6 Questions With Time Management Pro Laura Vanderkam

We spoke with productivity guru Laura Vanderkam about the ‘busy’ trap, the most common misconceptions people have about time, and how anyone can find time to learn a language.

Laura Vanderkam knows how she does it. That is, she knows how high-earning women balance the demands of work, family and self-care.

In her latest book, I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make The Most Of Their Time, Vanderkam disseminates some hard data based on hour-by-hour time logs kept by career-focused mothers.

Vanderkam has become somewhat of a self-styled time management guru. She has published three other books about productivity and success, and she’s been around the speaking circuit — most notably in the form of a TED Talk, where she blows apart many of our most cherished myths about how “too busy” we are.

Given that most Babbel users who give up on language learning cite “lack of time” as their primary reason, we thought it would be useful to mine Vanderkam’s brain about how virtually anybody can make time for the things they want to do.

1. What led you down the path of teaching people how to better manage their time? Did you suffer through some sort of a personal crisis, or did you just wake up one day and go, “Damn, I’m really good at this?”

VANDERKAM: I wish there was a good story because it would make for something much more interesting to tell people. The truth is that I spent many years working as a journalist, and as part of that, I got to interview a lot of fascinating people. And I was always quite interested in their schedules and in seeing how, in particular, people managed work and life. Like people who had big jobs, but also had compelling personal lives too. And so, I found myself writing a lot about that topic, and then once you write a book on one topic, that’s what people know you for. And so I wound up researching and writing a lot about time management ever since.

Certainly I’ve tried some of the tactics and have found it helpful. Sometimes I don’t take my own advice, and I usually wish afterward that I had. As one example, when I think ahead of time about how our weekend should go, then it’s much more likely that I have time for both fun stuff and the things that have to get done. Whereas when I don’t think through our weekends ahead of time, then we wind up racing around and not getting to stuff.

So, when I don’t do that, then the weekends aren’t that fun. And when I do pause to think about them, then they go much better. So, slowly I learned to make myself do it, even if I don’t necessarily feel like it.

2. How would you tailor advice to someone who was, say, a college student versus someone a little older with a career and kids? Or maybe someone who was relatively affluent compared to someone who might be struggling to make ends meet?

VANDERKAM: The one fundamental truth is that we all have the same 24 hours in a day, and we have the same 168 hours in a week. All of us have to make the most of these hours that we are given if we want to succeed at life, because how we spend our hours does wind up being how we spend our lives.

That said, people have different circumstances, so a college student who, for instance, was not also raising children at the same time — if you’re doing both, I mean, more power to you. But for somebody who is maybe a younger college student who was trying to figure out the whole studying thing … there are 168 hours in a week, so if you’ve got 15 credit hours, and you’re trying to study two hours outside of class for each hour, that only takes you to 45 hours a week, and there’s a lot of other hours in the 168 hours a week. So, it shouldn’t be too hard to pull that off and do some activities and see your friends. But it’s about thinking like, “Well maybe, I want to try to be in bed at 1:00 a.m. so I can wake up at 9:00 a.m. and actually get four hours of studying in prior to everyone else stirring on weekends. And then I can relax the rest of the day because I’ve already done four hours of studying that I don’t have to then cram into some other part of my week.

Now I would say, people who have maybe more financial resources than people who do not, there might be a different tradeoff some people make in terms of time and money. Because often time and money can become exchanged for each other.

So if you’re in the camp where you have more money than time, then it probably would behoove you to spend money to gain yourself time. For instance, if you’ve got a two-career couple who are both working many hours during the week, they probably don’t want to spend their entire weekends doing errands. They might think about how they can get stuff delivered, maybe getting groceries delivered or if they have a babysitter some hours during the week, maybe that person could help with grocery shopping or picking things up at the store.

Now, if somebody is obviously in a position where they have maybe more time than money, then you can think about things like, “Well, how could I maybe cook more at home? How can I look around for better deals on items?” or possibly trade off with people in terms of forming co-ops with neighbors for childcare.

One thing I would say, though, is while you can make more money, you can never make more time. You’re never going to get more than 24 hours in a day, no matter what you do. So, I think it might help people to get into the mindset of thinking, “Well, are there ways I could use some time to earn more money?” For instance, a lot of people are definitely looking at doing side hustles in the current economy.

3. What would you say is the biggest mistake people make in their efforts to better manage their time?

VANDERKAM: Well, I think that a lot of people assume time management is about saving bits of time here and there. And so, when you read a lot of time management literature, it will be written with them in mind. Like, how can I save two minutes in the coffee shop in the morning? Or how can I make lunches and save three minutes on that? Or maybe get dressed one minute faster. And while there’s nothing wrong with those ideas, per se, you’re not going to build the life you want by spending one minute less getting dressed in the morning.

It’s more effective to focus on the question of what you do want to spend your time doing. Like what things would you like to spend more time doing in your life? And then, do your best to put those things into your schedule first. And when you do that, interestingly enough, you often magically spend less time on other stuff too. I know when I’m deeply absorbed in a project at work that I’m very interested in, I check email less frequently.

