A lot of people feel dissatisfied about how they spend their time. They often feel busy, but that busyness doesn’t add up to anything — not to fun, not to fulfillment, not to memories.
My guest, Laura Vanderkam, has spent a lot of time thinking about and studying time, and last year she decided to run an experiment to see if the insights she had gained from that study could help average people get a better handle on their time. She had 150 people try out nine different time-management rules, which were sorted into three categories: Calm the Chaos, Make Good Things Happen, and Waste Less Time. She shares these field-tested strategies from what she called the Tranquility by Tuesday project in her new book by the same name.
Today on the show, we talk about my seven favorite rules from Tranquility by Tuesday. Laura explains why you need to give yourself a bedtime, plan your week on Friday, make a “punch list” for tackling small tasks, and more. We also discuss the principle that can allow you to read a hundred books in a year.
Resources Related to the Episode
- Laura’s previous appearance on the podcast: Episode #495: Wish You Had More Time? What You Really Want is More Memories
- AoM article and video on how to plan your week
- AoM Podcast #743: How to Get Time, Priorities, and Energy Working in Your Favor
- AoM Podcast #450: How to Make Time for What Really Matters Every Day
- AoM article and podcast on microadventures
- AoM Article: Possibilities in Spare Moments
- Jeremy Anderberg’s newsletter, where he shares about the many books he reads
Connect With Laura Vanderkam
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. A lot of people feel dissatisfied about how they spend their time. They often feel busy but that busyness doesn’t add up to anything; not to fun, not to fulfillment, not to memories. My guest, Laura Vanderkam, has spent a lot of time thinking about and studying time. In the last year, she decided to run an experiment to see if the insight she had gained from that study could help average people get a better handle on their time. She had 150 people try out nine different time management rules which was sorted into three categories: Calm the chaos, make good things happen, and waste less time. She shares these field-tested strategies from what she called the Tranquility by Tuesday project in her new book by the same name. Today in the show, we’re gonna talk about my seven favorite rules from Tranquility by Tuesday. Laura explains why you need to give yourself a bed time, plan your week on Friday, make a punch list for tackling small tasks, and more. We also discuss the principle that can allow you to read 100 books in a year. After the show’s over, check out our show notes aom.is/Tuesday.
Alright. Laura Vanderkam, welcome back to the show.
Laura Vanderkam: Thank you so much for having me back. I really appreciate it.
Brett McKay: So you spend your career researching and writing about how people spend their time. You do these massive time studies where you have people fill out these extensive time diaries, and as we discussed the last time you were on the show, when you ask people how do they feel about how they spend their time, they always say, “I’m just really busy,” but then when you look at their time diaries, they actually have more time than they think they have, but they still feel dissatisfied with how they’re spending their time because most of it… It’s like most people, it’s taken up with unfulfilling stuff; chores, commute, stressful jobs, so life just kind of ends up feeling flat and like a slog. Well, then what you started to do, you started thinking about how you could help people spend more of their time on the things that matter to them. So last year, you started this project called the Tranquility by Tuesday project, and you basically brought in people who were following your work and said let me… Look, maybe we can do something where we can intentionally manipulate things so that we feel better about how we’re spending our time. For a lot of times, your work is just descriptive kinda like here’s how people spend their time. What led you to be like, “I’m gonna help people actually spend time on things they really enjoy.”?
Laura Vanderkam: Well, I’m always interested in how people can spend their time better, and I write self-help for busy people. So partly I wanted to check if the things I was suggesting for people actually work. So I realized over the years, as people had shared their schedules with me and were often asking for feedback, that I was giving a lot of the same advice. So even when people were in different stages of life or had different sorts of jobs, a lot of the advice turned out to be pretty similar. So I honed this down into nine rules that I thought would have the biggest impact and then decided to test them out. Like what happens if I have 150 people try out these nine rules for nine weeks? And so I measured the people at the beginning in various ways. I had them each week learn a new rule, answer questions about how they plan to implement it in their lives. A week later, followed up to see how it went, kept measuring people as we did this over and over again for nine weeks, nine rules. And I was happy to find that the end of the study people’s time satisfaction had improved to a high degree. So I really do think that good habits do translate into being happier about our lives.
