TEDWomen 2016

Laura Vanderkam: How to gain control of your free time

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There are 168 hours in each week. How do we find time for what matters most? Time management expert Laura Vanderkam studies how busy people spend their lives, and she's discovered that many of us drastically overestimate our commitments each week, while underestimating the time we have to ourselves. She offers a few practical strategies to help find more time for what matters to us, so we can "build the lives we want in the time we've got."

- Author
Laura Vanderkam shatters the myth that there just isn’t enough time in the week for working professionals to live happy, balanced and productive lives. Full bio

When people find out
I write about time management,
00:12
they assume two things.
00:16
One is that I'm always on time,
00:19
and I'm not.
00:23
I have four small children,
00:25
and I would like to blame them
for my occasional tardiness,
00:26
but sometimes it's just not their fault.
00:29
I was once late to my own speech
on time management.
00:32
(Laughter)
00:35
We all had to just take a moment
together and savor that irony.
00:36
The second thing they assume
is that I have lots of tips and tricks
00:40
for saving bits of time here and there.
00:44
Sometimes I'll hear from magazines
that are doing a story along these lines,
00:46
generally on how to help their readers
find an extra hour in the day.
00:49
And the idea is that we'll shave
bits of time off everyday activities,
00:53
add it up,
00:56
and we'll have time for the good stuff.
00:57
I question the entire premise
of this piece, but I'm always interested
00:59
in hearing what they've come
up with before they call me.
01:03
Some of my favorites:
01:06
doing errands where you only
have to make right-hand turns --
01:07
(Laughter)
01:10
Being extremely judicious
in microwave usage:
01:11
it says three to three-and-a-half
minutes on the package,
01:14
we're totally getting in on
the bottom side of that.
01:16
And my personal favorite,
which makes sense on some level,
01:19
is to DVR your favorite shows so you can
fast-forward through the commercials.
01:21
That way, you save
eight minutes every half hour,
01:25
so in the course of two hours
of watching TV,
01:28
you find 32 minutes to exercise.
01:30
(Laughter)
01:31
Which is true.
01:32
You know another way to find
32 minutes to exercise?
01:34
Don't watch two hours of TV a day, right?
01:37
(Laughter)
01:39
Anyway, the idea is we'll save bits
of time here and there, add it up,
01:41
we will finally get
to everything we want to do.
01:44
But after studying how successful
people spend their time
01:46
and looking at their
schedules hour by hour,
01:49
I think this idea
has it completely backward.
01:52
We don't build the lives
we want by saving time.
01:56
We build the lives we want,
02:00
and then time saves itself.
02:02
Here's what I mean.
02:07
I recently did a time diary project
02:08
looking at 1,001 days in the lives
of extremely busy women.
02:10
They had demanding jobs,
sometimes their own businesses,
02:14
kids to care for,
maybe parents to care for,
02:16
community commitments --
02:19
busy, busy people.
02:20
I had them keep track
of their time for a week
02:22
so I could add up how much
they worked and slept,
02:25
and I interviewed them
about their strategies, for my book.
02:27
One of the women whose time log I studied
02:30
goes out on a Wednesday night
for something.
02:32
She comes home to find
that her water heater has broken,
02:34
and there is now water
all over her basement.
02:36
If you've ever had anything
like this happen to you,
02:40
you know it is a hugely damaging,
frightening, sopping mess.
02:42
So she's dealing with the immediate
aftermath that night,
02:45
next day she's got plumbers coming in,
02:48
day after that, professional cleaning
crew dealing with the ruined carpet.
02:50
All this is being recorded
on her time log.
02:53
Winds up taking seven hours of her week.
02:56
Seven hours.
02:59
That's like finding
an extra hour in the day.
03:01
But I'm sure if you had asked her
at the start of the week,
03:04
"Could you find seven hours
to train for a triathlon?"
03:07
"Could you find seven hours
to mentor seven worthy people?"
03:11
I'm sure she would've said
what most of us would've said,
03:15
which is, "No -- can't you see
how busy I am?"
03:18
Yet when she had to find seven hours
03:23
because there is water
all over her basement,
03:25
she found seven hours.
03:28
And what this shows us
is that time is highly elastic.
03:31
We cannot make more time,
03:35
but time will stretch to accommodate
what we choose to put into it.
03:37
And so the key to time management
03:42
