Time is a strange thing. Though it always continues on, it sometimes feels as though it move quickly and other times slowly.
In work, sometimes it’s easy to manage our time and what we can fit into a few hours or a day. Other times it gets away from us — leaving us frustrated and unsatisfied.
These are some of the attributes of time that fascinate Laura Vanderkam and drew her to build a career out of writing on the topic.
Laura is the bestselling author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, I Know How She Does It, 168 Hours, among others. She is the host of a few podcasts and her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fast Company, Fortune, and other publications.
I really enjoyed speaking with Laura about her new book, as well as many different aspects of time and time management. I hope you will as well.
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In this episode you’ll learn:
- What Laura does
- How she got into this particular niche
- What were she doing before
- The point in her life when she decided this is what she was going to do
- Laura share a bit about her new book
- What are some major themes that helps someone to be effective working from home
- What does it mean that “Time is Flexible”?
- Where to start to gain more control over your time
- How to do a time log
- How often should you do a time log
- Where to insert important things into your day
- How to go about setting priorities
- How to dealt with uncertainty about next steps
- What are time traps and how to avoid them
- How to optimize time in a way that’s not exhausting
The New Corner Office – Laura Vanderkam
Software Generated Transcription:
Laura, thank you so much for joining me, welcome to the Meeting Movement podcast.
Thank you for having me.
So the question I’d like to begin with is, how do you begin to talk about what you do in the world?
Well, I always say that I want to help people find more time for what matters and spend less time on what doesn’t matter. And I do that by writing books, giving speeches, hosting podcasts and anything else that would fit within those categories.
I love it.
I love it. Have you always been interested in time and priorities?
I have. And it’s funny because there’s a certain thing with writing self-help where I think in general the format is you need to have hit rock bottom at some point and experience this epiphany.
I don’t know in my case how scheduling was going to change everything and climbed up from the muck with that. But my life is really not that interesting.
I’ve just always been interested in how we spend our time, how we can spend our time better. The fascinating thing to me is that everybody has the same amount of time. Everybody has twenty four hours in a day, one hundred sixty eight hours in a week. And so when you find people who are doing amazing things professionally and personally, they may have various other advantages, but they don’t have more time. And so I try to study these people and figure out how they’re spending their time and what the rest of us can learn from that.
I love it. I love it. I’d love to rewind a little bit and just hear some of how like what was the process for you to get into this particular niche, like, you know, when did you decide that you wanted to to write and speak and you know, that this was going to be your thing? And what were you doing before then?
Well, I’ve always loved writing and I’ve always loved performing. And so it turns out that writing books and speaking fit well with that, the exact topic of time. As you may not be surprised, I did not grow up as a little child thinking I want to be a time management expert. You should run away from any time like that.
But, you know, as I was writing various articles on various topics and when I was in my twenties, I noticed that I got good reactions to the things that were written about time. And I began to study the topic more and write more about it. I became particularly interested in it when I became a parent for the first time back in twenty seven. It was any of your listeners who have been through that transition know that parenthood helps you think about your time in all sorts of new ways.
And so that’s when I really began studying it in earnest. And when you write about something that other people react positively to it, you tend to keep going with it. And so I started writing books on that and went from there.
I love it. I love it. I’m curious about your identity as a writer, and I think a lot of people aspire or talk about wanting to be a writer and fewer people actually go and get a publishing contract or self publish.
And I’m curious for you, like at what point in your life was it like, this is what I’m going to do. I am a writer.
Was that part of like was that just supernatural for you or not supernatural and spiritual, but very, very natural for you, very natural or supernatural.
I don’t know.
Well, it was pretty natural. I mean, we have collections of stories I wrote from when I was a kid. I think I wrote my first little book when I was a kindergartener.
I’m not even sure I could really read, but I managed to write out the words. And so that part has always been the way I express myself now. The exact topics that I was going to write about is a different matter. And that took a while to settle on. But no, I mean, it’s just always what I’ve done. I studied various things in high school, college or whatever, but I was often writing as a way to make money on the side, writing articles for various places.
And I realized I could also just keep doing that. So that’s what I end up doing.
That’s awesome. That’s awesome.