Brett McKay: And so you’re not just pulling these rules out of the air, this was based on the research you had done. It’s like, “Well, people who are happy to do these things. So maybe if people are unhappy if they try them, they might have an improvement as well.” The Tranquility by Tuesday was to test that idea.
Laura Vanderkam: Was to test that idea. Yeah. And I would say that the people who did the project, they weren’t unhappy. I think they’re like many of us. You’re going along in life, it’s… You’re getting done the things that you have to get done. It’s just that the space for enjoyment and for feeling like life is not so much this slog of meeting everything on my to-do list was not so much there. And so that was what I was trying to change. Not a total lifestyle overhaul, but just if you follow these nine relatively simple rules what will happen? And people did start feeling better about their time. They were making more progress on their goals, but also that they were happier with their leisure time. They felt like they were wasting less time on the things that weren’t important to them.
Brett McKay: Let’s dig into some of these rules. And the first three rules, it’s all about gaining more of a sense of control over your schedule. I always like to think a lot of people complain about that, like, I just feel like my schedule just dictates what I do instead of me dictating my schedule. But what’s interesting, the first rule, in order to get a more control of your schedule is give yourself a bed time. So why do adults need to give themselves a bed time? What’s going on there?
Laura Vanderkam: Well, pretty much for the same reason that kids do, alright? We want to get enough sleep because when we don’t get enough sleep most nights we wind up in a very bad mood and we throw tantrums in the ways that adults do; maybe they’re not so obvious as children, but it has bad effects on ourselves and everyone else nonetheless. And I know from time diary projects that most people are getting enough sleep over the course of a week from a quantitative perspective, the problem is that it can be incredibly disorderly. People wind up under-shooting on some days and then over-shooting on others. They stay up late and have to get up early, and so then they’re working with the sleep debt, and so then they start crashing on the couch at night or sleeping through an alarm or hitting snooze three times and you nap on weekends and then you can’t fall asleep Sunday night, and then the whole cycle repeats itself. It is so much better to get the amount of sleep that you need every single night. And since most adults can’t really change the time they wake up in the morning, they have to be up at certain times for work or family responsibilities, the only variable that can move is the time you go to bed the night before.
So this rule is about telling people figure out how much sleep you need, look at what time you need to wake up in the morning, count back that number of hours of sleep from that time in the morning and you have a bed time. And this is the time you should be aiming to get in bed as many nights as possible. And again, you’re an adult. Like if you have a really good reason to blow through it, by all means, be my guest. But it just nudges a choice. It nudges a choice that if I’m just scrolling around on my phone and we’re coming in toward 11:00 PM, I should probably get in bed and turn the lights out. In general, what this helps us do is see that a day has a definite size and shape. I think a lot of people understand that the day has a beginning when your alarm clock goes off. We’re a little bit less clear on the notion that a day has an end, but by giving yourself a bedtime you know, okay, that is the shape of the container, right? This is how much time I have in any given day. I can make a lot of choices about what I do with it, but this is what I’m working with.
Brett McKay: So I like that because I do think… I’ve noticed in my own life where if I don’t have a definite bed time, I start letting stuff kind of bleed in to night time, and I end up doing stuff that, I… You start surfing the Internet, you’re watching a TV show. It’s like, “This is not helpful.” But if I had a definite time, I’d be like, “Well, I got it. It’s over, so I gotta get stuff done before I clock out.”
