Time management expert Laura Vanderkam on how to understand and commit to your true priorities

When Laura Vanderkam started studying time management, she began with a simple theory: How can I learn the secrets of the people who get more done in a day?

How do you stay focused when you’re surrounded by the constant distractions of the modern world?

How do you define what your true priorities are in work and life and then actually make time for them?

With hundreds of ‘how-tos’, productivity strategies, and time management techniques to choose from, how do you avoid decision fatigue and find what works for you?  

Why are some people able to “do it all,” while I feel like there’s never enough time in the day?

For more than a decade, Laura has spoken with thousands of professionals to try and answer these questions. Since then, she’s released a series of best-selling time management books and her TED Talk, How to gain control of your free time, has been viewed more than 8 million times.

In this interview, Laura talks us through some of her best time management advice, how to understand and commit to your true priorities, and the power of storytelling when it comes to changing your behavior.

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Stories over stats: What most modern time management advice gets wrong

Laura Vanderkam headshot

Laura Vanderkam’s time management career owes a lot to data.

Her influential 2010 release, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, introduced the idea of time tracking and using a “time log” to thousands of people.

Much like the way a dieter might track their calories, Laura’s book proposed that the most productive people do the same with their time.

We all have the same 168 hours each week. But how can you make the most of them without understanding where they’re actually going?

By tracking and logging how you spend each minute over a full week (hence, 168 hours), you get a powerful baseline you can use to build better habits, optimize your schedule, and take control over what you choose to do.

RescueTime dashboard
RescueTime tells you exactly how you spend your time across digital devices.

The strategy struck a nerve. Laura’s following books dug into the time logs of thousands of people in unique positions—from women in high-profile positions juggling work and home lives to what the most productive people do before breakfast, on the weekend, and at work.

Yet, despite uncovering troves of data on how productive people work, Laura started to notice that what people remembered the most were the personal stories:

“No one ever comes up after one of my talks and says, ‘Oh, that statistic you cited was awesome.’ Instead, people will  almost always tell me back a story I told.

“So, I started to ask, why do we have this memory for stories that we don’t for anything else? And it’s because that’s how our brain understands the world is through stories.”

Unlike big data, which can feel cold and impersonal at times, stories help us understand our personal motivations. We see ourselves through the actions and choices of others. Instead of being told what to do, stories simply paint a picture of alternate possibilities.

It turns out, this approach is incredibly powerful—especially when it comes to making a major behavior change.

As we wrote in our guide on What to Do When Your Productivity Slips, you can’t simply pick a new behavior and expect to stick with it. We all have limited willpower each day. And the only way to truly stick with what works is to understand your motivations behind it.

Why we all understand the story of being “busy” but not productive

One story Laura found that almost all people can relate to is that of feeling busy yet unaccomplished.

Our daily hours are easy to fill. Yet, when it comes time to track our progress and see what they were filled with, we draw a blank. In fact, when we spoke to hundreds of RescueTime users about their day-to-day work, nearly 75% said they get to the end of the day and wonder “Did I accomplish anything?”

While you might look at this as the story of distraction, it could also just as easily be the story of burnout. Long days, high expectations, and a lack of visible progress compound into physical and mental exhaustion.

It’s a story that’s increasingly relevant in the modern working world. And so instead of digging into more time logs and data, Laura decided to write a story about just this.

Writing a fable for the burnout generation

Juliet's school of possibilities cover

Laura’s latest book is a fable for those at risk of burnout.

In Juliet’s School of Possibilities, we follow the life of Riley Jenkins—a young, ambitious business consultant on the fast-track to partnership at the prestigious firm, MB & Company.

Yet, despite answering emails quickly, attending every client meeting, and sacrificing her personal and social lives in the name of the company’s progress, it’s still not enough.

While she deals with the fallout of this revelation, Riley heads to a company leadership retreat run by Juliet—a successful, self-made woman whose life mirrors Riley’s own ambitions. Except instead of frantically trying to ‘keep up,’ Juliet has somehow managed to find balance, abolish her daily stress, and still be incredibly productive and creative.

