true WELLth Podcast: Laura Vanderkam Episode Transcript
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Laura Vanderkam: And some of the people were rating themselves as like 11 out of 10 on a busyness scale. And these were not people who are, say, caring for aging parents or special needs children, or working two jobs. I mean, they’re like young professionals, single people. I’m like, all right. I’ll just say you could probably be busier. But I know I hate that. I don’t want to be like, “Just you wait.” No, no, no. Like let’s all acknowledge that, probably in a world of 7 billion people, there is somebody who’s busier than you are. There’s somebody who’s less busier. There is somebody who spends her time better. There is somebody who doesn’t spend her time as well. We’re all somewhere in the middle. And I think most of us would like to get a little better within that middle. And if we can content ourselves with that, then we’re probably good.
Manisha Thakor: Welcome to the True WELLth podcast. I’m your host, Manisha Thakor. My guest today is Laura Vanderkam, a nationally recognized expert on time management and productivity. Laura is the author of a number of books on this topic, including 168 Hours, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, I Know How She Does It, Off the Clock, and her latest book, Juliet’s School of Possibilities, which is a delightful parable about a young triple type A executive who learns to make smarter choices about how she will spend her time going forward. Laura’s work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Fortune. She is also the host of the exceptionally popular podcast “Before Breakfast,” and is the co-host of a podcast called “Best of Both Worlds,” with Sarah Hart-Unger, a physician and mother of three. A graduate of Princeton University, Laura lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and their four children.
Manisha Thakor: Time management is something I have long struggled with, and I suspect from the number of people these days who respond to the seemingly innocuous question of, “So how are you?” with a mournful groan and the phrase, “Crazy busy,” that I’m not alone.
Manisha Thakor: Here to tell us why we feel this way and what we can do about it, is Laura Vanderkam.
Manisha Thakor: So Laura, how did you become interested in time management and productivity?
Laura Vanderkam: Well I’ve always been interested in being more productive. Sort of if I look back on my life, I can see that even as a teenager I was interested in that sort of thing. But I had a realization several years ago that seemed profound at the time, I guess it’s sort of obvious, but that everybody has the exact same amount of time.
Manisha Thakor: Regular listeners of True WELLlth will recall we’ve talked about productivity before in our episode with Dr. Ron Friedman. Dr. Friedman shared with us strategies he’s used in his consulting work with top executives at Fortune 500 companies. What’s so different and so interesting to me about this episode is that Laura comes to this topic from the perspective of a writer, and of a wife and mother of four children. So her insights are deeply rooted in both her professional and personal experiences.
Laura Vanderkam: And so whenever you find people who are doing amazing things with their lives, they’re building awesome careers, raising families, doing things in their communities, they don’t have any more time than anyone else. They may have other things going for them, I’m not saying they’re not smarter, better looking than the rest of us, but they don’t have any more time. And so I think we can look at how they’re spending their time and see what the rest of us can learn from that.
Manisha Thakor: Laura, you’re very well known for deeply researched nonfiction books, yet your latest book, Juliet’s School of Possibilities, is a short parable on time management and productivity. Why the change?
Laura Vanderkam: Well, I’ve learned over the years that people love stories. I give a ton of speeches and nobody ever comes up afterwards, like, “Oh, that statistic you used, that was life-changing.” I mean, I love to use numbers and I think numbers are very powerful, but I know that people remember things best through stories. It’s probably how we communicated when we’re in caves. You’re sitting around a fire telling stories. And so people can cite a story back to you almost verbatim, which I find fascinating. So I thought, well, I will try putting my time management advice into story form. There’s certainly some evidence that some of some of the best-selling business books of all time have been in this format, if you think of things like The One Minute Manager or The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Curiously enough, Who Moved My Cheese, there’s not a lot of women-focused books in this genre. So that was slightly different, that I could have a cast of almost all female characters, and yet still be in this genre. So that was something I wanted, I was interested in trying as well.
