This is the full transcript of our interview with Laura Vanderkam. To read the condensed version, “6 Questions With Time Management Pro Laura Vanderkam,” click here.
BABBEL: So, I guess to start, what led you down the path of teaching people how to better manage their time? I mean, 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.
BABBEL: Cool. And how are your own time management habits at this point? Did you end up changing a lot of how you spend your time based on things that you learned?
VANDERKAM: I do think I picked up a lot of great tips over the years. I mean, that’s one of the amazing benefits of getting to interview successful, amazing people is that you can learn from them. So, I’ve definitely learned a lot about how to set goals, and how to carve out space on a schedule for different things. And particularly, as my family has grown over the last few years since I started writing about time management, I feel like I’ve been able to use those lessons for making sure that I still have time for my own fun stuff, even as we’re dealing with four kids and all their activities and such.
BABBEL: It seems like based on what I know about your recent book, I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make The Most Of Their Time, you study the habits of real professional women. So, and then with your TED Talk, it seems like you also took a similar approach to amassing the knowledge base that you’re currently working with. How much of your research involves studying the habits of successful people? Or was there also trial and error that you personally experimented with?
VANDERKAM: 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 afterwards 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. And so it just, the general sense that planning makes things go smoother, I mean, that’s an obvious point. But it becomes hard sometimes in the busyness of daily life to force yourself to stop and think about the weekend when you’re just trying to get through the week.
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.
BABBEL: Yeah, for sure. I mean, it’s like the whole notion that you kind of have to schedule in your self-care and treat it like a commitment that you can’t break.
VANDERKAM: Yeah, and I mean, I’m generally pretty good about that. I’m that kind of person who likes to make time for my own stuff, so I don’t find it quite as challenging. But of course, life doesn’t always go as planned, and so, by thinking through, “Well, what could go wrong?” That’s another thing that I’ve gotten better at over the years. Particularly, a lot of people when they become parents, they’ve been accustomed to working a certain way, which has some slack in the schedule for dealing with, say, so for instance, if you get behind at work, you might be able to stay up really late working, and then just sleep it off on the weekend. But, if you have children who wake up at 5:30 a.m. no matter what day it is, it becomes a lot harder, right?
VANDERKAM: So, you can’t sleep in on the weekends without making special arrangements, like asking your partner to take the kids for a while, or getting a sitter or leaning on extended family. And so, you have to think through several steps ahead if you are going to stay up really late. And so often it becomes not worth it to stay up really late. And so then you have to start figuring out, “Okay, well given that I know there will be a reason the kid can’t go to daycare, or a snow day or something like that, how could I build that into my schedule?” And so, people start learning to not leave things to the last minute, and building in space, and that way when things do come up, they have the capacity to deal with it.
So, that’s certainly something I’ve gotten better about as well. If I have a big project, I will plan to be done long before the actual deadline, so that when life happens, I am still finishing before the deadline.
BABBEL: Right. Yeah. I’m definitely someone who’s leaned too much on my ability to procrastinate. I don’t know how much that would change if I ever had kids. So, what kinds of successful people did you study? Were they always people who were prominent in their careers? Or could we also define success say, as someone in a lower income bracket who was juggling work and family, but still finding time to do things that they found enriching?
VANDERKAM: Well, I like to study all kinds of people. From the perspective of my books, it’s always a question of what the market is there. And so obviously, the business-book-buying audience is a pretty high-end, professional demographic, and so that’s kind of what you have to write about for that.
I’ve done my own different projects too, though. For instance, I did a project with Redbook Magazine, that they wanted me to look at how stay-at-home moms spend their time. And so, we had over 500 stay-at-home moms track their time for a day and answer questions about their lives. And so, that was really fascinating too, to see how people were using time that, I think most people have actually no idea how people spend time when you’re not in a employment situation, they’re like, “Well, what do people do all day?” Well, clearly they do a lot all day, taking care of kids and such, but nobody really knows what that looks like. And so, that was a pretty fascinating thing to study as well.
BABBEL: Yeah. 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: Yeah, well there’s different advice. I mean, 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. And so, 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 somebody who is maybe a younger college student who was trying to figure out the whole studying thing. I think that’s a process of saying, “Well, let me look at my schedule. Let me kind of think about how I can block in enough hours to make progress on my projects, on studying for my exams and writing my papers.” And paying special attention to doing more at the beginning of the semester, so you have to do less at the end. And that’s the opposite of what most people do, is that that they cram at the end. But that doesn’t necessarily turn out well.
