Interview with Laura Vanderkam: On making the most of time

Vera: Congratulations on your new book ‘Off the clock’– You’ve written several books on time management- what’s the big idea in this one?

Laura: All my books look at how we spend our time, but this one looks at how we feel about it. Why do some busy people feel relaxed, while others feel stressed? Drawing on a time diary study of a day in the life of 900 people with full-time jobs, I could compare schedules, and see why some people seem harried, while others seem to have all the time in the world.


Vera: The book’s subtitle is ‘Feel less busy whilst getting more done’.  How does one achieve that?

Laura: There are lots of practical ways to feel less busy while getting more done. A key one is being mindful of where the time really goes. Another is to pro-actively plan in steps toward your personal and professional goals. We can also learn to linger in good moments, and spend time with family and friends whenever we can.


Vera: The book draws on research as you mentioned and found that those who spent the day on memorable activities felt they had more time compared to those who spent it watching TV- How did the meaningfulness of how time was spent translate into a feeling of having more time?

Laura: Time and memory work together in fascinating ways. When you ponder a unit of time, your sense of how long it was is based partly on how many “memory units” you formed. More memorable activities means more memory units, which makes time feel more vast. That’s why the first day of a vacation somewhere exotic feels so lengthy. Your brain doesn’t know what it will need in the future, so it is remembering all of it! We can’t travel exotic places daily, but we can build in little adventures into our daily lives, so we can form more memories, and hence feel like we have more time.


Vera: What else did you learn from your research audience about how to stretch good moments and I guess by extension time?

Laura: Any moment can be built up by thinking about it in advance, so you can enjoy the anticipation, then being fully present during the event itself, and then commemorating it afterwards. I recently did this for a beautiful piece of music I knew I was going to hear. It’s only about 4 minutes long, but I thought about it for weeks ahead of time, closed my eyes and relished it while it was happening, and then wrote about it afterwards. Result: I have far deeper memories of those 4 minutes than I do of most other 4 minute periods of my life!


Vera: Some argue that we don’t spend time but invest time. It may simply be a question of semantics. What’s your take on time as a resource and how we can get the most out of it?

Laura: I do think that time is a resource, and that it can be invested in achieving the life we want. One practical way to do this is to figure out what is your best, highest energy time, and then use this time for something important for you. In Off the Clock, I profile a writer who moved an important, speculative project from Friday afternoons to Monday mornings. By Friday afternoon she was always tired, and getting caught up, and so her project didn’t happen. When she chose to devote time to it on Monday mornings, it did happen!


Vera: Many people believe they could do better with getting more out of their hours. What’s the most efficient way to track time to see where it goes?

Laura: I track my time on weekly spreadsheets. It’s pretty simple – just the half hours along the left side and the days of the week along the top. I don’t go into too much detail, because I want to be able to stick with it – don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good! Other people like to use time tracking apps, or even just writing down their lives in a notebook. The tool doesn’t matter. What matters is trying to track consistently for even a few days. We can all learn a lot from this mindfulness.


Vera: Knowing where time is wasted is one thing, redeeming and putting it to better use is another.  You’ve been known to live what you preach regarding time management- What are some of your most effective, tested time saving tip/tricks?

Laura: The core of my time management comes down to thinking about what is important to me, and then planning in steps toward those goals into my life. What that means, practically: I plan my upcoming weeks on Fridays. I think about what I’d like to do for my career, my relationships, and myself. Then I put those things on the calendar. If I do that, I really do feel less busy while getting more done!


Vera: You have a reputation for getting people to think differently about time- and one is connecting time with our energy. What’s the connection there in terms of maximizing time?

Laura: While time is just time, it’s hard to move activities around with the same fluidity of, say, money. While you could write the Great American novel from 9:30-11 p.m. each night, most people’s brains are pretty fried by this point. By putting your important work when you have the most energy, and then building in breaks into your day so you can replenish your energy, you’ll be able to get great things done.


Vera: When one doesn’t always have full control over how they spend their hours- eg an employee at work, what’s your advice on how they might mine their hours for its full value?

Laura: While it is true that we can’t control all our time, we often do have more control than we think. A 40-hour job is just 40 of the 168 hours we have each week. If you sleep 56 hours (8 per night), that leaves 72 hours for other things. How can you consciously choose to spend those 72 hours in ways that rejuvenate you, and are meaningful to yourself and the people you care about? You might use some of those 72 hours to dream up ways to push your career in a direction where you have more control of your time! There are a lot of jobs out there. Rather than dwell on the time that is spoken for, start thinking about possibilities.


Vera: What about time management do you find so inspiring and what do you see in the future of time management?

Laura: What I most love about time is that we all have the same amount of it. Each week presents another 168 hours to craft into the lives we want. I enjoy nudging people to see the options and possibilities.

As for the future of time management, I’m a big proponent of time tracking and I know that technology is improving in this regard. I imagine that time trackers will become more intuitive and intelligent in the future, so if you want data on where the time goes it will be easier to get it. But whatever happens with technology, wise time management isn’t going to change. It’s about being mindful of the time, and spending more time on what matters and less on what doesn’t.


Laura’s profile

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done (Portfolio, May 29, 2018), I Know How She Does It, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, and 168 Hours. She is the co-host, with Sarah Hart-Unger, of the Best of Both Worlds podcast. Her work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Fortune, and her TED talk, “How to gain control of your free time,” has been viewed more than 6 million times. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and four children, and blogs at


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