Work / Life

The Secret to Finding More Time: An Interview With Productivity Expert Laura Vanderkam

Laura Vanderkam on work-life balance, leisure time with kids, and how time tracking can help you prioritize 

Tracking time helps you find more free time. Sounds contradictory but it’s true. If you’re like me, you may feel as if there aren’t enough hours in the day, much less an entire week. There’s a solution though: time management.

According to time management expert Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, the secret is in time tracking. When we track our time, we realize that we might be spending time on activities with no value, rather than prioritizing projects important to our life goals.

Since 168 Hours was published in 2010, Vanderkam has authored several time management and productivity books. Her newest book, Tranquility by Tuesday, is due in 2022. Her TED talk, “How to Gain Control of Your Free Time,” has been viewed more than 11 million times. She is the host of two podcasts and blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.

In addition to her successful career, she’s the mother of five kids, including a baby born right before the beginning of the pandemic. She balances work and parenthood while being extremely productive and incredibly fulfilled. 

She’s also been tracking her time for over six years.

So I spoke to Vanderkam on behalf of Toggl Track and she shared a few of her tips and tricks.

Toggl Track: How do you use the information from your weekly time tracking?

Laura Vanderkam: I view it more as a memory. I look back and ask, “Am I doing cool stuff? Am I doing stuff that looks interesting? Am I wasting time?” 

My Friday afternoon planning tends to be more forward focused. People might look at the past week but I tend to look at the week ahead, planning how I’d like to spend my time over the next week. 

The goal is to make sure I spend time on my priorities. On Friday afternoons, I list my priorities for the upcoming week and plan when I would like to do them. By the end of the week, I would’ve liked to have done those things. The goal is that the time log reflects what I said was a priority.

With work and kids, when do you schedule your most important work?

I know I’m most productive in the mornings, so I try to do the most important work at my most productive time. I do my writing and intense editing in the mornings. In the afternoons, I can do phone calls and emails. 

I do the most important work when the big kids are at school but I might do some more work during kids’ activities or the weekends. It’s not a set amount every time.

As a mother of two kids myself, I was wondering how you juggle multiple duties like parenthood and work. Is there a percentage of how much time you spend on X or Y?

I think a lot of parents are surprised when they do track time about how much time they are really spending with their kids. This is especially true of parents who both work full time. 

Most full-time employees work between 35 and 40 hours a week. There are 168 hours in a week. Let’s say you sleep 56 hours a week, averaging 8 hours a day, and subtract that from 168 hours. Then you have 112 hours to do stuff. Working takes up one-third of your waking hours. 

If you have kids, a lot of time is spent with them. People find they’ve logged 40 hours a week working and logged 40 hours of kid time. Chores can be done while multitasking with kids but you can also build in leisure time with kids.

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You recommend exercise as a necessity that needs to be built into your schedule. How do you make sure you incorporate it into your week?

The interesting thing about exercise is it takes far less time, proportionally, than you might think. If you’re doing 30 minutes of exercise, five days a week, that amounts to 2.5 hours a week, which is good but not that much. You can do more exercise and it won’t take up too much time.

How do you achieve work life balance? In a work from home environment, it’s easy for work life and home life to blur into each other. How do you build in leisure time?

The first thing to recognize is that everyone does have some leisure time. Time tracking can help show that. 

For parents with young kids, the bulk of leisure time might be at night when the kids go to bed. Because they’re tired, they’re probably not going to leave the house; they’re probably watching two hours of TV each night. 

It doesn’t register as leisure but what time tracking can do is show you where you do have potential leisure time so you can make good choices with that. 

What can I do for two hours that might be fun for me? You can read for two hours, you can watch a movie on a weeknight, or get a pedicure after the kids are asleep if you want. 

I find that I often will do chores, like paying bills or responding to emails that don’t require much thought at night after the kids go to bed. What’s the best way to handle mundane tasks?

With chores, batch them together as much as possible and say, I’m going to go through all of that in ten minutes. Those chores can expand to fill the space and next thing you know, you’re spending two hours doing that kind of stuff. 

I’m curious about the nitty-gritty of breaking down tasks. How do you handle time tracking so it isn’t overwhelming? For example, “taking out the trash” or “writing an email to grandma”—would these be their own categories? 