Well, you’ve got a new book coming out very, very shortly. That was very timely. I feel like I’d love to talk to you about all the books that you’ve written because. Well, I think time is and priorities. So I guess on topic for listeners of this podcast, we’re all thinking about priorities, all thinking about how to, you know, get more out of our work, out of our life, which is another way of saying out of our time, I’d love to hear about the new book, which is all about working from home.
So very timely. And as we are in this major cultural shift, as more and more people are working from home, I’m very interested in it for a handful of reasons.
One is I work from home. Two, is you mentioned, your shift towards this topic took place as you became a parent for the first time. My wife and I are expecting our third in just about a month here and again. Really, really scared of what going to what that’s going to cost as far as my time and how we’re going to make everything happen and just the intersection of being someone who works from home, having kids, all of that just feels like I need I need you in my life.
I need you to coach me so I don’t know where to begin.
That wasn’t a question. It was. But I’d love to maybe start about like. Let’s hear about what the new book is and what your hopes are for it.
Yeah. So the new book is called The New Corner Office, and that’s also the title of one of my podcasts. And the new corner office looks at how successful people work from home. And I maintain that working from home can be a strategic component of any big career. I think in the past, people assumed, well, it’s kind of a once a week sort of thing, that somebody needs more work life balance is going to take on. But I think in this new post pandemic world, we’re starting to see remote work as a strategic advantage.
I mean, for organizations that can be more nimble, for people who can be better stewards of their energy and have time for the kind of individual focused work that doesn’t necessarily always get done in the office. You know, as we come out of this pandemic, few places are going to stay fully remote. We all had to go fully remote in March of 2020 in order to keep going with operations. But as sort of life gets back to normal, people are going to have a hybrid where a lot of organizations will be some days in the office, some days at home.
And I really think this is going to be the best of both worlds because people can focus those in office days on collaboration and building the social trust that allows people to work well together and then focus those at home days on individual focused work, the sort that is easily interrupted when colleagues are stopping by your desk.
Yeah, yeah. Well, it feels like both have their own challenges at work. I mean, because they each have their own, their own flavor of distraction. Right. When you’re at work, you have everyone at work who asks something of your time and when you’re at home, you have either, you know, family or housemates or roommates or chores or TV or all the other things that can easily take up your time. And I’m curious, what are some of the major themes that you’ve seen as far as what helps someone be effective in their time working from home?
Well, I think what really helps a lot of people is to get a daily rhythm that allows them to manage their energy and get stuff done. You know, when you go to an office, you know, when you’re at work because you have commuted to your office, there’s a definite transition ritual that tells you, OK, now I’m in work mode. And for people who are new to working at home, that’s a lot less apparent when you are just walking to your new corner office, which may be just a corner of the dining room table or something.
So what are you going to do to create a transition ritual to get you started in the day? And just as important, what are you going to do to have an end of day transition ritual?
A lot of people understand, like, oh, I’m starting something new, I’m going to transition into that. But having an end of day message to yourself that the day is done is critical as well, because otherwise you can sort of be half working and half not working all night. So having some sort of transition is very helpful for a lot of people. As I was taking breaks. You know, everybody needs breaks whether you’re working at home, working in an office, but you can manage those particularly well at home to do stuff that you might not at an office, for instance, you know, going for a walk or saying hello to other family members, having lunch with family members.
These are all things you can do. And they’re great and they can really deepen the experience of time. But you need to be mindful about choosing to do it.
Yeah, I love it. I love it. And I also just love what you said to deepen the experience of time. And I think I wanted to pick your brain for a second about time. The concept conceptually, in our experience of it, I mean, I think time and I’ve seen some of your, I’ve gone through some of your work and listened to some of your talks and you’ve talked about how time is flexible. And what do you mean when you say that?
I feel like time expands to accommodate what we choose to put into it. And the story I tell about this and anyone who Googles my TED talk will hear this, but I’ll tell it again. I’ve had thousands of people track their time for me over the years. And one that sort of stood out for me is very busy. Lady worked in finance and had two kids and she goes out on Wednesday night for something. She comes home and finds that her water heater has broken.
