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Ep 9: Laura Vanderkam, Time Management & Productivity Author, TED Speaker, Podcaster

Updated: Jul 19, 2023




EPISODE SUMMARY



Hello, Sirisha here! Today's guest interview is with Laura Vanderkam Writer, Author, and TED Speaker on the topics of work-life balance, career development, parenting, time management, and productivity. Her TED talk on “How to gain control of your free time” has had over 12 million views and has been transcribed into 41 languages.


Laura Vanderkam helps people spend more time on what matters, and less on what doesn’t.


She is the author of several time management and productivity books, including Juliet’s School of Possibilities, Off the Clock, I Know How She Does It, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, and 168 Hours. Her work has appeared in publications including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Fortune. She is the host of the podcast Before Breakfast and the co-host, with Sarah Hart-Unger, of the podcast Best of Both Worlds. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and five children, and blogs at LauraVanderkam.com


Join me on this podcast as Laura talks about her book 168 Hours, time management, and stories from her research.



Follow me on Instagram @womencareerandlife, and don't forget to listen & subscribe to the podcast here!


You can also follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/womencareerlife &


Below is a transcript of the episode, slightly modified for reading.


PODCAST TRANSCRIPT OVERVIEW


[00:50] - 168 hours [Jump to section]

[07:18] - Mosaic Tiles [Jump to section]

[11:18] - Choices... Full-time.. part-time.. stay at home .. [Jump to section]

[18:10] - What do successful leaders do before breakfast [Jump to section]

[21:06] - Note to your 21-year-old self... [Jump to section]

Food for thought. Episode takeaways [Jump to section]


PODCAST DETAILED TRANSCRIPT


168 hours [00:50]

Sirisha: Hello everyone, today I have with me Laura Vanderkam. She's the author of several time management and productivity books, including "Julie's School of Possibilities, Off the Cock. I know how she does it, and what the most successful people do before breakfast". One of my favourites is 168 Hours, and we will be talking about that book as well. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and other publications. She's the host of a podcast "Before Breakfast, which she co-hosted with Sarah Hart Unger". She also lives outside Philadelphia with her family, her husband and five children and blogs at LauraVanderkam.com. Laura, welcome, So excited to have you on the podcast today. Before we get started, I know you used to be a journalist, maybe you could give us some background of what you worked on and what brought you to where you are today.


Laura: I've just always been interested in writing. I worked for a couple of different places and wrote about a lot of different topics, but was always interested in schedules and how people got a lot done in the time we have. I started writing books about that a couple of years ago, and I'm just fascinated by the topic of time. We all have the same amount of time, and yet we do very different things with it. So I really enjoy studying how people use the hours and how they create very different lives based on what they do with those hours.


Sirisha: I think that's what's fantastic, right, you have a quote on your blog, which I really like "Spend more time on the things that matter and less on the things that don't" captures that elasticity of time that you're trying to convey in your books and what we choose to prioritize as we work through our schedules. Everyone has the same 24 hours in 168 hours, it's no different from person to person. So can you just actually briefly discuss what you mean by 168 hours, and then we'll do some more deep dive into some of the stories that you talked about in your book?


"Spend more time on the things that matter and less on the things that don't"

Laura: So 168 hours is the number of hours in a week, it is 24 times seven, people say 24/7. A lot of people often don't multiply that through, but there are in fact, 168 hours in a week. So I think the reason we want to think about time that way is it tends to be the cycle of life that people actually live, most of us live our lives in weeks. That's how we structure our lives. That's how we think of it, it's sort of the most common repeating cycle and tends to be the one that we humans have decided we want to have to structure our lives. And so because of that, I think it's very important to know that there are 168 hours in a week, because in order to, you know, have any sense of how much time you are spending on things, or how much you want to be spending on things, you know what the proportions are, you need to know what the denominator as a fraction.


Sirisha: One of the exercises in your book that talks about it, is really looking at maybe a week or two of our own structured time in 15-30 minute intervals to see where we parse all this time because many of us lead busy lives. Sometimes I think, we believe the lives we lead are even busier than they could, may or may not be. This 168-hour exercise, it's very eye-opening to see where really all the time goes.


Laura: I suggest people try tracking their time for a week or two to get the data. Because you know, people often come to time management literature because they think there's something about their time that needs to change. But if you don't know where the time is going now, how do you know if you're changing the right thing? Getting the data is what makes a good decision possible.


