When we ask “Where did the time go?” what we really mean is “I have no memory of what I did.” With commitments to the farm and to the family and everything else crammed into our schedules, it can feel like every moment has a claim on it and that taking time to savour the good things in life is impossible.
For some strategies on how to get more control of our time, I contacted Philadelphia-area time management and productivity guru Laura Vanderkam. As a busy author and public speaker who travels frequently for work, and with four children under the age of 10, Vanderkam also has first-hand knowledge of the need to make best use of her 168 hours each week.
In her most recent book, Off the Clock – Feel less busy while getting more done published earlier this year, Vanderkam shares the findings of her latest time-diary study involving 900 people who work at least 30 hours a week for pay and have young children at home.
Vanderkam found that when people are very mindful of their time, they feel like they have enough.
“They know where their time goes,” says Vanderkam, who also noted other common patterns. Such people build adventures into their lives, scrub their lives of anything that does not belong there, linger in moments that deserve their attention, let go of expectations of perfection, and spend quality time with friends and family.
A big proponent of tracking her time, Vanderkam says, “Knowing where the time goes keeps us accountable for our time.” She has found that even extremely busy people often have some space they can re-deploy for enjoyable, meaningful things.
“Time is finite, so we must make smart choices about it. But time is also abundant: there is enough for anything that truly matters,” says Vanderkam.
Our bad habits around using modern technology are some of the biggest time wasters, says Vanderkam. One survey found the average social media consumer spends almost two hours a day on social media sites while another found that people were checking their phones every 12 minutes. The reason modern types feel so busy, and yet have such trouble getting things done, is that we let ourselves become dependent on constant stimuli, she says.
Vanderkam shares several practical tips for spending more time on what really matters and less on the things that don’t.
Keep a time log (available at LauraVanderkam.com).
Write down what you’re doing a few times each day. If there’s a category you are concerned about, you can track it more closely. Recording a whole week is best but even a few days can be helpful. Track both weekdays and weekends.
Tend your garden
After tracking your time, look back over your schedule and ask yourself a few questions. What did I like about my schedule? What would I like to spend more time doing? What would I like to spend less time doing? How can I make it happen?
Create daily intentions. If you did nothing else today, what three accomplishments would make you feel like you got a lot done?
On Fridays when you make your goals for next week, make sure there is something for each of the three major categories of your life: career, relationships and self.
You can also build space by practising “calendar triage.” On Friday afternoons, look at what is on your calendar for the following week. “See what you can jettison,” she says. Or can your time be used more efficiently by reducing the gaps between appointments?
Make life memorable
Make a list of adventures you’d like to have, both big and small. Where can you fit these into your schedule?
Carve out time for evoking memories. Look at an old photo album. Listen to music that was important to you during a certain period of your life. Visit a place that was formative for you and write down the memories that bubble up.
Don’t fill time
Look at the activities and commitments that currently fill your time. If you were starting from a blank slate, which of these would you add now? For everything else, is there a way you could wind down your role over the next few months?
Toss activities that serve no purpose. “We’ve always done this” or “everyone else does it” are not good enough reasons to keep doing something.
We can free up an incredible amount of time by being careful with all future uses of the word “yes.” One reason we overburden our future selves is that we view them as different people. Future me can worry about that. A better question when asked to take on something in the future is: “Would I do this tomorrow?” If not, then maybe the answer is no.
What activities do you do frequently? Can you streamline the logistical aspects of these activities to open up space?
Put the phone into airplane mode. If you avoid social media, what could you do with that time instead?
Change your story
When we walk around with the story that “we don’t have time for anything” we start to believe it. This is why people who watch two hours of TV a night still claim they don’t have time to exercise, read or do hobbies.
Calling something “work” doesn’t make it a more noble use of time than anything else. Work that doesn’t advance you toward the life you want is still wasted time.
Checking email every time a new message appears almost guarantees you will get nothing else done even though you will feel incredibly busy.
Look at your calendar for anything coming up that you know will be pleasurable. Think about ways to deepen the experience. Make a mental note of the sights, sounds, smells. Tell someone else about it.
To increase your enjoyment of normal life, try creating a constructed contrast. Can you picture some moment in the future where you will miss your current daily activities?
Try creating a mini daily vacation. Can you build a few minutes into your life today to consciously savour something? It could be something as simple as smelling a flower or reading a good book.
In other words, invest in your happiness. Look at your time log and figure out particular pain points in your life. What can you do to reduce these? What are your favourite treats? Could you put more of these into your life more frequently?
Let it go
Notice which topics take up a lot of mental space. For what low-stakes matters in your life could you lower your standards?
What good habits would you like to build? How would you have to lower your expectations to feel no resistance to doing that habit daily? For example, someone wanting to exercise might decide to do 10 minutes daily.
And remember, people are a good use of time. Which relationships would you like to invest more time in? What activities would enhance the time you spend with people you’re close to?
- Off the Clock — Feel less busy while getting more done by Laura Vanderkam (Portfolio/Penguin, 2018)
- Time Logs and time management tips available at lauravanderkam.com