As Riley’s pressures (and unread emails) continue to climb, she’s faced with a choice: Continue down an unsustainable path of overwork and a lack of space for creative thinking that’s destined for burnout. Or, break her bad habits, rethink what it means to be productive, and take back control of her time.

As Laura explains:

Juliet’s School of Possibilities came out of the understanding that you can tell somebody they should prioritize certain things. But it’s much more meaningful when you show them someone whose life is falling apart until she learns to prioritize.”

The 5 best pieces of time management advice from Juliet’s School of Possibilities

As Laura’s protagonist swirls further into the depths of burnout, it’s easy to see how we make the same choices in our own days.

Why do we choose cleaning out our inbox over more meaningful work? Or attending endless meetings over dedicated time to think and create? Or even working late instead of creating boundaries between our working hours and the rest of our lives?

We asked Laura to put the reader in Riley’s shoes and give us her best advice for coming back from the edge of burnout and finding balance in your life.

1. Understand where your time is going and get real about your priorities

As a huge advocate for time tracking, it’s no surprise that Laura’s first step is to take a step back and understand how you’re spending your days. She suggests starting with a week as a way to get a sense of where the time goes (not “where you think it goes”).

As she explains:

“Sometimes, we tell ourselves, ‘oh, I spend all my time working,’ when you actually don’t. Instead, what you find is that you might be spending all your mental time on work or that your personal time isn’t interesting enough so it feels like there’s nothing balancing out all that working time.”

Once you have a clear picture of how you actually spend your time, Laura says the next step is to ask a few key questions:

  • What do you like about how you spend your time?
  • Are there things you’d like to do more of? Or less of?
  • What can you celebrate right now about how you’re doing?

Building a mental picture of what your time is like now and how you want it to be in the future is the best way to get real about what truly matters in your life.

RescueTime automatically tracks how you spend your time on your digital devices so you can build better habits and make better choices. Try it for free

2. Start small and build better habits

As you start to rebuild your schedule, it’s tempting to try to change everything right away.

But, as Laura explains, those major changes are hard to pull off and even harder to maintain. Instead, start with the smallest next step that will get you closer to how you want to spend your time.

“The best thing you can do is to start very small. Decide what the smallest, most doable next step is on a big project and then list out all the next steps along with a deadline for each.”

For example, let’s say you want to write a book. Instead of getting overwhelmed by everything you need to do, start with the smallest steps.

  1. Go to the library and find similar books
  2. Look at their tables of contents and see what you’re drawn to
  3. Write your own table of contents
  4. Do an abstract of a chapter.
  5. And so on…

As Laura explains:

“These are all very doable steps. And so we tend to resist them a wee bit less than something that seems completely undoable”

3. Shift out of the “fake productivity” mindset of non-stop emails, chats, and meetings

Once you know how you want to spend your time, one of the main pieces of pushback you’ll get is from all those “urgent” tasks you’re used to doing. The emails, calls, meetings. The problem is that this time is often “fake productivity.” You feel like you’re doing things, but don’t see the results.

“Most people feel like they shouldn’t be behind because they’re not watching 10 hours of TV a day. They’re working hard. But the issue is that just because you’re working hard doesn’t mean you’re working on things that matter or move you forward.”

Riley’s biggest flaw is that she can’t figure out that “hard work” often gets in the way of “good work”.

She is hardworking and ambitious, which are normally great traits to have. However, they’ve manifested themselves in harmful ways. She believes that she has to answer her boss or clients immediately. Or that if someone invites her to a meeting she has to go.

Unfortunately, many of us feel the same way. It’s good to feel needed. But the more time you spend reacting to other people’s needs, the less you’re able to come up with useful solutions for them.

“One of the reasons so many people are emailing you is they think you have good ideas. But if you’re constantly responding to emails, then you don’t have the space to come up with those good ideas.

“You have to recognize that you can work yourself into this paradox that in order to meet people’s immediate expectations of a response, you’re cutting yourself off from the larger expectation, which is that you have the solution to their problems.”