Manisha Thakor: How did the process of writing a parable differ from writing a long form book?
Laura Vanderkam: There was a slightly different process in that I needed to study this genre of book to see what happens. And there are certain conventions. The mentor figure, the person who’s learning the advice from the mentor figure, that needs to come out in a certain way, and then show how it kind of neatly ties together in the end. Because I had been reading a lot of fiction, I was sort of immersed in more like dialogue and ways to keep chapters moving along because of that fiction reading. So similar with my nonfiction books, I created a chapter outline, so I knew what each part would be about. But then I just sat down and wrote the story. I had these characters I’d dreamed up and the setting I dreamed up. And I generally like to write fast and edit slow. That’s kind of my way of writing. I get it down quickly because you can always go back and make things better, but you can’t make something better if it doesn’t exist. So the sooner you get it into existence, the sooner you can start the improvement process.
Manisha Thakor: Write fast, edit slow. I love that. It applies not only to writing books but to any kind of business writing. It’s sort of the 21st century version of the great quote, “Write drunk, edit sober,” falsely attributed to Hemingway but delightfully memorable nonetheless.
Manisha Thakor: Laura, one thing I really appreciated about Juliet’s School of Possibilities was that it was only 132 pages. It’s short and digestible, which, judging by the length of books one tends to see in bookstores these days, is very uncommon. How were you able to do that?
Laura Vanderkam: And in fact they encourage that, because if you look at something, I mean it’s longer than Who Moved My Cheese I think, and the publisher over at my particular imprint is the one who, I think, helped bring that particular fable to life many years ago. So they were definitely looking for something short. And people, honestly, that’s kind of how people like to read. There is something wonderful to really long, long books, especially if they’re books that can sustain that level of length. I think what you and I both really don’t like is a lot of books were a good article and then became a book, and they would have been better as an article. Or somebody has a good point, but they’ve made it in the first three chapters, and due to the conventions of the publishing industry it then needs to be a 200 page book, and so you could hack out most of the rest of it and it would have been fine.
Laura Vanderkam: So what’s the point of that? We’re wasting trees, we’re wasting time, we’re wasting all sorts of stuff. So, in general, I like the idea of writing tight. I like people to feel like they’ve accomplished something when they’ve finished it. It’s the same thing… I have a every weekday morning podcast now that’s called Before Breakfast, and it’s really about five to 10 minutes for the whole thing. And on some level, somebody may, “Why should I listen to a short podcast like that?” But I’ve found that many people really like it. They’re like, “Well, I like that I can actually have listened to a whole podcast while I’m making my coffee, or while I’m putting on my makeup, or while I’m shaving.” One gentlemen I’ve been corresponding with who told me he’s almost nicked himself because he got into an idea. And it’s like, well, there’s nothing wrong with short. I think that ideas need to fit the length that they fit.
Laura Vanderkam: So it’s the same thing with meetings. I’ve never understood why all meetings have to be 30 or 60 minutes. Not all matters of human interaction require 30 or 60 minutes. Let’s give them the time that they deserve, which might be five minutes, it might be two hours.
Manisha Thakor: Laura, you’ve been talking about time management and productivity for a decade now. What would you say is the most common point of resistance you’ve noticed when people are trying to implement your wisdom?
Laura Vanderkam: There’s resistance from all sorts of places, and I’m sure you get the same thing with money. There’s this phrase like, must be nice, that comes up a lot. That like, yes, not everything will work for 100% of people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean because it worked for some person, that his or her life is easier or somehow more charmed than anyone else’s. It’s that they’ve made it work, and you can take from that what you wish to take from it, or don’t take from it, as you want. There are certain stories people tell about what are acceptable ways to spend your time. I always find it funny that people will spend an hour on random web surfing when they have emails that are not responded to, but if you suggest that they get off their computer and go for a walk or something, they’re like, “Well, I just can’t do that. I’ve got too much work to do.” Well, you’re still not working if you’re scrolling around on the web, but it would require you to acknowledge that you’re not really doing anything to get up and go for a walk, and a lot of people really resist that idea. Whereas scrolling around it’s still is plausibly that you’re somehow connected to it.