Laura Vanderkam: Yeah, exactly, and that way you start making more mindful choices about how you spend that time before bed. And that’s a time of day that many people find hard to use well on things that they find necessarily rejuvenating, but if you know that you are working with, let’s say, your kids go to bed at 8:30 and you go to bed at 11:00, well, that’s not a small amount of time. But when you know what it definitely looks like, you can make choices and you can say, “Well, if I’m going to do my chores,” and then, “Hey, I’ve got two hours and I can actually watch a movie, that would be great,” or, “I wanna spend an hour working on a hobby and then an hour watching TV or whatever it happens to be.” But because you know the shape of the space, you can make mindful choices within it.
Brett McKay: Alright, so bed time will make you feel better, you’ll have lots of those tantrums and just that’ll help you be more productive the next day, but also just gives you more shape to your day, more structure. The second rule to give you more structure over your time is plan your week on Friday. So I’m sure a lot of people, they might do some sort of planning, maybe not, but I do a weekly plan. Why do you recommend Friday? Why that over other days?
Laura Vanderkam: Well, the most important aspect here is to plan, right? If it’s a time that works for you, you have a weekly planning time and you keep to it, then that is fine. I don’t wanna convince anyone that if something that’s working for you is terrible. But I like Fridays for a couple of reasons. One, if you work a sort of Monday through Friday schedule, most people at least by Friday afternoon are pretty much sliding into the weekend. It is really hard to start anything new at that point, and so if you would just be biting your time until it’s acceptable to sign off, you may as well repurpose some of that time for planning and turn what might be wasted time into some of your most productive minutes of the week. Planning on Friday allows you to use Monday. If you wait to plan until Monday morning, much of the stuff you’re executing on won’t happen until later in the day, Monday, or maybe even Tuesday, and again, if Friday is the day we’re sliding into the weekend, we’ve just shortened our work week to three days, if we’re planning on Monday. Friday is better than Sunday, which is another time a lot of people plan because if you need to make appointments, if you need to call somebody that works at business hours, you can do that on Friday in a way that you can’t on Sunday night.
But I think the most important reason is even people who really enjoy their jobs can often feel quite a bit of trepidation on Sunday afternoon, going into Sunday evening, and what that tends to be is you know there’s a lot of stuff waiting for you. You’ve got just a huge workload on Monday, a lot of problems that need to be solved, you’re not exactly sure what’s going on, and so your brain is kind of twirling that stuff around in the background, and that can make you feel a little bit anxious during time that you should be relaxing or hanging out with family. And so if you plan your upcoming week on Friday, then you can go into the weekend more relaxed and not think about it again until you really need to.
Brett McKay: Based on your time research, is there an effective way you found people should plan their days like time blocking to… I mean, what have you… Is it just what works for you? What have you found?
Laura Vanderkam: Well, I think this is a matter of knowing yourself, and some people really do like to block out big chunks of time for certain activities, other people really enjoy doing lots of different things on any given day, and they appreciate the variety. I think with that, you have to know yourself. I do know that most people do better if they match their sort of most difficult work or the work that maybe even doesn’t have to be done, the things that are important but not urgent to the time when they are best able to handle it. Most people have more energy in the morning, not everybody, but many people do. So morning, of a work day at least, might be a good time for any of that sort of deep work that really requires intense focus, and then if you’ve got those status meetings where everyone’s checking in that, yep, you’re still doing your job, if you are gonna have those, do those in the afternoon when you are not necessarily at your peak productivity time, but you don’t need to be because that doesn’t require it.
Brett McKay: And I imagine if you’re married or you’ve got a partner, you need to be thinking about doing some sort of weekly planning so that you guys are on the same page too.
Laura Vanderkam: Definitely, and that might be something that you could do a phone call on Friday. It might be that you do need to do a second weekend planning session if the two of you can’t coordinate it on Friday. Although I do know some people who do a sort of work planning on Friday afternoon and then have a fun little after dinner beer with their partner and plan the stuff that needs to be planned for the upcoming week, who’s driving who, if somebody’s working late one night, who’s covering for that, that sort of thing. But yeah, no, it’s important to coordinate those sorts of things, but you can also sort of be sending those to each other ahead of time too, that both of you then look at during your Friday planning session so nothing comes up as a huge surprise.
