No, you’re really not that busy
Frantic and overstretched? Maybe you’re misusing your waking hours, time expert Laura Vanderkam explains
Julia Llewellyn Smith
July 24 2018, 12:01am, The Times
Nearly all of us overestimate the amount of time we devote to work and chores
Is life crazy? Manic? Do you have no idea where the time goes? In olden times, when you asked how friends were, they would smile and say: “Fine, thanks.” Yet in the past few years, the customary response has become a tight-lipped: “Frantic!”
Laura Vanderkam, the author of five books about time-management, was sceptical that we all were as swamped as we claimed. “People always complain about how they never have enough time for themselves,” says Vanderkam, 39, who has a pleasingly dry take on life, “but I wasn’t so sure. They still were able to recall in detail what happened in the most recent Big Bang Theory.”
Three years ago Vanderkam had good reason to bewail how time-poor she was. She had just given birth to her fourth child (the three others were under ten) and was about to publish her fifth book. She and her husband, who works for a big management consultancy, were frequently travelling for work.
Still wondering if life was really as hectic as she perceived it, Vanderkam decided to test her schedule by minutely recording how she spent every half-hour of the 8,784 hours that made up that leap year. “I was hoping my time logs would give me some perspective and work out some ways of making things easier for myself,” she says.
Yet at the end of the year, her immaculate spreadsheets didn’t reveal at all what she had expected. “The stories I’d told myself about how my time was swallowed up weren’t all actually true,” she says from her home outside Philadelphia in the US. The children having just been put in childcare or on the school bus, she has carved out an hour to talk to me before the day’s other demands kick in. “Life wasn’t actually as crazy as I thought it was.”
The year had certainly been challenging, featuring many sleepless nights with the baby before catching a dawn flight, but it wasn’t all misery. Vanderkam had also found time for eight massages and had several dinners with friends.
While she was convinced that she was severely sleep-deprived, the logs proved that she had in fact averaged 7 hours 24 minutes’ kip a night, having compensated for the bad nights by napping or going to bed early. Although she had viewed her waking life as an endless drudge of nappy-changing and ferrying children to matches, in fact she spent only nine hours a week on housework and errands, notably less than the average mother. “My life wasn’t the grind I’d imagined,” she says.
After continuing to log the subsequent — slightly less gruelling — 12 months, Vanderkam discovered that even the time she and her husband had devoted to “intimate encounters” was identical from one year to the next. “Apparently this was the level of intimacy that felt right, or at least felt doable while the children were distracted by video games,” she writes.
Overall, Vanderkam realised that — like nearly all of us — she had long been overestimating the amount of time devoted to work and chores, while underestimating her leisure time. “There are 168 hours in a week, so if you’re working 40 hours and sleeping 8 hours a night that leaves 72 hours for other things, which is a lot more time than you’re actually working,” she says. “People say it doesn’t feel that way at all, but the maths is there. People will argue, ‘I work more than that!’ I say, ‘Well, we’re still only at 45 hours.’ ”
It’s partly because we tend to allocate higher numbers to tasks with negative associations than to fun activities, but partly it comes down to the importance that our society places on being busy. “People like to walk around with these bragging rights about how important we are,” Vanderkam says.
Like many of us, despite having written bestsellers such as What Successful People Do Before Breakfast and I Know How She Does It — respectively analysing the secrets of high achievers and “juggling” executive mothers — Vanderkam had also fallen into the trap of sabotaging her time by misusing it. Take the example of reading: on paper she had clocked up a theoretically impressive 327 hours, but in practice this consisted almost entirely of browsing gossip magazines. “I could have made it through War and Peace,” she says ruefully.
Confronted by such stark evidence, Vanderkam was compelled to make changes, adding the Kindle app to her phone to enable her to read more books (although she admits she still aimlessly scrolls through social media during the hours she spends in her “terror” toddler’s bedroom trying to get him to sleep), downloading TED talks to educate her during the seven weekly hours spent driving children to activities and doing push-ups while heating something in the microwave.
“My diaries made it clear I couldn’t say I don’t have time for exercise, so I started running every day. I joined a choir because I could see I wasn’t really doing anything of consequence on the evenings they rehearsed,” she says.