Laura Vanderkam: I think that people say, “Well, I’m just too busy. There’s nothing I can do.” And life can be tough at various points. But what I would say is you don’t have to come up with 10 hours a day for sort of pleasurable activities. I think if you can get yourself to the point where spending 30 minutes in any given day on something you truly enjoy and that feels meaningful and wonderful to you, that can get you through the other 23.5 hours. It’s going to change your perspective on time when you have those 30 minutes, you’re acknowledging those 30 minutes, and seeing how wonderful they are. And often once you start doing that, then you start saying, “Well actually, if I could control those 30 minutes, maybe I could expand it a little bit. Maybe I could find an hour on some days.” And if you can find an hour on some days, then you’re probably in pretty good shape.
Manisha Thakor: That makes sense. Is there anything else that you’ve noticed?
Laura Vanderkam: Well, one is that phrase we talked about, that I don’t have time means it’s not a priority, because that is a phrase that puts you back in charge of your life. And people will tell you they don’t have time for all sorts of things. People will tell you they don’t have time to floss. That’s not true. They don’t want to floss. Let’s acknowledge this. This is not about lacking time. This is a phrase we use when we don’t want to do things. And it’s okay. There may be things that are not a priority for you right now, that the larger world is screaming should be a priority. Like I could totally see that there are relationships that might not be a priority at any given point.
Laura Vanderkam: One of my favorite examples of this is I spoke with a woman who was an accountant, and during busy season she had actually sent her dog to live with her sister. And I love that because it was just acknowledging that the proper care and relationship with this animal was just not going to be a priority for her during the three months where accountants are working incredibly long hours, and she didn’t want to feel guilty about it, and she didn’t want her dog to suffer. So the dog went elsewhere for the three months, and then afterwards they could get reacquainted. And I was like, well, you know.
Laura Vanderkam: I think when people first hear that, they’d be like, “What? Like, what do you mean you couldn’t take care of your dog, that that wasn’t a priority for three months?” But it’s true. And she acknowledged it. And so that made the situation so much better than just sort of running by like, “Well I don’t have time to do this, and I don’t have time to go for a long walk, and oh I’m a terrible person.” It’s like, well, no, let’s just make it work.
Manisha Thakor: Laura, one thing I love to ask thought leaders is how has your work and your research affected the way you live your own life?
Laura Vanderkam: I think that writing about time has helped me feel like I can do all of those things. Certainly getting over any sort of narrative that having children would limit my life was key, and I truly believe that they don’t. And helping other people see that has been a big thing for me. Now I’m not saying everyone needs to go out and have four children. There’s many reasons people might not wish to, and those are totally valid. It’s totally valid not to have any children. But it’s also helped me see that that is entirely compatible with building a big career. It’s entirely compatible with having my own interests. It’s just about making sure that I’m devoting time to all these things that matter to me, and that there is enough time in the 168 hours we all have each week. So that’s been important to me.
Laura Vanderkam: And I would say one other thing that studying time has helped me do is realize that it’s cool to plan little adventures into life. And this actually came out of one of my recent books. It’s called Off the Clock. I did a big time diary study and I found that… I had people track their time for a day, I had some questions about how they felt about their time, and I learned that the people who had the most abundant perspective on time were highly likely to have done something incredibly interesting the March Monday I had them track. I mean, these are people who are going to salsa dancing lessons, they’re going to a big band concert. This is on a Monday night. Most people spend their Monday night like on the couch. This is not something that normal people do. But this is why they had this abundant perspective on time. And what’s going on is that when we do cool stuff, we remember it. And when we have more memories, time feels more rich and full.