Brett McKay: So another of these rules to calm the storm is moved by 3:00 PM. So what does that mean? What are you hoping to accomplish with this?
Laura Vanderkam: Well, there’s a couple of reasons for this rule. One is that physical activity helps us have more energy. There’s pretty good evidence that even small bits of physical activity give us a lot of energy for quite a while afterwards. And so what happens in mid-afternoon for many people as they start getting that second cup of coffee or else they don’t, and they’re just reading the same email six times in a row, whereas taking a little break to get up, get some physical activity, fresh air if you can, will definitely boost your mood, boost your energy lets you focus for the rest of the day. But the thing is, and many of us, you know, having such sedentary lifestyles forcing in a 10 minute break somewhere to get some physical activity is gonna require you to look at your schedule strategically.
You’ll have to look at your day and say, “Oh what am I doing? Like what’s up ahead? What could move? Where could I force in some space?” And that strategic mindset has benefits far beyond just that it’s good to get a little bit of physical activity. You start to look at your day hour by hour sort of as a general surveying the battlefield. Like, “No, no, we’re gonna move here at this point and then we’re gonna do this.” And I find that that sense of being proactive is good for many things and not just physical activity.
Brett McKay: What were the most common obstacles you found with this rule?
Laura Vanderkam: Well, you know, people would forget. That happens. A lot of people had to start setting an alarm. I think a lot of people were concerned, like particularly if… I did this time diary project during 2021 where a lot of people were still dealing with COVID restrictions and the like, many people working from home who had not necessarily been working from home their whole lives, and we’re concerned that if you’re not there for 10 minutes, people will be like, “What’s she doing? She’s just watching Netflix.” And this was a concern people had for a long time. But a lot of people or if you’re in an office, getting up and leaving shows that you are not just a complete martyr to the cause and sometimes people are a little bit concerned about coming across as not a complete martyr to the cause.
But I will tell you, nobody who tried it had anything bad happen as a result of moving for 10 minutes in the course of the day. And many people had quite good things happen. They had been feeling completely worn down, left the office for 10 minutes, came back and had a solution to whatever problem had been bothering them before. So I encourage people to just give it a try. Even if you think it wouldn’t work, even if you think like, “Oh I have so much going on,” I promise you will feel better afterwards.
Brett McKay: And this doesn’t have to be like a full hour long workout, you’re just saying, I mean just like 10 minutes. I mean even like 10 minutes of like a walk or 15 minutes of walk outside.
Laura Vanderkam: A walk. I mean if it’s raining, go up and down the stairs, or just do some pushups or sit-ups and if you can get outside, that’s great but 10 minutes, that’s it. I’m not talking about full hour long workouts. I love when people do those, those are great, but don’t hold that out as the goal if that’s just gonna make you say, “Well then I can’t exercise ’cause I’m not the kind of person who can leave for an hour every day at lunch to exercise.” If that’s going to be the problem, save 10 minutes, you can do it somewhere. I’m sure you can find the space somewhere and you will feel better when you do.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay, so the move by 3:00 rule. First off movement is good for you. You gotta exercise, it’ll make you feel better, help you be more productive. But also just being intentional, it forces you to how can I look at my day so I can restructure my schedule to fit this in? That has carry over effects to other parts of your life.
Laura Vanderkam: Exactly.
Brett McKay: Okay. So that’s the calming the storm rules. The next set of rules is about helping people do more of what they think is important. ‘Cause I think a lot of times when people say, “Oh, I’m just so busy,” what they’re really saying is they’re not doing the things that they think are really important. Like I’ve never said, “Oh, I’m just so busy” when I’ve got all this great stuff that I’m enjoying. Right? I’ll say it when I’m doing stuff I don’t really want to do. So the first of these rules to do more of what you think is important is three times a week is a habit. What’s the impetus behind this rule?