And so there’s water all over her basement. And anyone who’s ever had this happen knows it’s a pretty big mess. So, like, she’s cleaning it up. She’s got the plumbers coming in. And she’s got a professional cleaning crew because her basement is in pretty sorry shape at this point, and all of this is being recorded on her time log and is taking time out of her week and it went up to taking seven hours for her for her to do it.
And we talked about this afterwards and say, well, you know, let’s picture what we were at the start of this week and said, hey, could you find seven hours for whatever it is that people say they don’t have time for reading, volunteering, exercising? You know, could you find seven hours for those things? Well, we all know what we’d say. You know, I cannot find seven hours for those things. And I should have said that too.
But when she had to find seven hours, because there is water all over her basement, she found seven hours. And what this shows to me is what we were saying that time is elastic. Like, you know, it’s not that seven hours magically appears, but when you have to find seven hours, you find seven hours. And so I really think that the key to time management is treating the things that are important to us as the equivalent of that broken water heater, which is to get to them.
We choose to do them with that same sense of urgency.
Yeah, I love that. I love that. If someone is feeling like, you know, overwhelmed and feeling like they need to get more done, but they’re not sure where to start, what do you recommend? What’s the best place to try to. As you’re trying to get more control over your time, where do you recommend people start that process?
One of the best things you can do to spend your time better is to figure out where the time is going now because it’s the same as any sort of business decision. You want to work from good data, like where should I open a store? Well, not just by guessing. You want to see, like where people are walking by, like where people are spending money, what else is there? So the same thing with time. You want to know where your time is going now, because that way you can make sure that you are changing the right thing because maybe something you didn’t think was taking that much time actually is or maybe something that you thought was taking a lot of time actually isn’t.
So you want to make sure you’re working from good data. And the best way to get that data is to actually track your time. Lots of ways you could do this. You can use time tracking apps. You can just keep a notebook going. You can use a spreadsheet, which is what I do. And maybe people don’t like spreadsheets.
That’s fine. But, you know, lots of lots of ways you can do this, but just go for a couple of days. Ideally a week, a week tends to be the cycle of life as we actually live it. And then you could look at your schedule, say, well, what do I think of this? What am I spending my time on? How many hours am I working? How many hours I’m sleeping? What do my sleep hours look like?
Are they regular? Are they erratic? Am I going to bed at the same time or is it falling asleep on the couch some night and stay up late hours? What am I doing during my leisure time? What sort of things happen during the time I’m with my family. Chores and errands where do those happen? Exercise, reading, volunteering, any of these things. And then as you get this data, you can just start to say, well, what do I want to spend more time doing?
And of course, what do I want to spend less time doing?
Yeah. And how do you recommend how often? Does someone just practically speaking, for keeping a time log, just like every 15 minutes you write down what you’re doing? Or is it like, you know, twice a day you write down what you did. Like how granular should people get in their logging?
I think that checking in three to four times a day is actually more than enough to get the broad picture of your life. It’s not about recording. Every time you got up from your desk and got a glass of water that would make it impossible to stick with. It’s more about getting the broad outlines of your time, knowing that it’s not going to be perfect. But done is so much better than perfect in this case. So I’d say check in three times a day.
Maybe around the time you’re starting work, you can sort of record the morning and the night before, maybe at the end of work, sort of record what you did during the day. And the evening before you go to bed, record what you did during that time. But then also do be sure to record a weekend so I’ve had a lot of people do this and just not do the weekends. And it’s sort of like, well, is that because weekends aren’t real time?
I don’t understand. I mean, I understand that it may be annoying to track your time on a weekend, but it’s just once, right? You don’t have to do this forever. It’s just to see, well, where is my time? So I can understand if there are things that I’d like to do with my time where that might be possible.
Mm hmm. I love that. I love that. So then as they’re looking and asking these questions of what do you want to do more of, what do you want to do less of, where do they put the things that aren’t even on like that aren’t even on their time right now?
So let’s say that you want to train for a race. I think maybe a triathlon, for the woman with the water heater issue.
I guess where do you begin? Like after you have that data and you go through it, I can see where everything is. Going, but I don’t know where to put the other things that aren’t there.