4. What is the question or the attitude that you come across the most in your work?

VANDERKAM: I think a lot of people just assume they have no time. Like, look at me, I’m very busy, and they can list X, Y or Z reasons that they are very busy. And I totally believe that X, Y and Z are very good reasons to view yourself as being busy and having little free time or whatever. But, there’s probably other points of evidence that aim in a different direction. I mean if I look over the past day, I can definitely find three moments where things seemed chaotic, or I was pressed for time or felt stressed. And so, if I chose to make those three moments my narrative, then I have a narrative of busyness.

Whereas if I say, “Oh, actually, I got to relax, and my husband’s working at home today.” It’s sort of a rare thing, but I actually had lunch with my husband today. And I was able to read something this morning while my 2-year-old was watching TV, and I went for a run yesterday. Or something like that. I was like, “Oh well, those three things point to a different narrative of my having time for the stuff I want to do.” So, I think we choose our narrative, and you want to be very careful that you choose a narrative that is helpful for you. And I’m not saying that life isn’t busy and there aren’t stressful moments, but would it help you to start walking around saying, “I do have time for the things that matter to me?” And if you try walking around with that being the story in your head, you might be surprised that that becomes the truth after a while.

5. We did a Babbel user survey, and we found that lack of time is actually the number one reason why people abandon their language studies. What would you say to someone who’s trying to learn German, but can’t seem to keep up with their lessons?

VANDERKAM: I think any good habit stems from a couple of things. I mean, first is that you have to have a good reason for doing it. And I think a lot of people adopt resolutions because it sounds like a good idea. I mean, who doesn’t want to be the kind of person who’s fluent in a foreign language? It makes you sound more sophisticated, like you’ll be able to travel to great places and blend in like a local. Who wouldn’t want that?

But of course, the reality is that it takes a lot of time and practice to get there. And so, that’s the part you have to build into your life. And you don’t have to build much time. I think we’re better off setting very small goals for ourselves in the short-term, because that’s what leads to good things in the long run.

Telling yourself, “I am going to study for 10 minutes a day,” and setting a certain time where that is most likely to happen, can really go a long way toward doing this. So maybe you say, “I always take a break around mid-morning and get my coffee. As soon as I get my coffee, I’m going to practice my German for 10 minutes. Alright? If for some reason I can’t do that, let’s make a backup plan. I’m going to do it at lunch, if I can’t do that. And if I can’t do it at either, because I’m traveling somewhere, I’m going to do it at night before bed.”

So, those are my three options. Option A doesn’t work, I go with option B. Option B doesn’t work, I go with option C. I’m only going to do 10 minutes because 10 minutes is no time at all. And then I record that I’ve done it each day. You’re far more likely to stick with it if you’ve got these low expectations in the short run, but if you are actually studying for 10 minutes a day, well, some days you’ll probably be inspired to do a little bit more, like if you’re reading something really cool. Or you’ll have a conversation with somebody, and then soon, you’re studying for two hours a week. And if you actually legitimately practice language for a couple of hours a week, week after week, I think you’d certainly be doing pretty well within a year. I mean, you could get yourself conversationally around Frankfurt.

6. Time management aside, do you have any other helpful tips for anyone who’s trying to form a habit?

VANDERKAM: I think writing down what you’ve done is a good way to celebrate your progress, because then you also see the number of days or times that you’ve done whatever it is add up. So, for instance, I wanted to read more this year, and one of the things I did was to just make a list of the books I’d read.

And I really liked seeing that book list get longer. And as I watched it get longer like, “Oh, look at me. I’m the kind of person who’s reading a long list of books.” So then you become inspired to keep adding to it. Same thing if you are trying to learn language. It might help you to get a little calendar of some variety, like a paper calendar, and make a mark each day that you do it. And you can find it motivating to put a little check mark on each day or smiley face or sticker or something. Giving yourself a sticker, it sort of sounds silly, but it is motivational.

And many people find it helpful to have an accountability partner. So, particularly with language, it might be someone who’s also trying to learn that language. I mean, A, you can talk to each other in that language, but B, you can also check in with each other at the end of the week and say, “Okay, both of us said we wanted to work on the language five times this week for at least 10 minutes each time. Did you do it?” And if you did, you’re like, “Yay!” But if you know that you’re going to have to tell the person the next day, “No, I didn’t do it,” sometimes that’s enough of a nudge to make you just stop whatever else it is you’re doing and go do it, so you don’t have to say that you didn’t do it to the person.

Or, for some people, they might want to add more weight to the accountability. Some people will say, “Okay, we’re going to put money on it, and if I don’t do it, my friend’s going to use my money to make a large donation to a cause I hate,” or something. It’s meant to inspire you to not miss a day.

I think it’s also good to build in celebration, too. When you’re trying to build a habit, you want little things that are motivational. It’s helpful when these are things that are sort of intrinsically part of the habit that you’re learning. So, with an exercise habit, it probably wouldn’t make sense to reward yourself with donuts for going for a run. That seems slightly counterproductive. But you might get new workout gear, or you might sign up for a race or be able to run with a faster friend, or something like that. And so, when we’re talking about language learning, I mean certainly booking a trip to a country where they speak that language in another year would be a very motivational thing, because you can see yourself sitting there in Paris and you’re like, “Well, wouldn’t it be awesome if I don’t have to speak English while I’m there?”

But it might be that you will have a phone conversation with a friend who speaks that language, so that would be a motivational thing to you. Or even just like, you’ll go out for French food some night as a way to keep yourself motivated. Those would all be ways to reward yourself.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click here to read the full transcript.

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