Laura Vanderkam: Yeah, so I think people often hold out that they need to do things daily or it’s not really a habit, it doesn’t count. And I don’t know why we have that story we tell ourselves. I mean, even people who think they have daily habits often don’t. They do these things Monday through Friday and that’s five times a week, right? That’s not every single day. And so, if somebody thinks daily is five times a week, it strikes me that three times a week is pretty regular and so where this comes in is we all have these things that we want to do more of in our lives and we feel like maybe they just can’t be part of our identities during what I call the busy years. If you are building a career, raising a family, so maybe it’s something like eating family meals or practicing a musical instrument or maybe some sort of creative pursuit like writing a blog or some spiritual pursuit, reading sacred texts or praying or anything like that.
And maybe it would be great to do these things every single day, but if we can’t, that doesn’t mean they can’t be part of our lives. And so I tell people, aim for three, can you do it three times a week? Three times a week is pretty regular. And often we find that we are doing these things maybe once, maybe even twice a week. And so getting to three is not gonna require a total lifestyle overhaul. It is just going to require a few small tweaks. So if you wanna eat family meals but you’re not eating at 6:00 PM Monday through Friday, it doesn’t work with your schedule. I mean maybe you see that, well you generally do eat Sunday dinner together and maybe you do eat Saturday morning breakfast together. Well, all you have to do is find one more meal in the course of the week and then you are a family that eats together. Right? It can be part of your identity. So I find that people really like this rule. It makes it… It makes life seem so much more doable. And when people aren’t trying to aim for doing something seven times a week, they nudge themselves to do it that extra time or two and often get to three. Whereas if they were holding out for every single day, it just probably wouldn’t happen.
Brett McKay: And you make the point too, this three times a week is a habit, it forces people to look at things more holistically. If you do dinner three times a week as a family, that’s like 150 times a year you’re having dinner as a family. That adds up. That’s a lot.
Laura Vanderkam: It is a lot, and it also forces ourselves to look at life in terms of weeks. And I really think this is the better unit of measurement to view our lives. We don’t actually live our lives in days, we live our lives in weeks. A normal day is not Tuesday or Saturday. They both occur just as often. So we want a unit of repeat that includes both of them, which turns out to be a week. And so when you start thinking of your life in weeks and say, “Well, where could I do this thing three times during the course of the 168 hours I have each week?” It just… You start to approach things as being more doable. It seems like something that you can have as part of your identity, even if life is complex and challenging and occasionally chaotic.
Brett McKay: So yeah, it reduces the stakes, I think, significantly.
Laura Vanderkam: It does.
Brett McKay: Okay, so three times a week is habit. So if there’s that one thing that you’ve been wanting to do for a long time and you’ve Ben thinking, “Well, the only way for it to count is I have to do it every day,” like get rid of that. Just like, “If I can do it three times a week,” you have succeeded. I think that can help people make a lot of progress on those things that are important to them. Another rule about doing more things that are important to you is it’s one big adventure, one little adventure a week. What is this all about?
Laura Vanderkam: Yeah. So rule number six in Tranquility by Tuesday is one big adventure and one little adventure. And this is to do, every week, two things that are memorable, sort of out-of-the-ordinary novel things that will create memories for you. And before anyone is like, “Whoa, that sounds a little bit undoable,” I’m gonna clarify that a big adventure is just something that takes maybe three to four hours, so think half a weekend day. A little adventure could be something that is less than an hour, so doable on a lunch break, doable on a weekday evening, just as long as it is memorable. And doing this just changes our experience of time. We wind up having a lot of days that seem very similar as adults. We get up, we get everyone ready out the door, we do our work during the day, collect everyone at the end, have dinner, a bath, bed, TV, do it all over again the next day. And there’s nothing wrong with routines because they make good choices automatic, but when too much routine stacks up, we don’t really remember the time at all, because there’s nothing different, there’s nothing that our brains are bothering to hold on to. And so if you don’t want whole years to disappear to these memory sink holes, you want to start planning in these little… Well, big-ish, but not terribly big, adventures each week.
