Interview: Laura Vanderkam.
Laura Vanderkam and I have been friends for many years. We first got to know each other through our related subjects -- I love her work on understanding how we use time, and how to get more happiness from our time. As she always says, "Spend more time on things that matter, and less on the things that don't."
Reading her work always reminds me of one of my most important Secrets of Adulthood: I have plenty of time for the things that are important to me.
I'm a huge fan of her books 168 Hours: You Have More Time than You Think; What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast; and I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time.
Because she's so good at making the most of her time, she also has a terrific podcast, Best of Both Worlds, with co-host Sarah Hart-Unger. It's all about managing work life, family life, and personal life (Laura has four children, so she has thought a lot about this).
Once I came up with my Four Tendencies framework, I realized that Laura is a fellow Upholder. She's a textbook Upholder. In fact, if you read my book The Four Tendencies, one of my funniest Upholder stories came from her (see below).
Now she's written a new book: Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. It's full of insights, practical tips, current research, and funny stories about how to make the most of our days.
I couldn't wait to talk to Laura about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Laura: There’s a great phrase from Ovid that "dripping water hollows the stone." Small things, done consistently, add up to big things in the long run.
I write about this mindset a lot in my books, and I try to adopt it in my own life as well. One example: In January of this year, I decided to start writing 500 words of fiction every work day. That’s really not much. Most of us have written that many words in emails by 10 a.m.! And so I don’t feel any resistance to cranking those words out. Sometimes I’m writing a real scene, sometimes I’m just sketching ideas that might become something. I can often get those 500 words done in 15-20 minutes. But all these little spurts add up. As of May, I’ve got about 50,000 words of material to work with, and I’ve figured out aspects of a novel I’m writing that never would have come to me if I hadn’t committed to doing the work.
Despite making my living as a writer, I’m continually amazed how many other professional obligations can get in the way of writing! Doing my 500 words a day helps me feel more creative. I’m not just sending emails about contracts. I’m still practicing my craft too!
Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers -- most?
Laura: I write most often about time management and productivity, so I’ve had thousands of people track their time for me over the years. I love seeing where the time really goes. Indeed, I’ve tracked my own time for 3 years straight! No one else has to do that, but it has been enlightening for me.
One of my most surprising findings has been that most people — including very successful people — get enough sleep. There’s this story out there that in our busy, busy world, people are increasingly sleep-deprived. There’s also a story that for women, in particular, attempting to build a career while raising a family will turn you into a sleep-starved mess. None of this is true. I once did a time diary project that looked at 1001 days in the lives of women with big jobs and kids at home. I found that these busy women averaged 54 hours of sleep per week, or about 7.7 hours per day. Sure, there were some bad nights. But there were plenty of good nights too!
There are 168 hours in a week, so it turns out it is quite possible to work full-time, spend plenty of time with loved ones, and get enough sleep as well.
Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Laura: I am definitely an Upholder. Who else would set a goal — in January — to write 500 words a day? I’m pretty sure the Upholder tribe includes anyone who writes about productivity and habits. Any meeting of such writers scheduled at 10:00 a.m. may as well start at 9:50 a.m. My podcast co-host for Best of Both Worlds, Sarah Hart-Unger, is also an Upholder. We schedule a recording at 1 p.m. and we are inevitably both on by 12:55 p.m.
I am the sort of person who, while in the throes of labor with my fourth child, told my husband not to speed on the way to the hospital, and insisted he park in the correct lot. Fortunately, we made it (barely). [Gretchen: this is a story that I love, and I included it in The Four Tendencies.]
Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
Laura: I travel a lot for speaking engagements, so I’ve decided to view travel more as a challenging logistical puzzle I need to solve, rather than an excuse to drop my habits. I run every day (at least a mile — sometimes only a mile! — but at least a mile), so when I’m traveling it’s really just a matter of looking at the schedule and figuring out where that mile goes. Sometimes that means waking up at 4:30 a.m. and running in a hotel gym. I don’t enjoy waking up at 4:30 a.m. and running in a hotel gym, but that’s when the Upholder tendencies kick in.
I will admit, though, that I wish my Upholder tendencies kicked in a bit more with healthy eating. I love food. It’s not so much parties that are the problem, but if someone decides to offer me a chocolate chip cookie...the whole thing is getting eaten. I stopped shopping at Trader Joe’s because the dark chocolate covered caramels were becoming a bigger part of my life than I wished them to be.
Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to "Be Gretchen.")
Laura: In Off the Clock, I talk about the importance of this mantra: Plan it in, do it anyway.
As we think about time, it’s important to remember that the "self" is really three selves: the anticipating self (who looks forward to things on the calendar), the experiencing self (who is here in the present), and the remembering self (who thinks back on the past). Philosopher Robert Grudin once wrote that we "pamper the present like a spoiled child," and I think there’s something to this. The anticipating self thought it would be fun to go to the art museum on Friday night, when there’s live music and a bar, and the remembering self will look back fondly on the experience, but the experiencing self just got home from work. She is the one who has to brave the rain and the Friday night traffic. So she throws a tantrum, and we wind up indulging her whim to spend hours scrolling through Facebook posts from people we didn’t like in high school anyway.
The way to combat her tyrannies? Plan it in, do it anyway. The experiencing self is trying to deliver a monologue in what should be a three-actor play. In most cases, if your anticipating self wanted to do it, you’ll be happy you went, and probably the experiencing self will enjoy it too once she gets over the initial resistance. We draw energy from meaningful things. So I repeat this mantra to myself a lot!
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The Four Tendencies explain why we act and why we don’t act. Our Tendency shapes every aspect of our behavior, so understanding your Tendency lets us make better decisions, meet deadlines, suffer less stress and burnout, and engage more effectively.