This is a difficult mindset to break out of, especially for people new to management or taking on more responsibility. But as Laura explains, in the end, you have to decide what to do with your time. And part of that is accepting that you can’t do it all:

“You can’t just do everything because when you’re in management you are by definition in charge of more than you can personally ever handle. That’s a very difficult mindset to get into—that you not only have to think about what is the right thing for me to be doing? But how can I choose what other people should be doing when we can’t do everything?”

4. Schedule space for creativity and ask for help

Something amazing happens once you accept that you don’t have time or energy to do everything. There’s a deep connection between mental space and creativity. In order to be innovative and come up with creative solutions, we need to give our ideas room to breathe.

Unfortunately, many people assume they’ll just find this time off to think. But, as Laura explains, it needs to be an active choice that we schedule, ask for, and commit to.

“If you have a lot of responsibilities in your life it’s very difficult to take unstructured time off. And I’m not just talking about time away from work. If I have time away from work, I still have four small children that need my attention. I find it hard when a lot of people say ‘just take time off from work to free your mind.’ Like, who’s taking care of your kids when you’re doing that?”

Instead, you need to actively ask for support from others to give you the time you need. It’s difficult for anyone with a full schedule to take time off for something completely unstructured. There’s always something that you could be doing.

“So in order to do this, I need to arrange for it to happen. I need to tell my husband that I need some time for reflection and thinking this weekend. Or carve out time in my workday to go for a walk because I know that’s when I have childcare. You have to plan it if you want it to happen.”

One thing that helps in this situation is to take a long look at your time.

Instead of planning just each day, look at the whole week or weekend. This way, you can be more intentional, delegate what doesn’t need to be done by you, and schedule your personal focused time.

We all want to think that we can do everything that’s put on our plates. But the truth is that if you don’t set boundaries, that plate will continue to expand.

5. Use the power of Friday afternoon

The problem with all this time spent planning is that it becomes a task in itself. And one that’s all too easy to skip in favor of more pressing matters. That’s why Laura suggests working with your natural energy cycles and choosing the right time to plan your week ahead.

Her favorite time? Friday afternoon.

“Everyone’s pretty much checked out at the end of the week. And so it’s a great time to take the long view and plan your next week. We’re not going to start a new project at that time or go make a difficult call. But we’re in a good spot to make plans for the future that we don’t intend to do right now.

“What would’ve been wasted time as you’re sliding into the weekend becomes some of your most productive minutes of the week. What needs to happen over the next week? When can I do it? What does not need to happen over the next week? How can I get rid of it?”

You can also do this daily on a smaller scale.

Take the last few minutes of your day to think about three things you want to accomplish tomorrow and then roughly schedule them into your day, with a bias towards tackling them earlier.

This goes for your weekly planning sessions as well. As Laura explains, we should all try to schedule as many high-priority tasks as we can at the start of the week.

“Imagine hitting all your professional priorities by the end of Monday? You’re going to feel great for the rest of the week and can feel accomplished no matter what else happens.”

Tired of getting to the end of the day and wondering where all your time went? RescueTime helps you understand and optimize your daily schedule so you can do more of what matters most. Try it for free

A planned life is a productive life. And this goes for your personal time as well.

Whether you’re trying to get more out of the workday, have more time to spend with your family and loved ones, or want to get serious about your long-term goals, it pays to be intentional with your time.

When you start working with intention, all of a sudden your daily work takes up less mental space. You get the same or more done without obsessing over hours spent in front of a desk. And who wouldn’t want that?

“Leisure time is too precious to be too leisurely about it. If you don’t think about what you want to do with it, you’re going to waste it. You’re going to argue with people on Twitter or look at photos on Facebook of people from high school you didn’t even like anyway.

“All this can have its place. But if you don’t want you life to be filled with meaningless activities, you need to have a purpose and you need to make commitments. Not only that, but having intention for your personal time makes it feel more expansive.”

As Laura explains, a purposeful life is all about the stories we tell ourselves. The more you make time for what matters most, the more you show the world the type of person you are.

Learn more about Laura Vanderkam and her latest book, Juliet’s School of Possibilities. 

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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