So I had people do this. They did all sorts of wonderful things. It might be going to visit a new park where the flowers were blooming. I did this project in the spring of 2021, so that was something. People went to the local ice cream place on the first day it opened for summer. Somebody was on a business trip and went for a run around the harbor in the city that she visited rather than just get up and go to her meetings. It doesn’t have to be crazy, but it’s just something that is different. And when people get themselves in the routine of doing this, one big adventure, one little adventure each week, they make time feel more interesting, more like you have stuff to look forward to, but it’s also not enough to exhaust or bankrupt anyone.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think one of the points you made in your last book when we talked to you off the clock was when people say they want more time, oftentimes what they really mean is they want more memories. And this one big adventure, one little adventure is what allows you to do that.
Laura Vanderkam: Yeah, it’s all about making these memories. And time and our perception of time is influenced by how many memories we have of a given unit of time. That’s why people… That’s why time feels like it’s taking so long on vacation, like why does time seem to expand when you go somewhere exotic? Well, it’s because your brain has no idea what it needs to remember, so it’s remembering all of it, and that dense layer of memories makes time feel like it expands, which is completely different from our everyday lives where we aren’t making that many memories at all, and so time seems to contract. And I think a lot of us would prefer to have it feel like time is expanding rather than time is contracting, and so just this one little habit of building in one big adventure, one little adventure each week can make time feel more fun and make time feel more memorable.
Brett McKay: So do you know about Alastair Humphreys?
Laura Vanderkam: No.
Brett McKay: No. So Alastair Humphreys, really, he’s an adventurer. He’s a professional adventurer. But he came with this idea of micro-adventures.
Laura Vanderkam: Oh yes, yes. Okay, I read this book. Yes. [laughter]
Brett McKay: Yeah, Micro-adventures. We had him on the podcast, and I read the book. Our family did a micro-adventure challenge, where every… We decided every weekend we’re gonna do some sort of… I guess it be a big adventure. We’d go to some state park we hadn’t been to, we’re gonna go to some roadside attraction on Route 66, ’cause we’ve got Route 66 that runs right by us, and I remember that summer we did that. I still remember all that stuff, and it stuck with me. And it’s been hard. I mean, as the kids have gotten older when they’ve gotten more activities and things like that, it’s getting harder to do that, but I know when we were intentional about implementing more adventures in their life, like it does. It slows down time and it feels good.
Laura Vanderkam: It does. I think Alastair’s bar for adventure was far higher than mine. [chuckle] I think he was camping out in various places where people weren’t expecting him to camp or something. [laughter] And so probably most of us are not gonna do that. But I do think that… I mean, adventure is more a state of mind than it is an objective standard of measurement, so if… You know, your family is looking forward to visiting that tourist trap somewhere and you go do it and you all sort of ironically enjoy it. Sure, that is an adventure, right? That is an adventure. And maybe somebody else, an adventure needs to be like hiking up a huge mountain and camping under the stars up there, and if that’s not you, that doesn’t mean adventures aren’t possible for you, it just means that we need to find something that feels novel and exciting and adventurous to us and make a habit of building these things in.
Brett McKay:So yeah, it could be like a spur of the moment after dinner, we’re gonna go get ice cream at this cool new place.
Laura Vanderkam: If that’s not something you normally do, then that is 100% an adventure.
Brett McKay: Go for it. One thing we’ve done that’s exciting is you just spend the night outside in your backyard. That can really mix things up. That’s surprisingly memorable.
Laura Vanderkam: I think my back would find it quite memorable, [chuckle] but maybe I’ll get into that soon.