I suggest people try tracking their time for a week or two to get the data. If you don't know where the time is going now, how do you know if you're changing the right thing. Getting the data is what makes a good decision possible.

Sirisha: And you've interviewed a lot of different people, you know, looked at a lot of time logs. So what were some of the most interesting stories that you learn from


Laura: What I'm always interested in is how people who do have a lot going on with their lives still make time for things that are fun. So I'm always just fascinated when people are consciously making choices that allow for just a richer, deeper notion of time. You know, one of my favourite examples, I mean, I've seen 1000s over the years. But one fun one was a family, who decided to put their two daughters in piano lessons that met simultaneously at a music centre on the weekends. And then during that time, like during that hour where they were both having their music lessons, Mom and Dad would go out and have like a date, right? They'd go have lunch together or brunch or whatever. And you know, just enjoy that hour of time together. I just thought that was such a different approach to like Kid music lessons than most of us have, where they're like, at different times with the same teacher but then you know, you have to be dealing with the other kid during that or it's something, after school that everyone's shuttling around like to consciously repurpose this time, as couple time as well. Just had a sort of next-level awareness of making sure that the schedule supported things that were fun.


Sirisha: That is really interesting, because usually when you're juggling, you're only thinking of that kid juggling time, you're not thinking of your own time or couples time or whatever else you need to do. You're right it's the next step of thinking and looking at your schedule and in a lot of ways, we are overwhelmed with activities. I don't know in your case, but COVID gave me and a lot of people I know, time to step back and really evaluate what is it that you want to do and maybe kind of let go as well. And what have you seen through that structure? I know you have five kids, it looks like you're going through some construction work at your own place. So you're juggling a lot of things. You're writing a book, and I know some deadlines are coming up as well, so how do you structure your own time?


Laura: I'm very careful about trying to, you know, think through how I'm spending my time I plan my weeks on Fridays, I look at the upcoming week, think about what I need to do, think about what I would like to do. I do try to make sure, in any given weekend, for instance, that I'm doing at least two or three things that I am excited about, not that all the other things we have to do shuttling kids around, doing chores, errands, whatever else, but I'm making sure that there's some enjoyable time as well. So you know, that's, that's definitely one of the one of the things I try to do. I really, think through, if I'm making progress on all my bigger projects in any given week, where is the time that I can do that, if something goes wrong, where's the backup time for that? So you know, I find if you couldn't tell, you need to ask those questions every week, think about how you can make time on your calendar for whatever it is that you need to accomplish. Over time, you do keep making progress and eventually, you get done what you want to get done.


Mosaic Tiles [07:18]


Sirisha: I have a friend I was talking to last week, and he mentioned this concept, I guess it's going around called zero days and non-zero days, I don't know if you've heard of it. And it's, it's kind of similar. So if you have a long-term goal, most of us are overwhelmed by these really long-term goals. So for your non-zero days, it's about just taking a little step. So if you're thinking of physical activity, even if you do two push-ups, that's a non-zero day, it could be even five minutes or two minutes doing something. So you're just making progress towards those goals. So in some ways, what you're talking about where you're carving time out for yourself, is prioritizing, whatever that is critical to you. You talk about these mosaic tiles, I listened to it as an audiobook, as I went for a walk. As I was listening to it, I was just envisioning those tiles being moved. I thought was pretty neat because time is constant, but also elastic at the same time, if you choose to make it. It's like telling a child, you have five minutes to do homework versus five minutes of video game time, those five minutes don't go at the same time, right one feels like it's, Gosh, 30 minutes, and one feels like, Hey, that was five seconds. So there, elasticity of time lies in that concept of what we want to do, rather than what we should do. And maybe that's part of the mosaic tile, so can you speak to that? If our listeners had to take away one thing that they should do differently or not do, what would you suggest?


Laura: Well, the reason I like this mosaic image, is when I track my time, I do it on weekly spreadsheets. So the cells of the spreadsheet, in this telling are tiles on a mosaic, which just seems like a much more artistic and creative way of approaching it than just talking about, you know, using Excel. But the idea is that time does not have to be used for one particular thing. So many of us have the idea that work happens from nine to five, Monday through Friday, you know, that is the way it must be. And, you know, there's nothing to be done about that work that does not happen at other times. And so there becomes a strict separation of you know, work and the rest of life. That's fine if you want to, do it that way. but especially, a lot of people have seen COVID over the past year, and as a lot of people, work from home more, the lines don't have to be quite as strict.


