive. Whatever happens the rest of the day is great because you already have this sense of victory and motivation.
Make sure that for a good number of days each week, things important to you are in your schedule and you don’t just give it away. You are in charge of your time and people can’t just have your time.
N: When you have a less demanding schedule it’s easy to think you have all the time in the world and then you don’t get anything done. It’s nice to have the discipline to schedule things into your day especially in that morning time so you feel like you did accomplish so much before you’ve even gotten started.
In the book you say “Time spent in communion with our closest companions is the most truly off the clock sensations we have. Indeed, when people express their misgivings about the whole concept of time management to me, they generally resent the structured approach to time as being incompatible with long, leisurely hours spent with much loved family and friends.”
I resonated with this. I find so many times, particularly with my experience as an interior designer, people don’t set up the environment to have these long, leisurely, wonderful times with family and yet that’s what everyone wants. How does time management play into that?
L: I called my book off the clock and the sensation of being off the clock is not counting time or minutes. You’re enjoying yourself so much that time ceases to matter. Those are some of the most happy moments in life. Those are joyful, happy moments often when you’re getting together with old friends for dinner or you’re having a great time. You’re talking over wine and late into the evening. It’s wonderful.
The issue is those things tend not to happen randomly. You have to plan for them. You have to make sure the other people can get there. You have to plan the dinner. You get the food. You get it all prepped. You clean the house and all of that is a lot of effort.
People don’t want to do it but then you don’t have these wonderful off-the-clock moments. There’s this reality that time discipline is what leads to time freedom. It’s the people who sit there and say ‘who do we love to spend time with? The Johnstons! They’re great! Let’s make sure that we can have them over this weekend. It looks like it’s going to be a beautiful evening. Maybe we could eat outside and let’s order food in and call them to get them over.’
You’ll have a great time but you have to find a spot in your schedule ahead of time in order for that to occur. The Johnsons are not going to randomly show up at your house. You have to get on their calendar. There’s effortful fun and there’s effortless fun. The effortful fun is planning the dinner party. The effortless fun is watching TV. It’s so much easier to do the effortless fun but the effortful fun is what we really truly enjoy and feel off-the-clock when we’re doing it.
N: And remember.
L: Yes, the dinner party is so much more memorable. It’s the difference of spending an evening looking at the Instagram of other people’s dinner party verses actually hosting your own. One is a lot easier. One will have far more meaning for your life.
N: Laura, give me three takeaways from your book that our listeners could start using today.
L: One is this idea of savoring good moments. This is one of the things I’ve learned from reading psychology and how we perceive time and our experiencing self. The brain walks around in a negative state. We’re always looking for things to go wrong so it’s easy to notice the things that do go wrong. But you have to actually notice things that are good too.
Sometimes you can plan those good things in like we talked about with the adventures. You can also just pause and notice when everything is going well and really savor the moment. Call attention to it. That can stretch the experience of time. You take something that is good and make the experience deeper and richer so it lasts longer. That’s one thing people can do.
N: When you say ‘savoring it’ are you thinking along the lines of a gratitude journal?
L: That could play into it. People like to write down the things they’re grateful for at the end of the day but you can also do it in the moment too. The sun is shining. I am happy. All is well. Then also remember it at the end of the day. That’s a way to stretch the experience. Savoring has many components to it.
Another quick takeaway is to don’t look at your phone all the time as a boredom buster. One of the reasons people think they have less time than they actually do is because they have time and they chop it up by looking at their phones. That is often triggered by the tech but they aren’t really getting anything done. It’s more just that you’re bored. Tons of time can disappear but it didn’t feel very refreshing or rejuvenating. Come up with other things to do with little bits of time and you’ll start to feel like you actually have more time.
One final thing I would suggest to people is to actually plan relationship priorities into your week. One exercise I started doing is I plan my week on Friday afternoons. I make a priority list in three categories ~ career, relationships, and self.
It’s very easy to plan your career priorities. Relationship and self priorities become more difficult to think about. By putting in the relationship priorities, I make sure I make time for them. So whether it’s going out to dinner with a friend or making sure you call somebody or I do something with one of my kids or my husband, knowing that those are on the schedule means that they do happen and that’s a good way for protecting this people time. People time is a good use of time.
N: I took your advice last Friday and reached out to my girlfriends who are other designers across the country and just checked in with them. We had talked about getting together. No one had actually pulled a plan together. Over the weekend the flurry of emails going back and forth saying let’s do this and let’s get together was terrific. It really makes you feel great. Everyone is busy and it takes one person checking in and the whole group got some positive energy out of touching base with each other.
L: Someone has to do it if it’s gonna happen. Be that person. Make it happen. If there are people you’d like to see, reach out to them and suggest getting together. Not everyone will respond. Not everyone will say yes. Not all of it will happen but if you send five emails, probably you’ll get one or two you’ll see over the next month or two. That’s a good rate. Over time that builds a wonderful community.
Website and Blog: LauraVanderkam.com
New Book: Off The Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done