Take your time

Are there enough hours in the day to change our lives for the better? Yes, says Laura Vanderkam – if we approach time management as a skill to be practised. By Annabel Harrison

I’d love to do more exercise/write a book /do a wine-tasting course… but I’m too busy.’  I’m sure I’m not alone in having used those three little words – apologetically, defensively, decisively – a significant number of times in my adult life. But by the time you reach the end of this article, you might decide – like I did after a Zoom with Laura Vanderkam – that busyness is not always indicative of a productive life filled with things that make you content. ‘It’s not a priority for me’ is more accurate.

Her advice is really for non-pandemic times. For those in the medical and care professions, for those trying to hold down full-time jobs while home-schooling children, and for workers in industries busier than before Covid, time has never been more stretched. If that’s the case for you now, file this and read it when life is a bit closer to normality.

Vanderkam has made a career out of thinking about time – specifically, our management of it. Time is the most used noun in the English language and we obsess over it. Finding it. Making it. Losing it. Spending it. Saving it. Cherishing it. Wasting it. We bemoan its speed when we want the present to stay put, and curse its snail’s pace when something exciting, or daunting, is on the horizon.

In our minds, we attribute elasticity to time, and blur its boundaries with emotion. But the fact remains, as Vanderkam observes, that there are 168 hours in your week. In my week. In her week. We all have the same amount of time.

‘When people say, “I have no free time,” what they generally mean is, “I don’t have as much time as I want,”’ Vanderkam explains. ‘That can be true, and should be dealt with, but it doesn’t mean they have none. Or, “I never sleep.” That’s probably not true. “I work around the clock”? Also probably not true!’

Vanderkam interviewed dozens of successful, happy people. ‘They allocate their time differently than most of us,’ she realised. ‘Instead of letting the daily grind crowd out the important stuff, they start by making sure there’s time for the important stuff.’ The result was 68 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think: a book that, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, may have changed my life.

The basic principle is this: if you sleep eight hours a night and work 50 hours a week, that leaves 62 hours. Yes, there are household chores and travel, life admin and commitments, but do they add up to 62 hours? Vanderkam would be surprised if they do.

So how do we manage to fill every hour of our time with such apparent ease? ‘The biggest time-waster is not being mindful. People don’t think about what they’d like to do with their time,

then they spend it on whatever is most effortless. Those who feel like they don’t have free time are still spending two hours a night watching TV or surfing the web. It’s the end of the day, so they’re tired. It’s hard to take the initiative to think about something they’d like to do, and do it, if they haven’t planned for it.’

Vanderkam is inspiring because her advice is simple, and it works. Planning how to spend your time, for the most part, guarantees more of it is spent doing things you love, or that advance your goals.

In January, she blogged about how to create, and stick to, habits. She committed to reading one chapter of War and Peace   (usually four to five pages), writing one hundred words in her ‘free writing file’ and doing strength training every day. And she did. The secret? ‘Make the daily demands very small – small enough to inspire no resistance. Then you just keep going. All these little somethings add up.’

I’ve started doing a two-minute exercise sequence every day. I set an alarm so I leap from my desk at 11am. So far, so good. And a lot better than fourteen minutes a week on Instagram.

In her 2016 TED Talk, Vanderkam gives the example of a successful – and, yes, busy – woman whose boiler broke. That week, she had to find seven hours that she hadn’t accounted for in order to deal with her flooded house. ‘You can choose to treat your priorities as the equivalent of that broken water heater,’ says Vanderkam, pointing out that if it was an emergency – you would find the time. ‘A lot of people resist the idea of planning, especially planning leisure time, but that is what makes leisure time happen. And good time management is a skill, like anything else. So we get better at it the more we think about it.’

Vanderkam herself is a successful writer, author, speaker and mother to five children, aged one to thirteen. How much leisure time did she have last week? ‘I would say two hours a day.’ She went for walks and ran, visited an art museum, had a dinner date with her husband, played the piano and read.

So, what are you going to make a priority this week?


Make your own time

Everyone’s life is different. But Laura Vanderkam’s eight-step process can help most of us spend more time on the things that matter

  1. Log your time

For a week, write down what you do, as often as you remember. Think of yourself as a lawyer billing time to different projects: work, sleep, travel, chores, family time, TV etc.

2. Tally up the categories

What do you over or under-invest in? What do you like most about your schedule? What would you like to change?

3. Recognise that time is a blank slate

How those 168 hours are filled is largely up to you. Think about every hour of your week as a choice.

4. Think what you’d like to do with your time

Make a list of one hundred dreams, with personal and professional goals. What would you like to spend more time doing? Come back to this list often.

5. Give goals a timeline

Write the job review you’d like to give yourself at the end of 2021, including the professional items you want to accomplish. Give big personal goals a timeline; try writing next year’s ‘family holiday letter’ with highlights of the preceding twelve months. Block an hour or so into your schedule to figure out what you’d like to pull from your list of one hundred dreams and make happen this year.

6. Break these goals down into doable steps

If you don’t know your first step, then it’s research. Running your first 10K might involve signing up for a race in six months, committing to a schedule of runs before then, and slowly building up.

7. Plan to plan

Designate a weekly planning/reviewing time in which you look at your calendar and block out steps toward your goals. When can those runs happen? Leave open space so you’re ready for the unexpected. Try to batch little tasks together. And match your most important work to the time when you are best able to do it.

8.  Hold yourself accountable

Big dreams are great. But if you don’t create space in your life to make progress on them, they’re fantasies, not goals. Build an accountability system – a friend, a group, an app – that will make failure uncomfortable. If you scheduled a run but it’s freezing outside, what will motivate you to get up and go? Answer that question and your time makeover will be a breeze.

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