In general, the mosaic idea is that we can move time around between different categories and by doing so you can open up more possibilities, then if work absolutely does have to happen between nine to five, and personal things cannot happen between nine to five. As an example, you know, some people might start work late some morning to go read to a child's class for a special occasion, and then they would just work later that afternoon, instead of, let's say work from 1030 to 630, instead of nine to five and you know, the same amount of work could still get done. But you open up the possibility of doing something else or maybe going for a run at lunch. And then just making up the time at some other points are something I've seen a lot of people do, especially if they have very young children who go to bed early is and work relatively early. So they can spend quite a bit of time with their young children who go to bed early, and then do whatever work didn't get done in the afternoon at night after the kids go to bed. So they're splitting their work shifts and doing say, nine to three and then work from eight to 10 at night. And it's again, it's the exact same amount of time. It's just that you open up more hours for other things based on you know what Can Happen sort of around other constraints, working half day during the week and working half a day on Saturday, you go to a museum on Thursday afternoon, and they're open to other times. Well then just work a half day on Saturday. So that's, that's the idea of the mosaic is just that you can move time around into different categories. And by being a little bit more flexible, and a little bit more open about whether time is for work, or life or something else, you just allow for a more broad perspective.

The mosaic idea is that we can move time around between different categories and by doing so you can open up more possibilities

Choices... Full time.. part-time.. stay at home...[11:18]


Sirisha: I think it gives you to a point, when you're looking at the 168 hours, to structure it to what you want to do, it doesn't have to be over-structured. There is flexibility around moving it, as you see fit paid for that week, or those few days, or even in the future. One of the interesting observations, was the amount of time that working mothers spent with their children and stay-at-home moms spent with their children, when you did look at a lot of the logs, what kind of conclusions did you come to?


Laura: Well, we have this idea that how women spend their time. And so there's sort of this idea floating around that if you, you know, work full time you never see your kid. Now that we know, as your listeners know that there are 168 hours in the week, you see sort of the problem with that mindset, right? If you work 40 hours, that's a lot less than 168 hours, there are 128 hours for other things. If you sleep eight hours a night, 56 hours per week, you still have 72, waking and non-working hours for other things. I mean, how often have people said, Oh, you spend the majority of your waking hours at work for the vast majority of people, that is actually not true. We also don't have a really good sense of how women who are not in the workforce spend their time, it's just not something that people have really studied all that much. But the reality is that very few people have, you know, infants who are around constantly, you know, women do other things with their time they do their own projects, they do errands, they do other things, There's just the time available for interacting with kids is not the whole, not eight hours, you would have been at work. So the actual gap between how much interactive time, women who work full time for pay, and women who are not in the workforce, spend with their children, it's really not that different, like it's not 40 hours different, it's one to two hours a day different, everyone has to make their own choices. I definitely want people to think that if they are interested in simultaneously pursuing career ambitions, and raising a family, there is space for both, and you will definitely spend quite a bit of interactive time with family. regardless of what career choices you wind up making.


I definitely want people to think that if they are interested in simultaneously pursuing career ambitions, and raising a family, that there is a space for both, and you will definitely spend quite a bit of interactive time with family regardless of what career choices you wind up making.

Sirisha: To your point, I've been a stay-at-home mom, and I work, I've done both sides, there are ways to structure it. And it actually segues to a different concept, which you talk about is financial health. Because there are women or men who are caregivers who choose to work part-time for choice, needing that time or resources for something else. Some of those are decisions because we feel like the structured time, that's what's available for it, and in some cases, we are locked into those situations. So we don't have flexibility, but if the choice is made, because we think that, that 20 hours is going to stick to the 20 hours that we really think is part-time, I think few jobs do allow it to be really part-time but most I think don't follow the 20 hours, then, you know, the financial aspects also do play into it. If you're working 20 hours you're being compensated for it. But if you're really stretching that goal, you talk about sort of the career ramp curve or even sort of the longevity of what that investment looks like. So could you elaborate got working part-time often sounds like the best of both worlds to people, right?