Laura Vanderkam: Like when people say, “Where did the time go,” what they’re actually saying is, “I don’t remember where the time went.” And if you can remember, because you’re doing interesting things with your life, then time feels very different. So I’ve become so cognizant of that, of like if I can have time to go on a bike ride somewhere during the week at a cool spot, I should do it. If I can shift around work to go meet with somebody I’ve never met before, do it. If I can get a weekend day where we don’t have anything planned so we can have some sort of family adventure together, we should do it. We should travel to cool places. So that’s definitely a philosophy I have tried to put into practice.
Manisha Thakor: A core tenet behind the creation of the True WELLth podcast is the notion that no matter how much money a person may amass to have true WELLth, W-E-L-L-T-H, a person needs to identify how to best align the way they spend their money and their time with what matters most to them in life. So, Laura, I’m wondering, have you ever found yourself in a spot where your personal time, money, meaning equation was off-kilter?
Laura Vanderkam: Well, I’ve certainly had various things, again, in my own life. I started tracking my time continuously about four years ago. And nobody needs to do this, by the way. I recommend people track time for a week to see where it goes. I’m just really into time. And so I’ve been tracking my time for about four years. But that first year I sort of had this story that, well, I didn’t have that much time to read, and so yes, I wasn’t reading many good books, but that was because I didn’t have much time to read. I tracked my time for a year, and I saw that I was reading about an hour a day, but it was all sort of like magazine articles on how air-popped popcorn is a great low-calorie snack. Like I’ve read that article once, I do not need to read it again.
Laura Vanderkam: And yeah, why was I reading this stuff? Well, it was easy. It was there. It was like I wasn’t acknowledging that this time was happening, and so I was reading whatever was available. I was like, well, this is ridiculous. If I’m reading an hour a day, I could have read War and Peace 12 times. Let me try to be more intentional about this. And so I started building in time to read book reviews and say, well, what’s out there, what would I like to read? I found a couple of book blogs that I really thought had good opinions on these sorts of things. And I decided that book buying was going to be something that I would not be cheap about. If something sounded good I’d buy it. And I didn’t have to read it, but I’d start it and abandon it if I didn’t like it. I’d trim money from other places.
Laura Vanderkam: And, as a result, I’m reading much better literature. I’m reading far fewer of those stories on air-popped popcorn. And I’ve read a number of great books that were sort of on my book bucket list. So that’s the sort of thing. Nothing changed about me per se. Laura four years ago has 24 hours in a day. Laura now has 24 hours in a day. Laura four years ago was reading about an hour a day. Probably Laura now is reading roughly an hour a day. But by knowing that, I was able to change the composition of that hour, and that made a big difference.
Manisha Thakor: That’s a very interesting way to frame it, i.e. that you changed the composition of how you were spending your hours. When I think about how I spend my time, and particularly after this conversation, I can see that there are certainly some things I should stop doing, and I should make better choices about how to spend that time. And I’m guessing I’m not alone.
Laura Vanderkam: I agree. There are all sorts of things that are not worth doing. And just because they’re not worth doing for you, that doesn’t mean they’re not worth doing in general. Like they might be a perfectly wonderful idea for someone else. But we should all do what is most meaningful and enjoyable for ourselves. And so there’s plenty of things that I don’t do, but if it’s something I don’t do, it’s probably because I don’t have a whole lot of interest in it. I still wind up occasionally taking on projects that, halfway through, I’m like, “Why did I agree to do this?” It’s been less common as I’ve learned. But none of us is ever fully arrived at the destination of managing all time well. I have to sort of constantly be on guard for that.
Manisha Thakor: Possibilities are infinite. Time is not. You are always choosing. Choose wisely. If you take nothing else from this episode, those 12 words from Laura can dramatically increase the amount of true wealth you have in your days.
