Ever feel buried under a never-ending pile of email, paperwork, to-do’s, obligations, and other people’s demands? Are you seeking the seemingly elusive concept of ‘work-life balance,’ or feel burned out?
Enter bestselling author and TED speaker Laura Vanderkam whose work focuses on time management and productivity. Her core beliefs: “Spend more time on the things that matter, and less on the things that don’t” and “Time might be finite, but possibilities are endless”.
In her latest book, Juliet’s School of Possibilities, she writes a short fable to remind us just how important it is to manage our time well, as well as exemplify what happens when we don’t.
She shares, “We find advice easier to remember when it comes in the form of a tale. So I wrote this book to give people a more vivid reminder of why time matters.”
I spoke with Vanderkam to uncover practical steps to curb burnout and focus on what’s truly important.
Laura Vanderkam book, Juliet’s School of Possibilities COURTESY OF PORTFOLIO BOOKS
Engineer hope in new possibilities
“We spend a lot of time thinking about things we don’t want to do, but anyone who wants to dream about what is possible needs to make a long list of things they do want to do. What would you like to spend more time doing? What would you like to see, do, experience? Try to list 100 things. Some will be big, but some will be doable in the next few weeks. As you do those, you’ll start to remember what it’s like to be hopeful about the future.”
Prevent email from dominating your life
“Email expands to fill all available space. The only way to spend less time on email is to choose to spend less time on email. I suggest giving it consciously chosen blocks of time that work for your career. For some people, that’s one hour-long block in the morning and one in the afternoon. Other people prefer to be on for 20 minutes every hour. Either is fine. The problem is when email is constantly an option. Then you never get anything else done.”
Identify your time-wasters
“The biggest time-waster is mindlessness. We start the workday not knowing what we wish to accomplish, so we get distracted or just react to what seems urgent, or say yes to a tangential meeting just because that time happens to look open. In our personal lives, we don’t think about the weekend until, say, mid-day Saturday, at which point it’s too late to take a day trip, or book a babysitter, or get together with friends who might need advance notice. Thinking about time before you’re in it vastly increases the chances that it is spent well.”
Decide what to outsource and what to own
“One key realization is that everyone outsources things. You don’t drive your mail to its destination, you let the postal service do that. You don’t churn your own butter or (probably) make your own clothes. So we’re all delegating already. As for what’s best to hand-off, I think the better question is what’s best to keep. You should focus on work that you, uniquely, can do. What can you do best that others can’t do nearly as well? Anything that’s not that is a good candidate for outsourcing, even if you happen to like it, or are pretty good at it. In terms of managing others, find people you trust, and be very explicit on what ‘good’ looks like for you. No one can read your mind, so recognize that it will be a process, but one with a big payoff.”
Consider your impact
“We all feel busy. But there’s a big difference between being busy and getting done what matters. Anyone feeling this way might envision themselves at a dinner given in their honor, many years in the future. People are giving toasts about all the impact they’ve had on the world. What would they say in those toasts? Now, the key question: how much time are you spending on anything related to what’s being said in those toasts? The answer can be a bit depressing, but it can also light a fire under us to change what we can.”
Track your time
“I track my time in half-hour increments on weekly spreadsheets. I have now done this for four years. Don’t worry…no one else needs to do this! But I do think that a week is a good goal. If you want to spend your time better, you need to figure out where it’s going now. That way, you’re working from reliable data, rather than stories and cultural narratives about where the time goes.”
Release the guilt of feeling perpetually behind
“ Most stuff doesn’t matter. Think about today’s date, two years ago. Can you remember what you were worried about then? No doubt you felt rushed, harried, behind. Two years later you have no idea why. So you can do yourself a favor and relax about whatever is bothering you now, two years early!”
When to say ‘yes’ versus ‘no’
“If expectations are infinite, and time is finite, then saying ‘yes’ to one thing is, by definition, saying ‘no’ to something else, even if that ‘no’ isn’t always obvious. Maybe it’s ‘no’ to your larger career goals, ‘no’ to deeper relationships, or ‘no’ to your health. Are these really the things you want to say ‘no’ to?
As a practical matter, whenever I’m asked to do something in the future, I ask myself if I’d do it tomorrow. For some reason, it’s easier to see opportunity costs for tomorrow versus some vague future time (November looks pretty free right now…but it won’t be once we get to November!).”
Create margin in your schedule
“Build in lots of open space. Open space invites opportunity in a way a cluttered calendar can’t. If it’s hard to just leave time open, then use it to go outside and walk (or run) around. In Juliet’s School of Possibilities, the heroine, Riley, gets one of her best ideas while biking on the boardwalk. I used this example because I think this happens to a lot of us: we get great ideas when we remove ourselves from our desks and all the inputs via our phones. When we give our minds the freedom to just play around with ideas, they come up with all sorts of amazing things!”
Want more success and fulfillment in your life? Then check out this free masterclass with Deepak Chopra and me. In it, we share the 5 key things you need to know to create a more meaningful life!
This article was originally published on Forbes.