Vanderkam has just published her sixth book, Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done, showing us all how to — in the words of Kipling — “fill the unforgiving minute/ With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run”. Her point is that while time always objectively passes at the same rate, we can trick our brains into perceiving it as running slowly.
Her advice on how to do this (including keeping time logs, although maybe for a week rather than years) comes from nuggets gleaned from yet more time diaries, in this case of 900 people all of whom worked more than 30 hours a week and had children aged under 18 living at home. Vanderkam asked them to log every hour of a Monday evening in March last year.
She found that the people with the highest “time-perception scores”, in other words people who felt the most relaxed about their time (although in reality they had just as much on their plates as the people with the lowest time perceptions) shared certain traits.
The first was such people had the most organised schedules. “People who are good with time only commit to things they absolutely know they can do and know how long they will take, so when they’re doing them, they do them properly because they’re not distracted,” Vanderkam says.
These chilled-out beings had also instinctively grasped that “to fill the unforgiving minute” as Kipling advised you need to actively create happy memories. “The reason time seems to move faster as we get older is because a lot of time we spend is on routine stuff that is not memorable and such time becomes a blur both when it’s happening and in retrospect,” Vanderkam says.
“Anticipating a visit to a beautiful park can warm up your horrible commutes for the week before and memories of that visit can cheer you on a dark November day six months later, and both of those will make the present moment seem to last longer.”
That’s all very well, but, when the morning of that park visit arrives — involving perhaps a bus ride, packing a picnic, persuading grumpy children to abandon their Xboxes — it can suddenly seem far less enticing. This is why Vanderkam insists we live by the motto “plan it in, do it anyway”. “It’s very likely on the day of that outing your experiencing self, that lives in the moment, will have a little temper tantrum, thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got all these emails to do, it’s going to be hot.’ But you will be fine once you get moving and your remembering self will be so pleased you did it.”
Inevitably, such precious memories don’t involve evenings scrolling through pictures of other people’s holidays on Instagram. Vanderkam’s research showed that the people who felt they had the least time were also those who checked their phones the most frequently.
In contrast, the people who checked their phones least were also the least stressed, while those who devoted the most time to activities such as meditation were far calmer than those whose evenings (like mine) vanished into a vortex of lazy online shopping, cute animal videos and First Dates re-runs.
“The problem with constantly looking at emails or social media is it tends not to be in concentrated, mindful chunks, it’s something we slip into while we’re also doing something else, but then it chops our leisure time into chunks, so it no longer feels rejuvenating,” she explains.
The calmest people had also realised that to make the most of our time we can’t be tightwads: in other words we need to concentrate on what we do best and, if necessary, splash the cash on outsourcing anything else.
“Obviously, it’s annoying when we see those mugs that say ‘You Have the Same Number of Hours in the Day as Beyoncé’ because she can afford so much more help than the rest of us, but I don’t think the process is automatic for anyone,” Vanderkam says. “JK Rowling’s talked about how she had a lightbulb moment when she was having a crazy day trying to finish Deathly Hallows with the kids making a noise and the window cleaner coming and she suddenly realised she could decamp to a hotel. It took her six bestselling books and $1 billion to realise her hours should be spent doing what only she could do. None of us is born with an operating manual for life.”
Vanderkam also takes a hard line on perfectionists, who waste hours dithering about the best brand of washing-up liquid to buy or (in my case) the perfect light to hang over the kitchen island. “I divide people into maximisers, who want the absolute best option and satisficers, who have a set of criteria and go for the first option that clears the bar,” she says. “The former sounds like such a positive trait — no one’s going to build a career as a motivational speaker by shouting, ‘I settle!’ But research proves the second group are happier because they don’t waste time ruminating over choices and expectations. Recently, we renovated a couple of rooms and had to choose paint colours. I was amazed at the million shades of white out there and could have spent months choosing one, but I recognised I was never going to find the best one, that the shade I chose wasn’t perfect, but it got the job done.”
I’m inspired. I’m going to stop browsing Made.com’s lighting selection and book theatre tickets, stately home visits and gym assessments. But first I need to check Zara’s autumn stock, fresh in. And, oh, look at this adorable YouTube puppy video!
Hope it helps - it certainly made me think about how I use my time.