Well, I think spending time well requires taking yourself outside of time for a little bit. You need to have a designated weekly planning time where you look at the upcoming week and say, well, what do I want to do with my time and where can those things go?
So having that designated time is just so important. It’s really the heart of time management. I enjoy doing this on Friday afternoons, but there’s other times that can work for people. But, you know, Friday afternoons, just take a few minutes and look at the upcoming week and say, OK, well, what are my top personal priorities? What are my top professional priorities? If you’re training for a race, maybe that’s when you say, OK, well, here are the four workouts I need to do next week.
Well, I could do them Tuesday morning. I could do one Thursday after work and do Saturday and Sunday. OK, great. But we’re not done yet because you’re a busy person. So where are the backup slots? So, you know, if Tuesday morning gets away from you, where is the backup slot for Tuesday morning? Well, maybe it’s Wednesday morning. If Thursday afternoon gets away from you, where’s the backup slot? Well, maybe it’s Friday after work.
And if Saturday doesn’t happen, can you move it to Sunday and then double up? Or maybe you just have to take a little time from the next week. But figuring it out drastically increases the chances that it gets done.
I love that. I’m curious, you know, as you’re thinking about priorities, I think this is where it really, really overlaps with the reason a lot of people are listening.
People are thinking about what they want and where they want to go with their career and trying to figure out how to get more satisfaction out of their work. But sometimes it’s really hard to even define and choose what your priorities are or maybe should be. It feels like it’s kind of a dangerous, dangerous word.
But I’m curious about what you recommend, how you recommend people go about setting those priorities and making those choices. Sometimes it’s overwhelming to even know, like there’s so many good things I could be doing. How do I choose the ones that I want to do?
So I think it’s helpful to make a good long list of, like, anything you may want to do in life, you know, things that sound interesting to you, things that sound meaningful to you. This is the hard work of getting to know yourself. And the list is not a one time thing. I can start it, but then you’re probably going to need to come back to it frequently. You say, well, what do I still want to do?
What do I don’t want to do more of, you know, to try to make it really long. You’re not holding yourself to any of this. It’s just ideas. That sounds interesting. And then you can start playing around with them, you know, as you’re planning your week, say, well, what on this list could I do a piece of in the next week as you plan your years, for instance, as you think about your vacations?
Well, obviously, you can look at a list of places you’d like to go to start figuring that out. But maybe it’s hobbies, maybe it’s people you’d like to meet. Maybe it’s books you’d like to read. These are all things that can be, you know, things you’d like to fill your time with. But having the list allows you to call these to mind when you do have time. And I think that’s the key gap, is that we have stuff we want to do.
We also feel very busy. And so when time does appear, we tend to spend it in the most effortless way possible, which is just surfing the web or watching TV as opposed to really doing something more consequential with it.
Yeah, I love that. I love it. That’s great. I’m curious for you as a writer, speaker, consultant, you know how you think about words like purpose, meaning calling, whichever words are a part of your vocabulary. And I’m asking this question because these are the words that a lot of people are using when they’re thinking about where they are right now and what they want to do next. What do you think about that in your own life?
I love the word calling, you know, but life doesn’t have to necessarily be that clear. It’s not all Saul on the road to Damascus and blinding light off your horse or whatever it is. Sometimes it’s more just like I notice that I am good at something. I notice I enjoy it, you know, I’m intrigued by it. And then somebody else is interested in what you do and you say, OK, well, let me play around with that a little bit more.
I think it’s often more small steps that you figure out what the right direction might be. And over time, as you do more of something and become better at it, it becomes more of your calling. But that’s more a function of you putting a lot of time into it and consciously working to get better. It’s not that it was immediately obvious from the beginning, but it becomes so over time.
Yeah, yeah. I love that. And I think it’s totally true that you have to. That satisfaction, that meaning that that purpose comes from having established some sense of expertise and authority, we like to do the things we do. We do well to feel that satisfaction in it.
I’m curious, as you’ve been through the major decisions that you’ve made in your career, whether those be which book you’re going to write next or when, I don’t know. We haven’t talked about other major work transitions that you’ve had.
But if you’ve ever been in a place where you felt really stuck and uncertain and if you have any stories or experience to share about how you went from being uncertain to having a sense of clarity about what the next step was.