is treating our priorities
03:45
as the equivalent
of that broken water heater.
03:47
To get at this,
03:52
I like to use language from one
of the busiest people I ever interviewed.
03:53
By busy, I mean she was running
a small business
03:56
with 12 people on the payroll,
03:59
she had six children in her spare time.
04:00
I was getting in touch with her
to set up an interview
04:02
on how she "had it all" -- that phrase.
04:05
I remember it was a Thursday morning,
04:07
and she was not available
to speak with me.
04:09
Of course, right?
04:11
But the reason she was
unavailable to speak with me
04:12
is that she was out for a hike,
04:15
because it was a beautiful spring morning,
04:17
and she wanted to go for a hike.
04:19
So of course this makes me
even more intrigued,
04:20
and when I finally do catch up with her,
she explains it like this.
04:23
She says, "Listen Laura, everything I do,
04:26
every minute I spend, is my choice."
04:29
And rather than say,
04:33
"I don't have time to do x, y or z,"
04:35
she'd say, "I don't do x, y or z
because it's not a priority."
04:37
"I don't have time," often means
"It's not a priority."
04:43
If you think about it,
that's really more accurate language.
04:49
I could tell you I don't have time
to dust my blinds,
04:51
but that's not true.
04:54
If you offered to pay me $100,000
to dust my blinds,
04:55
I would get to it pretty quickly.
04:58
(Laughter)
04:59
Since that is not going to happen,
05:00
I can acknowledge this is not
a matter of lacking time;
05:02
it's that I don't want to do it.
05:05
Using this language reminds us
that time is a choice.
05:06
And granted,
05:10
there may be horrible consequences
for making different choices,
05:11
I will give you that.
05:14
But we are smart people,
05:15
and certainly over the long run,
05:17
we have the power to fill our lives
05:19
with the things that deserve to be there.
05:21
So how do we do that?
05:25
How do we treat our priorities
05:27
as the equivalent
of that broken water heater?
05:28
Well, first we need
to figure out what they are.
05:31
I want to give you two strategies
for thinking about this.
05:33
The first, on the professional side:
05:36
I'm sure many people
coming up to the end of the year
05:38
are giving or getting
annual performance reviews.
05:40
You look back over
your successes over the year,
05:43
your "opportunities for growth."
05:45
And this serves its purpose,
05:47
but I find it's more effective
to do this looking forward.
05:50
So I want you to pretend
it's the end of next year.
05:53
You're giving yourself
a performance review,
05:56
and it has been an absolutely
amazing year for you professionally.
05:58
What three to five things did you do
that made it so amazing?
06:04
So you can write next
year's performance review now.
06:10
And you can do this
for your personal life, too.
06:14
I'm sure many of you,
like me, come December,
06:16
get cards that contain these folded up
sheets of colored paper,
06:19
on which is written what is known
as the family holiday letter.
06:23
(Laughter)
06:28
Bit of a wretched genre
of literature, really,
06:30
going on about how amazing
everyone in the household is,
06:32
or even more scintillating,
06:35
how busy everyone in the household is.
06:37
But these letters serve a purpose,
06:39
which is that they tell
your friends and family
06:41
what you did in your personal life
that mattered to you over the year.
06:43
So this year's kind of done,
06:47
but I want you to pretend
it's the end of next year,
06:48
and it has been an absolutely amazing year
06:50
for you and the people you care about.
06:54
What three to five things did you do
that made it so amazing?
06:57
So you can write next
year's family holiday letter now.
07:02
Don't send it.
07:07
(Laughter)
07:09
Please, don't send it.
07:10
But you can write it.
07:13
And now, between the performance
review and the family holiday letter,
07:14
we have a list of six to ten goals
we can work on in the next year.
07:18
And now we need to break
these down into doable steps.
07:21
So maybe you want
to write a family history.
07:24
First, you can read
some other family histories,
07:26
get a sense for the style.
07:28
Then maybe think about the questions
you want to ask your relatives,
07:30
set up appointments to interview them.
07:33
Or maybe you want to run a 5K.
07:35
So you need to find a race and sign up,
figure out a training plan,
07:36
and dig those shoes
out of the back of the closet.
07:39
And then -- this is key --
07:42
we treat our priorities as the equivalent
of that broken water heater,
07:44
by putting them into our schedules first.
07:48
We do this by thinking through our weeks
before we are in them.
07:51