Manisha Thakor: As for other takeaways I had from this interview, my top three are as follows. Number one. The phrase, I don’t have time, really means it’s not a priority. I cannot get that phrase out of my head, because it’s so darn true. When I think back over just the past few days to when I’ve said that out loud or in my head, I can now see, more often than not, I’m referring to things that not only are low priority, but often are things that I just don’t want to do, period. That’s why I love Laura’s suggestion that if something is not enjoyable for you to do, you owe it to yourself to find a way to change it. And importantly, that change it doesn’t always mean you don’t do it. Sometimes the right change is to just go do it right now so you won’t ever have to do it again.
Manisha Thakor: I also really loved her idea about starting off with baby steps, finding say 30 minutes in a day to do something that is just for you, for the sheer joy it brings you, and then gradually building up that time allotment from there.
Manisha Thakor: Number two. The phrase, must be nice, is a common indication from people of resistance to changing their behavior. In particular, what struck me was that when people say this, it’s not just a throw-away sarcastic comment. It’s actually shining a light on a significant mindset that man has grappled with philosophically for ages. For example, Aristotle had 12 guiding principles for living a good life, which are typically referred to as Aristotle’s ethics.
Manisha Thakor: To make a long story short, and for any formally trained philosophers out there, please excuse my very bumbling philosophy 101 level explanation, that one of Aristotle’s 12 virtues boils down to honor and pride, which sometimes is referred to as magnanimity. Back in Aristotle’s day, to live magnanimously would be to have a mindset of harmony towards rivals, and equanimity to those of social classes of the day that were above or below you. And a modern-day example of living magnanimously would be looking at someone’s Instagram feed, and instead of feeling envious or jealous, having a straightforward appreciation for someone who has a lifestyle or skill that you don’t.
Manisha Thakor: I highlight this, because for ages I was one of those people who would roll my eyes at someone who said they had plenty of time. And what I’ve learned from this interview with Laura is the power of learning from, rather than being envious of, those who have structured their lives to experience things, that up until now, like having plenty of time, you may not.
Manisha Thakor: The third takeaway I had was the power of little adventures each day. Laura’s observation that the people who have the most abundant views of time were the ones who habitually incorporated little adventures into their daily lives, was one I found extremely inspiring because it felt like a step I could actually put into practice right away. The logic behind it made sense. As Laura put it, when we do cool stuff, we remember it. When we remember it, we create memories. When we have more memories, life feels more rich and full.
Manisha Thakor: And what really hit home with me was when she pointed out that her research indicated, when people say, “Where did the time go?” what they’re really saying is, “I don’t remember.” And to close her logic loop here, when you do remember adventures and experiences on a regular basis, you end up feeling, as a general state of mind, as if you literally have more time. I, for one, am looking forward to following Laura’s advice, that if you have the opportunity to do some small or big adventure, do it. Do the unexpected.
Manisha Thakor: And to wrap, if there were one question I would suggest we all leave this episode asking ourselves, it’s this one. How can I choose my minutes to make my vision possible?
Manisha Thakor: As always, in this episode’s show notes, we’ll have links to Laura’s website, books, two podcasts, her Twitter and Instagram handles, and her TED Talk. We’ll also have links to all of the other references Laura made, both in this episode and in my post-interview conversation with her, ranging from David Allen’s book, to the best blogs for finding quality books to read.
Manisha Thakor: Lastly, if you know of someone who would find this episode useful, please text or email them a link to the show right now. It will take you less than a minute, and you could make a meaningful difference in the life of someone you care about who is feeling busy, overwhelmed, and wanting to find solutions.
Manisha Thakor: And if you yourself enjoyed this episode, please consider taking another two or three minutes out of your day to leave a simple star rating, and a one or two sentence written review about why you liked this episode, on our iTunes page. Listeners’ star ratings and written reviews are the number one way that other people like you can find our show.
Manisha Thakor: I’m Manisha Thakor, and that’s it for this episode of True WELLth.
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