Yeah, well, I mean, I wish there was ever total clarity. I mean, I think you just do stuff and then see. So even writing about time, you know, I wrote my first book on time. It’s called one hundred sixty eight Hours. And it came out in 2010 and that had been a challenging book deal to get because the book I wrote before that, that was a career book, hadn’t sold particularly well. And so I wound up switching publishers and took a long time to get kind of a platform built up to write the time management book.
It got some good attention. I a lot of people liked it, but it still wasn’t exactly a runaway best seller or anything like that. And so it was casting around for my next book idea. My publisher and I was like, OK, well, let’s try something on money. So I wrote a book on money like personal finance and it was OK. I wrote some things that I think are interesting. Again, it was not particularly over the top successful.
Yeah. And but then as that was. That came out and as I was waiting for it to come out, I wrote a short eBook that was also on time that was called What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. And when that came out, it just sold like crazy. It was high on the Amazon bestseller list for like all book.
So, you know, there’s a million categories on Amazon. You can always be number one for something, but, you know, high up the list for all books. And the audio book was like number one on iTunes. So it’s like, oh, OK.
Well, I guess people do want to hear from me about time. Know, maybe I’ll try that again. And that was years after I’d started writing about it and I was years after my first book on the topic.
And so I think it’s life is only really clear in retrospect and you can see how pieces fit together. But it doesn’t mean that when things are confused in the moment that anything is wrong, it’s just that there’s always a lot of signals. And so you have to take the risk of figuring out which ones you want to listen to and which ones are the right. And there’s no guarantee that you’ll listen. Right. But you keep trying things and eventually you’ll probably land on something.
I love that. I love that. It’s such a great vignette from your story. And just that how often takes years. I think what we often forget about and it’s easy to look at from the outside, even a book like that would have, you know, be at the top of Amazon is unimaginable for people like feel like oh, she is just an overnight success. Just all came together. But the truth is that, you know, that this was the product of a long time of just continuing to stick with it, to keep writing, to keep publishing.
And eventually, you know, you had to break through. Not that the others were failures by any means, but the breakthrough that I think a lot of people dream about, which is it’s really inspiring to hear. I’m curious, you know, just as we’re kind of, I guess, circling around time. But I’m curious about the traps or kind of the things that people don’t expect about how they spend their time or spend their time. If there’s any themes or ideas that you’ve encountered that people should be aware of.
Well, I think the biggest time trap is just general mindlessness about how we spend our time. I mean, people often ask me, well, what’s the biggest time waster? Is it I don’t know, Netflix? Is it meetings? Is it email? Is it social media? And the answer is kind of yes, all of the above. But what all those have in common is that it’s time we haven’t really thought through how we are spending. And when you don’t think about how you’re going to spend your time, well, time keeps passing no matter what you do.
And so it’s very easy for it to go to places that you may not have chosen if you had put a little bit more thought into it.
I mean, just there are studies that have looked at people’s experience, happiness through the days. We know for sure that people find socialising more enjoyable than watching TV. And yet how many people spend the weekend watching TV instead of getting together with friends because it takes work to set up the time to get together with friends, as they’re like? And I didn’t feel like making the plan that didn’t do it. Time got away from me. And so. When you spend your leisure time on something that is far less enjoyable than it could have been, so that’s the sort of mindlessness that makes time.
Get away from us. So, you know, it’s hard to shift out of that mindset. Nobody’s going to optimize one hundred percent of their time. I’m not saying they should, nor am I saying that we need to do something that is productive and putting our skill set there all the time. If you want to go sit and look at the clouds for 30 minutes, I think that is awesome. That is a great use of time, if that is what you have consciously chosen to do.
I think the problem is a lot of people don’t think about it. They’re like, oh, I got a text on my phone from my friend. Great. And I’m going to respond. But then don’t put the phone down. And like 30 minutes later, they’re somewhere, somewhere on the Internet rabbit hole. And it’s like, well, that wasn’t intentional, but it was. It happened.
I love it. I love it. And I know I’m as guilty of that as anyone. You see the notification that you click on things and then you’re lost forever. When you talk about bringing that intentionality to your time use.