I find a really good time to do this
is Friday afternoons.
07:56
Friday afternoon is what
an economist might call
08:00
a "low opportunity cost" time.
08:03
Most of us are not sitting there
on Friday afternoons saying,
08:06
"I am excited to make progress
08:09
toward my personal
and professional priorities
08:11
right now."
08:13
(Laughter)
08:15
But we are willing to think
about what those should be.
08:16
So take a little bit
of time Friday afternoon,
08:18
make yourself a three-category priority
list: career, relationships, self.
08:20
Making a three-category list reminds us
08:28
that there should be something
in all three categories.
08:31
Career, we think about;
08:35
relationships, self --
08:36
not so much.
08:37
But anyway, just a short list,
08:39
two to three items in each.
08:41
Then look out over the whole
of the next week,
08:43
and see where you can plan them in.
08:45
Where you plan them in is up to you.
08:48
I know this is going to be more
complicated for some people than others.
08:50
I mean, some people's lives
are just harder than others.
08:53
It is not going to be easy
to find time to take that poetry class
08:57
if you are caring for multiple
children on your own.
09:00
I get that.
09:04
And I don't want to minimize
anyone's struggle.
09:05
But I do think that the numbers
I am about to tell you are empowering.
09:07
There are 168 hours in a week.
09:12
Twenty-four times seven is 168 hours.
09:17
That is a lot of time.
09:23
If you are working a full-time
job, so 40 hours a week,
09:26
sleeping eight hours a night,
so 56 hours a week --
09:29
that leaves 72 hours for other things.
09:32
That is a lot of time.
09:36
You say you're working 50 hours a week,
09:38
maybe a main job and a side hustle.
09:40
Well, that leaves 62 hours
for other things.
09:42
You say you're working 60 hours.
09:45
Well, that leaves 52 hours
for other things.
09:47
You say you're working more than 60 hours.
09:49
Well, are you sure?
09:51
(Laughter)
09:53
There was once a study comparing
people's estimated work weeks
09:55
with time diaries.
09:58
They found that people claiming
75-plus-hour work weeks
09:59
were off by about 25 hours.
10:02
(Laughter)
10:04
You can guess in which direction, right?
10:06
Anyway, in 168 hours a week,
10:09
I think we can find time
for what matters to you.
10:11
If you want to spend
more time with your kids,
10:14
you want to study more
for a test you're taking,
10:17
you want to exercise for three hours
and volunteer for two,
10:19
you can.
10:22
And that's even if you're working
way more than full-time hours.
10:23
So we have plenty of time, which is great,
10:27
because guess what?
10:29
We don't even need that much
time to do amazing things.
10:31
But when most of us have
bits of time, what do we do?
10:34
Pull out the phone, right?
10:37
Start deleting emails.
10:39
Otherwise, we're puttering
around the house
10:42
or watching TV.
10:44
But small moments can have great power.
10:46
You can use your bits of time
10:49
for bits of joy.
10:52
Maybe it's choosing to read
something wonderful on the bus
10:55
on the way to work.
10:58
I know when I had a job
that required two bus rides
10:59
and a subway ride every morning,
11:01
I used to go to the library
on weekends to get stuff to read.
11:03
It made the whole experience
almost, almost, enjoyable.
11:06
Breaks at work can be used
for meditating or praying.
11:11
If family dinner is out
because of your crazy work schedule,
11:15
maybe family breakfast
could be a good substitute.
11:18
It's about looking at
the whole of one's time
11:21
and seeing where the good stuff can go.
11:25
I truly believe this.
11:28
There is time.
11:31
Even if we are busy,
11:34
we have time for what matters.
11:37
And when we focus on what matters,
11:39
we can build the lives we want
11:42
in the time we've got.
11:44
Thank you.
11:46
(Applause)
11:47

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About the Speaker:

Laura Vanderkam - Author
Laura Vanderkam shatters the myth that there just isn’t enough time in the week for working professionals to live happy, balanced and productive lives.

Why you should listen

Between careers and kids, many women feel that they are too busy to cram in anything else. To test the truth of this feeling, author Laura Vanderkam began logging her time for each of the 168 hours of the week. Among her surprising findings: we retroactively overestimate the amount of time spent stressing about work while underestimating our available downtime.

In her latest book, I Know How She Does It, Vanderkam analyzes the ways in which professional women successfully balance free time and work -- and explores how everyday readers can benefit from their experiences.