Off the clock

Author(s): Laura Vanderkam
Published: 2018

Why do we always feel busy? 

We all feel pressured by time. Most of us think that we are pressured by time because we have lots to do. In 2015, Gallup - a company that conducts public opinion polls - found that people who are employed are far more likely to say they do not have the time to do the things they want to do (6 in 10) than people who are not working. Similarly, people with children at home are more likely to report that they feel time stress (also 6 in 10). So, is the solution to time pressure reducing the number of things we have to do? 

In this book, Laura Vanderkam argues that getting rid of our obligations does not give us time freedom. Instead, being disciplined with our time is what gives us time freedom. In reference to the Gallup statistics, Vanderkam writes "If 6 in 10 people who are employed, or have children, feel pressed for time, that means four in ten people with similar responsibilities do have time for things they want to do." So, not having kids and work is not the solution to feeling less pressured for time.

Vanderkam argues that we feel stressed about time not because of the quantity of things we are fitting into a time period, but rather due to our perception of time. This raises the question: If time seems to move at different paces depending on circumstance, how can we alter our perception of time by interacting with it in different ways? Can we develop the skills needed to make good times pass as slowly as bad times?

Vanderkam proposes 7 ways to feel less busy while getting more done.

1. Track your time 

The first tip to feeling less busy is to realize where our time goes. We need to accept ownership of our time. Vanderkam argues that we are responsible for how we spend our time and we need to believe that how we spend our time is a choice. If we find that we are not doing the things that we claim we are too busy for, it might not be because we do not have the time but that we haven’t prioritized it. 

Actions: Vanderkam proposes a two step process: (1) time-tracking - keep tabs on where your time goes (she provides some excel/pdf templates here); (2) time-block planning - think through how you are going to fill your days and week ahead of time (see Cal Newport's example of time-block planning here). 

2. Make your days distinct 

According to NYU psychology professor Lila Davachi, we often say that "we want more time" but "what we really want is more memories." This is because more memories = more time. 

“in an environment with a lot of variety and change, you’re forming far more memory units than in an environment with very little change. It’s these units—the number of these units—that determine our estimates of time later on. More units, more to remember, and time expands” - Lila Davachi

This means that doing more memorable things slows time down. For example, if you drive the same one-hour route to work 235 mornings a year, you do so for roughly 4.25 years that compose the average job tenure. These one thousand trips can be telescoped in memory into one trip. In contrast, if you have more distinct episodes in your life, the more time there seems to be. 

Action: For every 24 hours, ask “why is today different from all other days?” Making every day different sounds like a daunting task, especially for those who do not have the resources to purchase new experiences. But we don't need to do crazy things to make life memorable. Even normal days can be made memorable - cooking a dish you have never tried before, calling a friend that you haven’t spoken to in years, paint a picture. Lastly, remember also that making your day memorable is not effortless - "Conscious fun takes effort."

3. Don't fill time

People like filling up their schedules so that they feel busy, useful, and productive. But feeling less busy is also about learning to like the white spaces on your calendar. Vanderkam finds that people with high time-perception scores worked fewer hours because they chose not to fill all available space. They could have filled the space but chose not to. To that end, we should get rid of things in your life that do not belong there. Doing something is not always better than doing nothing.

Action: With every activity ask: What is my purpose here?

4. Linger

Lingering is the opposite of rushing. Lingering doesn't imply that you have nothing important to do or that you are avoiding the important stuff. It implies that you have important things to do and you are giving them the time they deserve.

Action: Acknowledge when something is pleasant and you are experiencing that pleasure - this is an act of savoring. Once you have identified these moments, linger in them. This helps stretch the present when the present is worth being stretched. 

5. Invest in things that make you happy

When people say they want more time, they also mean that they want more time spent doing things they are happy about. Therefore, we should invest time and money on things that bring us joy. 

6. Be a satisficer, not a maximizer

A satisficer is someone who is happy with things being good enough. A maximizer is someone who needs things to be the best. Vanderkam argues that being able to let go of unrealistic expectations (being a satisficer) is one way to feel more relaxed about time. But do low expectations lead to worse outcomes? Not necessarily! Low expectations might mean that you are more willing to take baby steps every day with little resistance, which can accumulate into big things. 

Action: “Make art when you can. Relax when you cant.” 

7. Invest time in people

People expand time. Vanderkam finds that people’s time-perception scores rose in proportion to time spent with friends and family. This suggests that we should treat relationships with the same intentionality as work. People tend to think a lot more about where they'd like to be going in their work. Very few people treat their relationships with this type of intentionality. So how do we create more space in our life for relationships so that we can feel happier and feel like we have more time? 

Vanderkam separates different types of people into two categories: (a) People whom you spend large blocks of time that already exist (e.g. your family/spouse) and (b) people you don't spend that much time with on a day to day basis. For people in category (a), you need not make an effort to reach out, but you need to be deliberate about the time spent with them. Seeing them so often might make it seem like it's no big deal to be with them; extra intentionality is required to balance the familiarity of their presence.Here’s an example of Vanderkam’s approach to parenting:

“if each of my four children is happy 75 percent of the time, and each child’s happiness is an independent event, the odds of all four children being happy simultaneously is a mere 31.6 percent... That’s why the best tactic I’ve found for creating a higher proportion of pleasant, memory-making moments within the hours I spend with my children is to arrange one-on-one time with each of them whenever I can...The child looks forward to the special occasion. He or she enjoys the attention. Unhappiness can be nipped in the bud. I get to know the child as an individual, not as part of a team to be managed”

For people in category (b), you need to make an effort to reach out. In the workplace, this can come in the form of “networking” - "building authentic relationships with people whom you want to see succeed and who feel the same way about you” (that might be the most pleasant and least dirty description of networking I’ve stumbled on). Vanderkam suggests reaching out to one person every day. The maths works out like this: “If you send 250 emails a year and hear back from 40 percent of these people, that’s a hundred responses. If you talk with or meet twenty of these people, those are a lot of solid connections right there.” Among friends whom you don’t naturally see multiple times per week, we should consider both “big” events (e.g. making that trip to go to the wedding) and “small” events (e.g. standing dates for smaller get-togethers with local friends).