I’m less exact with all of that. People can get bogged down with how they classify time. You don’t need to know how much time you spend writing to grandma but you’re going to be surprised at other things, like, “Wow, I thought I was working 60 hours a week but I’m only working 40.” 

I don’t look at categories as mutually exclusive and comprehensively exhaustive. I’m looking at the major stuff, like how many hours I slept or how many hours I worked.

In 168 Hours, the suggestion about off-loading or delegating certain tasks made sense to me. I started ordering groceries online to make better use of my time.

That’s something that time tracking can help with. There are various tasks that we find unenjoyable, and they tend to expand in our mental accounting. 

That’s one of the reasons we think we work more than we do. We overestimate the time we spend doing things we don’t want to do and we underestimate the time we spend doing things we do want to do.

If you don’t like grocery shopping and you would like to use those hours to do something else, it might be worth getting rid of. 

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I love the idea that people should start time tracking by making a List of 100 Dreams. Why is something like this important to bear in mind? 

The reason to think about how we spend our time is we often assume we have no time. We don’t think about what we do with our time. 

Everyone has free time to some extent, but we do whatever is easier. And that’s why most people spend their free time watching TV, surfing the web, or looking at social media. 

All of that can seem fun at the moment but it’s not what I call “effortful fun,” which would be something like going to an ice skating rink, meeting a friend for a drink, woodworking, or singing in a choir. These things are more meaningful to do in our leisure time. 

The upside of the List of 100 Dreams is it really makes you think about how you spend your time. That’s why I suggest people make the list, pull things off the list, and give it a whirl. 

This fits into the idea of prioritizing tasks that fit into your major goal. How do you designate time for certain projects of varying degrees of importance?

Time is ultimately limited. Time spent on one thing is time not spent on something else. We shouldn’t spend too much time on over-the-top on the things that don’t matter to us. 

Life isn’t a traditional report card where you want to get A on everything. A lot of life is a pass or fail and you want to focus on the core areas that are graded. It’s like looking at a report card when you get three or four grades and everything else is pass or fail. 

What would you add to your book 11 years later, especially in the context of time tracking? 

I like to have one big adventure and one little adventure each week. In my next book, I talk about nine time management strategies that are universally helpful. 

One of them is backup slots. The suggestion is to create a backup slot for anything important. If you plan to exercise three times a week before work, then you have another backup slot for a fourth day so that you can still get it done. 

Any parting piece of advice about time tracking?

I’ve definitely suggested that people who want to use an app check out something like Toggl Track. Different people work in different ways.

If you like this idea of having a frictionless app keep track of your time, it can make it easy for people to stick with it—time tracking, that is.

How I tracked my time, based on Vanderkam’s advice

I’d used calendar planners but had never tracked time on a regular basis. 

But after reading Vanderkam’s book and talking to her about time tracking, I tracked my time using Toggl Track, following her suggestions. Below is a pie chart of a typical week for me, a freelance journalist, writer, and mother.

My 168 Hours

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I prioritized.

I realized there were a few things I wanted to reprioritize. In general, work takes about the same amount of time as relationships—which includes spending time with my kids—which was a nice surprise. 

But there are other weeks when I have a lot of deadlines, and work will blend into other categories. I started working at the beach while bringing my kids, so I was able to target three categories: work, relationships and hobbies. 

I wanted to incorporate more exercise into my week, so I started doing yoga when I put my younger daughter to bed. Boom: That’s two categories—exercise and relationships. 

I delegated.

As for household chores, I wanted to spend as little time as possible on them. Grocery shopping has always been a pet peeve of mine, even before I had a family. A trip to the food store depletes me of energy. Since I started ordering my groceries online, it’s felt like a windfall in terms of time and mood.

And instead of feeling bad every time a week passed when I didn’t engage in something important to me, I intentionally made that activity a priority for the next week.

For example, I count going to the beach—listening to the soothing ocean waves, seeing the expanse of the Pacific Ocean and smelling the salty air—as a hobby or activity that helps me replenish my energy. I prioritized making time to go to the sea at least once a week.

I engaged in self-reflection.

Thinking about time tracking made me realize that I had more control of my time than I’d originally thought. 

I discovered that there were ways to reclaim my time to focus on categories more valuable to me, whether through strategic multitasking or self reflection based on time tracking data. 

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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June 21, 2021