Laura: One is that again, most people don't spend all of that time they are not working then on high-quality things. If you are trading off paid work for say housework, that may not have been the best financial choice maybe you would have been better off working the extra hours for pay and either just not doing as much housework or maybe outsourcing some of it. Also, as you pointed out a lot of jobs that are supposed to be part-time don't have a strict cap on hours. So people wind up saying, Oh, I'm going part-time just so I can, you know, say no and set some boundaries. But then they wind up working very close to the number of hours that their full-time colleagues work. Then you've taken a significant pay cut for no really good reason so that you're not making a sort of choice. It seems like it would be the best of both worlds, but in fact is just earning less, not working significantly less and spending the time that you freed up on things that are perhaps not the best use of your time.


Sirisha: Let's talk about the financial aspect. It does have an impact on it. But I think to your point, you could outsource some of those. Those are hard decisions to make when you want to give some things up but if you were to look at all the pieces. Let's go back to your mosaic, right, you're looking at all the mosaic tiles and making that decision. I think one of the examples is about a lawyer, she is working part-time, but probably working only maybe six to eight hours less than their full-time colleague, because they have billable hours, it's a significant difference, because now you're up not only for what you're getting paid today, but it could lead to fewer partnership opportunities. It lends itself to a whole different level of discussion without having to give up your core, I just want to clarify to whoever's listening, we are not suggesting that you have to work full time, or you should not be a stay-at-home mom or any of that. It's the choice that we all make. But this just opens up the realm of possibilities to look at all of these in a different viewpoint, through a different lens and see if that's still the best solution for you. Like, in my own case, I stayed home for three years, and I had the best time. If I want to compare work, staying at home as a mom is quite challenging, it's a lot of hard work as well. And sometimes going back to work, I felt the structure was much simpler., there was a set of goals that you could check the box off. I always found that when I had a lot of household stuff to do, it sort of repeated much more frequently. By the time I got something done, it ended up at square one and I was playing catch up again, let's go back to the basics, the laundry, or dishes or whatever it was with young children is just a constant. Lots of work. So just kept resetting the clock, in a lot of ways.


Laura: So yeah, no, that can be true. So just if people are in the house, they see the mess more. It's just one of those funny realities of the elasticity of time. You know, it has to be filled with something.


Sirisha: The example, email or the meetings or other schedule. I mean, there is that similar parallel, you can drive work, but you also have to take advantage of whatever time you're working to make it more productive.


Laura: Yeah, I mean, people waste all kinds of time. I mean, all of us do much work of all sorts. Housework, paid work expands to fill the available space. It doesn't mean you can take zero time to do these things, but often, there's some amount of malleability in choosing to devote less time to these things, and then you wind up devoting less time to these things.


What do successful leaders do before breakfast [18:10]


Sirisha: You've written the book on what successful leaders do for breakfast, what are some of the key things that they do?


Laura: Mornings are really a great time for getting things done and this is a good time to do anything that is important to you, that life has a way of crowding out. So exercise, reading, creative work, long-term strategic thinking, and investing in your relationships, are all things that can be done in the morning, when most people tend to have more focus and discipline in the morning. The end of the day can get away from you, people tend to have more control over those early morning hours. If you look at the sort of leisure time people tend to have it either comes at night, like after kids go to bed after you're done with work, it also has a chunk of personal time in the morning, most people take it at night like they stay up later, we tend to be tired at that point. So that time tends to go toward watching TV towards social media that sort of whereas if you go to bed earlier, and then wake up earlier, you could use the time in the morning for more.


Mornings are really a great time for getting things done and this is a good time to do anything that is important to you, that life has a way of crowding out.

Sirisha: And it also ties to the concept of the studies on willpower. We have more in the morning, eating right, you eat more healthier, and by the time the day progresses, you're likely to indulge more, just as your willpower wanes. it's like a bucket that starts to deplete and at some point, at the end of the day, it's harder to sustain. So you're suggesting using that core time to invest, to do things that you really want to spend time doing.


Laura: Yeah, you always want to match the right work to the right time. and so if you leave all the things that are personally important to you to the end of the day, you just won't do them, because you won't have the energy to do them. Whereas if you do them first, you get to them before the day takes its toll on you and it can allow you to make progress toward your goals


If you do them first, you get to them before the day takes its toll on you and it can allow you to make progress towards your goals.

