No Time for Balance? Think Again

Most people who feel the crush of busyness have heard the clichéd advice about time management: “Either run the day or the day runs you.” And my favorite, “The bad news is that time flies. The good news is that you’re the pilot.”

The interesting thing about clichéd advice is that sometimes it’s spot-on correct.

In 1974 my wife and I had been married seven years. We had two small children. My job and daily commute were stressful. After fighting rush hour traffic, I arrived home one evening and was briefly irritable with our children. I immediately apologized, but still felt bad about my temporary lapse.

My wife later asked me “what’s going on?” I gave her my usual litany about having so much to do and so little time to do it.

Then my dear wife, a great coach, gave me a gentle lesson that has helped me throughout the four and a half decades since.

“Honey,” she began, “I think we live in an age of miracles.” I didn’t dispute that idea, but asked her to give me an example. “Well,” she continued, “I notice that you frequently complain about not having enough time. But I also notice that in the autumn of the year, on Mondays, at precisely 9:00 PM Eastern time, a miracle happens right here in our living room. You somehow find three hours to watch Monday Night Football. For a guy who never has enough time, that’s truly a miracle.”

Then she tied a nice bow on it: “Time really is about making deliberate choices. Like everyone else on the planet, you have only 168 hours a week. Maybe you could re-evaluate the choices you make in how you invest those hours.”

Ouch! But don’t you love it when someone you trust calls your attention to a blinding flash of the obvious?

Laura Vanderkam expands on this theme in her bestselling book Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. Her TED talk, “How to Gain Control of Your Free Time” has been viewed more than six million times.

Vanderkam destroys the myth that there’s just not enough time in the week for professionals to live happy, balanced, and productive lives. I visited with her to explore her thinking on this ever-popular topic. 

Rodger Dean Duncan: Consistently effective time management is an elusive aspiration for many people. You began your journey by keeping a detailed log of your activities. What did you learn from this practice? Any surprises?

Laura Vanderkam: If you want to spend your time better, you need to figure out where the time is going now. Otherwise, how do you know if you’re changing the right thing? Most people can get a good impression of their lives by tracking a week, but about three years ago, I decided to track my time continuously, keeping a detailed log of all my activities.

This has been a good practice for many reasons. I saw that I did have time to read. I wasn’t working as much as I thought. I occasionally have bad nights, but overall I do get enough sleep.

Most importantly, tracking time has helped expand my memory. Now I have a record of exactly how I’ve spent my time, and I can call these memories back up more easily. Having more memories makes time feel more vast. I see how much choice I have, and making choices skillfully — that is, with a good sense of the data — creates a feeling of time freedom.

Duncan: It’s been said that nobody ever said on their deathbed that they wish they had spent more time at the office. How can chronic workaholics invest more in “off the clock” activities without going on a guilt trip?

Vanderkam: First, I doubt it’s true that no one wished he or she spent more time at the office! Work can be an incredibly meaningful part of life. Also, people sometimes wind up out of the workforce for longer than they mean to due to unemployment or an unexpectedly early retirement, and it derails their financial goals for themselves and their families. That can definitely be a deathbed regret.

That said, if someone is working and would like to have more off the clock time, one great first step is to start planning more fun into life. One reason we keep working at nights or on weekends is that our personal lives aren’t compelling enough to stop. I don’t think working is a worse choice for time than watching TV. But being intentional about your personal time changes the equation. If you have tickets to a 7 p.m. game you really want to see, you’ll probably stop working in time to get there. If you have a hike with your family planned for the weekend, you’ll probably check your email less (at least while you’re hiking).

In many cases, work expands to fill the available space. When you give it less space, you’ll see that the important stuff still gets done, and that can help reduce the guilt.

Duncan: “Let it go” is one of the approaches you advocate for using time effectively. What kind of choices does “letting go” require?

Vanderkam: We all have the same amount of time, but people interact with it in different ways. I’ve found that mental rumination can eat up a lot of time, and keeps people from enjoying the free time they have.

Some people agonize over decisions. They are “maximizers,” and want to choose the best possible option. “Satisfiers” (as Barry Schwartz, the psychology professor who studied this phenomenon calls them) set their criteria, and go with the first option that clears the bar. This saves an incredible amount of time, and tends to make people happier, because in most cases, there is no best option. The hotel you choose after three hours of researching is not going to be much better (if it’s better at all) than the hotel you choose after three minutes.

I also find that perfectionism eats up a lot of time. People set huge goals for themselves, and then get discouraged and give up. Better to let go of these large expectations and instead aim to make small daily progress—so small, you feel no resistance to the idea. If you want to write a novel, don’t set out to write 80,000 words. Set out to write 400 words a day, five mornings a week. Four hundred words is nothing—I’ve written more than that answering these questions—but this habit will give you a draft in less than a year.

Duncan: You write that “done is better than perfect because there is no perfect without done.” What mental shifts can a perfectionist take to benefit from this view?

Vanderkam: Nothing is ever truly perfect. I read a lot—as you do!—and one of the upsides of this is that seeing even classic, great literature has its flaws. I find this encouraging. We’re all just trying stuff and seeing what works. Someone struggling with perfectionism can also try realizing this: Your work can’t help you until it’s out of your head. Once it exists, people can give you feedback, which can help you improve your work over time. You’ll also see ways to improve your work. And as people interact with your work, they’ll become part of your journey, and want to stay involved in your world. I love that my books are out in the world, becoming part of people’s conversations even when I am not physically there. They couldn’t do that if I were waiting to achieve perfection.

Duncan: What are the key to making time for friends, and what role do rich personal relationships play in a person’s professional life?

Vanderkam: For Off the Clock, I had more than 900 people with full-time jobs track their time for a day. Then I asked them questions about their time so I could compare the schedules of people who felt time was abundant with people who felt starved for time. I found that people’s time perception scores rose in direct correlation with how much time they spent interacting with friends and family. Spending time with people we love energizes us, and that makes us feel like time is rich and full, rather than slipping through our fingers.

We see our families because we live with them, but making time for friends is more complicated. The people who do this well build regular friend get-togethers into their lives. For instance, you commit to meeting for dinner the first Thursday of every month. Or you meet two friends to run at 7 a.m. every Saturday morning. That way, no one has to plan each individual gathering, and people know to plan their lives around it. While it sounds paradoxical that making a time commitment could make you feel like you have more time, I promise it is true!

As for professional relationships, people are people. Work feels more satisfying—and hence people are more engaged—when you spend Monday with people you’d be willing to spend Sunday with too. Viewed from that perspective, chatting with colleagues isn’t wasting time. It’s actually making you more effective.

Duncan: What’s your bottom-line advice to someone who wants “more time” in their days?

Vanderkam: One of the best ways to create a sense of time abundance is to plan more adventures into your life. When people say “where did the time go?” what they tend to mean is that they don’t remember where the time went. Plan memorable things into your life and you will remember them—and that can make time feel more vast.

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Rodger Dean Duncan

Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP and a regular contributor to Forbes and Fast Company magazines. He is widely known for his expertise in the strategic management of change, for organizations and for individuals. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide to train and develop leaders. His clients have included some of the top companies in the world, as well as cabinet officers in two White House administrations.

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