This Exercise Will Help You Find More Time in Your Day
Illustration: Ciara Phelan
Life, writes productivity expert Laura Vanderkam in her book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, is “lived in hours.” Vanderkam expertly (and sometimes painfully) debunks the stories we tell ourselves about where those hours go. We asked her to design a 24-hour time management exercise exclusively for O readers. So tomorrow morning, grab a pen and paper and learn how to wrest more meaning and happiness—and, yes, living—from a day in your life.
1. Track everything you do today by the half hour, beginning when you wake up.
2. Put a check mark next to each activity that made you feel energized or excited, an X next to any that drained you, and a W next to any time you felt was wasted (driving across town only to discover the post office was closed, or perusing a catalog of sofas you don’t intend to buy).
3. Let's zero in on those X's. Brainstorm ways you could get rid of, delegate, or otherwise minimize these tasks. Really interrogate the voice that automatically says “We can’t skip our Tuesday meeting.” Why can’t you? Is there a more efficient way to share information with your team, like a Google Doc? If errands are sapping your energy, can you combine car trips (swing by the drugstore after a school pickup, for example)?
4. Note the amount of time you just freed up.
5. Now let's allocate that extra time to nurturing one of three categories: professional or personal goals, relationships, and yourself. Which of these needs the most attention? Even if you have only a little time to spare, you can still make progress on a small, doable goal (spending 15 minutes a day really talking with your kids, perhaps). Write down where this extra time will go.
6. Okay, let's focus on the W's. Many people think they don’t have leisure time. They likely do—it’s just spent thoughtlessly. Instead of checking Instagram before bed, could you pick up a book? (My research shows that people who read before bed feel they have more time than people who watch TV or use social media.) Planning your downtime will make it more meaningful. Brainstorm a few ideas.
7. Scan your diary. Did you do anything outside of your routine today? When we don’t do anything unusual, we tend not to form concrete memories, which makes us feel like time is passing quickly. Write down ideas for making your next few days stand out (even if it’s just inviting a coworker to lunch). Presto! Suddenly your Tuesday looks a little more exciting.
Case Studies: Vanderkam offers advice to three very busy women.
Hurdle Mills, North Carolina
I have two kids, 6 and 4. My mom has late-stage dementia, and my dad is her caretaker. But Dad’s getting older, too, so I help out. Having them close means I can go to Mom’s appointments—and be there when she needs to be rushed to the ER, which happened recently. When I got the call, I had friends over whom I hadn’t seen in ages. Best-laid plans... Luckily, my husband is great and took over hosting. I came home after six hours, then went to work the next day. Did I mention I’m my family’s breadwinner? I oversee marketing at a digital start-up; my husband is starting a business. My job is stressful. I’m at the office from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and usually work a few nights a week. I also try to work on weekends to get ahead. Mostly I feel like I’m doing a good job, but sometimes I worry it’s all going to fall apart—one shift in the routine and my life becomes a house of cards. Still, I make time to exercise, eat right, and sleep. What I’d like is more time to just sit, be quiet, and not talk or mull my list of to-dos.
Vanderkam’s thoughts: Congrats on your supportive husband! Can he help with Mom-related tasks, like doctor visits? Meanwhile, keep staying ahead of the week, leaving space for emergencies—it’s a smart strategy. Gold stars for taking care of yourself, too. Now carve out 15 to 20 minutes to just sit each morning, and so your to-dos won’t bug you, list what’s weighing on you and assign each task a time. If you think "I need to do this right now!," you’ll see that actually this isn’t the allotted moment. No one is ever “done” with it all. We have to learn to relax despite that fact.
I’m the medical director of palliative care at two hospitals, and I help run a hospice program. I work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. My job involves a lot of paperwork; I try to get it done before I leave, which is why I get home late. My work is meaningful but exhausting. On weekends, I try to do one thing for myself: get a massage, take a cooking class. What I miss most from North Carolina, where I lived previously, is my friends. Recently a few came to visit, and I remembered how nice it is to hang with them.
Vanderkam’s thoughts: Can you designate one or two nights to finish paperwork to free up the others? And stretch one thing for yourself on weekends to two or three? And visit your pals every few months to get away and recharge? If you can, it’ll make a big difference!
Photo: Bonnie McCarthy
When I started designing yearbooks for sports teams 18 years ago, I thought I’d set my own schedule. Instead, I soon reached a plate-spinning pace, even after my husband came on board. Fall gets crazy. Dropping a project isn’t an option. I also volunteer for three nonprofits—fulfilling, but more work than play. I’d love to take a sailing class. Have a spa day. Just binge on The Walking Dead.
Vanderkam’s thoughts: Work is this stressful after 18 years? Consider raising your rates. And while you can’t drop clients if you’ve signed a contract, you can say no to new projects. I also advise doubling down on one nonprofit and letting the rest go. I sense that you tell yourself, “I’m overworked because I’m an entrepreneur.” Here’s a new mantra: “Successful entrepreneurs take care of themselves so they can better share their gifts.”