My first thought is like that sounds really hard, really overwhelming, if you will. Like I hear you saying that it’s not, like you said, not optimize one hundred percent. But how do you do this in a way that’s not exhausting?
Well, I think setting limited goals for yourself on any given day is fine. And so I’m not saying, well, there should be no TV on weekends because you should pack the entire weekend with fun social activities and more saying that you want to have some balance between it, like you might be better off, you know, meeting a friend for a run and then planning a dinner out with your spouse. And then whatever else happens around there is fine if there’s TV the rest of the time.
OK, but, you know, you’ve gotten to those things that you consciously chose to do. Yeah. And so if you just have that in mind, like I’m going to do maybe these three things that are chosen, then then the fact that the rest of the time is not necessarily fully optimized for your pleasure is OK, whatever, you know. But striking that balance is key.
I love it. That’s great. That’s great. Well, just as we begin to move towards wrapping up here with this new book, I’m curious what your hope is like. What is it that you’re trying to accomplish? What are you trying to say to the world and the change that you’re trying to be a part of making?
Well, I want people to realize that working from home can be a strategic advantage, that it’s not just about achieving work life balance, though. That can be great. It’s just that there are real upsides to having different ways of working. And I think a lot of time and a lot of fossil fuels and a lot of human frustration have been created and burned in the course of people commuting to offices just to email and call people in other places. And I’m not saying that face to face work.
Is it necessary? Because it absolutely is. But I think for many organizations and for many kinds of work, the point of diminishing returns is far below 40 hours a week. And so by shifting the amount of time spent in the office versus time spent other places, people can get the best of both worlds. And I really want to be part of that revolution and how we work and working in a way that’s more humane, that’s less destructive toward people’s schedules and toward the planet in general.
I love it. I love it. Yeah. So I think we want to be a part of that cultural shift. Yeah, very cool.
I’m curious, you know, that’s your hope for this book. But to kind of even zoom out further to your career and your work in general, what is the impact that you want to make? What’s the legacy that you want to leave?
Well, I want to help people spend more time on things that matter and less time on things that don’t. And so with this book on working from home, I want people to spend less time commuting. I want them to spend less time getting to meetings that maybe didn’t have to happen. I want them to spend less time, you know, working because I’m supposed to work until five thirty as opposed to working, because these are the three things I need to accomplish today.
And when I do great, you know, we’ve made solid progress toward the organization’s goals. And it doesn’t really matter as much what time that is. I don’t need to know if it happened by four thirty. I don’t need to sit there at my desk doing nothing for an hour because leaving shows that I’m not a go getter. Those are all things that I want people to be better stewards of their time because I think it allows them to do great things with their time.
I love it. I love it definitely resonates with me.
I’d have one job where there’s a lot of work in the evenings, and I would, you know, outside of the office, but I had a manager who I expected me to always be in the office during office hours, which ended up creating a very unhealthy work life balance. But I would always talk about that to my wife as when I go to the office I was going to time out.
That’s what it felt like. Like I felt like I was just sitting there. Yeah, wasting time, energy, wasting my time, because the real work was happening hours after I left office. But that’s just the way that organization was running, which was really not optimized at all. Which is to say, I think you’re doing really good work in the world. I need it.
Well, thank you so much for taking the time to connect with me. I’m super excited about this book. Like I said, even from my own, from my own life, to be able to just see how other people are working from home. Well, and I think that I’m sure there’ll be strategies that I’ll be able to apply to optimize my life even further. It comes out July 30 or 21st, correct?
Yeah. So planning wise, I will. I’m not sure of the date at the moment of this recording, but we’ll make sure that this goes live either on the day of or shortly thereafter. So if you’re listening, check it out. The new corner office, how the most successful people work from home.
If there are people listening that really love what you’re doing, want more of you in their life.
Are there any extra steps you’d like to invite them to?
Well, please come visit my website. Laura Vanderkam dot com. I write there and you can find links to speeches and articles and podcasts. And so that’s a great place to start.
I love it. I love it. Well, thank you so much for the time. It’s really, really great connecting with you. Thanks for joining me.
Thanks for having me.