There are 168 hours in a week, so if you’ve got 15 credit hours let’s say, and you’re trying to study two hours outside of class for each hour in, 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.
VANDERKAM: So, I think it’s about being mindful of your time. Now I would say, people who have maybe more resources, 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. So, 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. So, they might think about how I 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, so that they don’t have to spend their weekends doing that.
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 as a great way to save money on that, for instance. But all that takes time, so then, that’s the resource you’re using for that. So, I guess you kind of have to figure out where you are in that.
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 in this economy definitely looked at doing side hustles. For instance, there’s special ed skills you have, like language skills for instance. Maybe you could make some money tutoring or translating or whatever. I mean, there’s lots of ways to earn money on the side as well.
BABBEL: 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.
BABBEL: Me too.
VANDERKAM: And I know that if I check email less often in general, right, that that’s a good way to use my time better. But if I don’t have a whole lot going on, it’s very tempting to just spend all my time in my inbox. If I do have something interesting going on, then I don’t spend the time in my inbox. And so, you naturally become more efficient and effective by focusing on putting the good stuff first.
BABBEL: I like that. Yeah. What is the question or the attitude that you come across the most in your work? You might have just answered that question, because you referred to the sort of misconception people have about time, but I don’t know, maybe there’s something else that’s a little bit more prevalent than that?
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. So, 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, or something like that. 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 two-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.
BABBEL: Yeah. I totally get that. So, assuming someone “doesn’t have the time,” or maybe doesn’t want to make the effort to do a full-fledged time diary, what are some simple, effective tricks that they can put into practice right away?
VANDERKAM: So, yes I understand not everyone wants to track their time, and I’m a bit of a time management freak with this. I think it’s mostly about being mindful about your time.
So, sort of at the end of the day, think back to how you spent your time over the day. Just sort of think back through the day and ask yourself, “Well, what did I like about how I spent my time today?
“Great. Are there ways I can do more of that? What did I not like about how I spent my time today? Okay, are there ways I can do less of that in the future?”
And by consistently asking these questions, it will nudge you in the direction of making better choices. I mean, regardless of whether it turned out you spent 46 or 48 hours working, the answer to that question is probably still going to be the same. So, if you’re not going to track your time, it helps with that.
BABBEL: Right. So, for us, 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, especially as we’re coming into a new year with like, they 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 great places, and blend in like a local, and 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. Like, 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 get into it, or whatever. You’ll have a conversation with somebody and you’re actually having, doing your conversation, 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 mean certainly within a year, I think you’d be doing pretty well. I mean, you could get yourself conversationally around Frankfurt. So, that’s how you stick with something like that.
BABBEL: Mm-hmm. Yeah, and it’s so funny, because that actually kind of answers my next question, which we did previously tackle that topic in an article: times you could be easily learning a language on your phone, like when you’re in line at the grocery store. Do you have any other kind of little opportunities throughout the day that someone could set aside for app-based learning?
VANDERKAM: Yeah, I think you want to have some times set aside, but a lot of those little 10-minute spurts or five-minute spurts can happen at other points too. Like, you’re waiting for a bus. I mean, you probably don’t get there in the next 10 minutes, but whether it’s in the next two minutes or the next eight minutes, who knows? So, that’s the kind of thing that would be good for fitting in that little bit of time. Most people just use that time for scrolling around online. But you could use it for something else.
Or like while you’re waiting for a phone call to start. I know that personally a lot of my conference calls that are scheduled for like, 11:00 start at 11:05, so that might be a time that you could be looking at it. Or if you are picking up your kids from an activity, like normally if you are a responsible sort of parent, and the swim gets done at 6:30, you are there at 6:25 waiting in line with your car, and so that might be a time you could use it. So, I think, noticing like, “Oh, I have a little bit of time,” and “Oh, look at me. I’m pulling out my phone. What if I did something other than check email or look at Facebook?”
BABBEL: Yeah. Absolutely. I don’t know how much time I spend on a given day just scrolling mindlessly through social media. 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 like to 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 mean I did lots of different things, but 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, then 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 to inspire you to not miss a day.
BABBEL: I kind of like that. Okay, well those are actually all the questions that I had in mind. Is there anything else that you wanted to add?
VANDERKAM: I think it’s also good to build in celebration, too. We should, especially when you’re trying to build a habit, you want little things that are motivational. It’s helpful when there 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.