Sirisha: In your own personal life, you write and blog about some of the balancing acts you do. I think I saw a picture of your kid's clothes laid out the other day on the floor, which I thought was pretty neat. You must have been getting ready for something. So is there anything else you wanted to cover?


Laura: Just always thinking about how you can sort of get ready for things like if you identified something as important to you you want to put mental energy into it. So what you saw in the photo of the kid's clothes, I don't choose kid's outfits normally but we were taking family photos. So for that, I made selections of what the kids would wear so that we would all be wearing stuff that works together. But that's what it was more, just that when you identify something as a priority, then put mental energy into making sure that it gets the attention it deserves. One just last little bit of advice I'd leave people with is to think about those small bits of time that we tend to have during the day. It's very easy to just pick up your phone, check social media, and look at your inbox, but you could use these for other things and by consciously making a choice to use them for other things, you can fit a lot more things into your life, like calling a friend or for reading, doing some stretches or meditation or anything along those lines. So even small bits of time can be used well if we are mindful of them and I think it's worth using small bits of time well.


One last bit of advice, think about those small bits of time that we tend to have during the day. It's very easy to pick up your phone, check social media. look at your inbox, but you could use these for other things and by consciously making a choice to use them for other things you can fit a lot more things into your life, like calling a friend, reading, doing some stretches, meditation or anything along those lines.

Note to your 21-year-old self... [21:06]


Sirisha: Yes, you could finish a novel if you keep reading every day, for 10 minutes and squeeze it in between everything else. So this is a question I asked every guest, What advice would you give your 21-year-old self on going through the different stages or helping them through the different stages of life?


Laura: I think my 21-year-old self was already interested in writing something, to make her career doing that. So it's, it's all going to be fine. Don't worry about it so much. If you keep trying to make progress on your goals, in fact, you will achieve many of them. I'd like to think she'd be happy with my life now and she was happy with her life then. So I think that's what I have done. You know, just stick with what you're doing. Do what makes you happy and you'll build a life over time that you enjoy.


It's all going to be fine, don't worry about it so much. If you keep trying to make progress on your goals, in fact you will achieve many of them. Just stick with what you're doing. Do what makes you happy and you'll build a life over time that you enjoy.

Sirisha: That's very positive. One last question. How would you describe yourself in one single word?


Laura: Curious.


Sirisha: So today we've had an interview with Laura Vanderkam, who's a time management and productivity expert. If you haven't heard, you really need to listen to her TED Talk, which has over 12 million views. I've listened to it a few times. And I've had a lot of other friends who actually learned a lot from that you can listen to and follow social media for Laura Vandekam, look up lvander cam on Twitter and Instagram and Laura Vanderkam on LinkedIn and Facebook. Laura, thank you for being here today. It was a real pleasure talking to you and really make us more conscious of how we take that elasticity of time, and really structure it to prioritize what we think is important while still having fun and enjoying it and not structuring it all together.


Laura: Thanks so much for having me.


Food for thought. Episode takeaways

Here is today's food for thought,


  • "Spend more time on the things that matter and less on the things that don't" Laura Vanderkam

  • I suggest people try tracking their time for a week or two to get the data. If you don't know where the time is going now, how do you know if you're changing the right thing? Getting the data is what makes a good decision possible.

  • The mosaic idea is that we can move time around between different categories and by doing so you can open up more possibilities

  • I definitely want people to think that if they are interested in simultaneously pursuing career ambitions, and raising a family, there is a space for both, and you will definitely spend quite a bit of interactive time with family regardless of what career choices you wind up making.

  • Mornings are really a great time for getting things done and this is a good time to do anything that is important to you, that life has a way of crowding out.

  • If you do them first, you get to them before the day takes its toll on you and it can allow you to make progress towards your goals.

  • One last bit of advice, think about those small bits of time that we tend to have during the day. It's very easy to pick up your phone and check social media. look at your inbox, but you could use these for other things and by consciously making a choice to use them for other things you can fit a lot more things into your life, like calling a friend, reading, doing some stretches, meditation or anything along those lines.

  • It's all going to be fine, don't worry about it so much. If you keep trying to make progress on your goals, in fact, you will achieve many of them. Just stick with what you're doing. Do what makes you happy and you'll build a life over time that you enjoy.

Resources Mentioned:


Guest: Laura Vanderkam


Host: Sirisha

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