Brett McKay: Okay. Then also trying to… This idea of one big adventure, one little venture, again, it’s forcing you to look at your time objectively. You might feel busy in your rush, whatever, but if you take a step back, you’ll probably see that you do have more control, and you can put stuff in if you really wanna do it.
Laura Vanderkam:If you want to, absolutely. And people do get busy with kids stuff, but part of the upside of this rule is it does nudge you to look at what time is available. And I know… I had the experience last year of, we had some weekend day when there was like, I don’t know, two soccer games, fall baseball, church, everything else, and I really wanted to go on a hike somewhere, and so I figured out a time. Like we had a window. We could get in the car, drive an hour, hike for two hours, come back for an hour and still make it to the next thing we wanted to do. And if I hadn’t thought about the weekend ahead of time, there’s absolutely no way that we would have just magically done that [chuckle] in the window of time we had. And so it would have felt like the entire weekend was spent doing children’s sports, but because we had thought through the weekend ahead of time and looked to see, “What would we like to do? What space is available? How can we make this work?” It was possible to have the adventure alongside everything else.
Brett McKay: So another rule… This is rule eight. It’s batch little things. What’s the purpose of this rule?
Laura Vanderkam: Well, we all wind up with a lot of small tasks in life, and these are things that are not terribly urgent, not terribly important, but they still have to happen. And I’m sure many of your listeners can feel like they are drowning in these things, whether it’s making appointments, signing permission slips, paying bills, answering invitations for things, and it can feel like we are always doing these things.
And the funny thing about them is each individual thing, it might take five seconds to do something, but they can be constantly weighing on us if we don’t have a good system for dealing with them. So I tell people like set a time for dealing with these small tasks. Give yourself a window when you’re gonna deal with these small tasks. And then don’t do those the rest of the time, because let’s say you’ve carved out some time for deep work, you’re trying to do those important tasks and really struggling with big business concepts, thinking about, and then you’re like, “Oh, I need to go fill out that permission slip,” well, you can distract yourself from these things. It didn’t have to happen right that minute. It did have to happen, but not right that minute. Whereas if you say, “Okay, from 1:30 to 2:15 in the afternoon, I’m gonna go through this punch list of stuff,” then the rest of your time is open for the other things and you can enjoy it far more. Like I’m gonna do this with chores. Saturday morning, I’m gonna do chores from 10:00 to noon. And what this does is it forces some efficiencies, like if it doesn’t happen between 10:00 and noon, it probably wasn’t that important, but it also gives you permission to relax the rest of the time. If you find yourself looking at a dirty floor at some other point, you can say, “Well, there’s a time for that from 10:00 to noon on Saturday, and now is not that time, so I don’t need to worry about it.”
Brett McKay: Do you keep a running list as it comes up in your heads like, “I need to add this to my batch list.”?
Laura Vanderkam: I do. I keep what I call a Friday punch list. I try to batch as many of these things as possible on Friday, if it didn’t have to happen in any given day, like it wasn’t a particularly urgent thing and I can push it to Friday, then I answer all those invitations or pay those bills or whatever it is that I need to do. In one fell swoop on Friday, I feel very productive [chuckle] as I cross thing after thing off my list. But yeah, if one of those things comes up or occurs to me at some other point, I put it on that punch list so that I can tackle it then.
Brett McKay: So your final rule is effortful before effortless. And I was surprised. I was reading, I get to this chapter and I saw a familiar name in this chapter.
Laura Vanderkam: Jeremy. Yes.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you used former AoM team member Jeremy Anderberg as an example of someone who follows this effortful before effortless rule. So tell us about that.
Laura Vanderkam: Well, as you know, Jeremy is an incredible reader, right? He manages to make it through just a shocking number of books, and we calculated it through, and he’s basically reading a 100 books a year, easy reads two books a week. You can do the math. That’s like 350 pages of books, so he needs to read 100 pages a day. It turns out that takes about two hours a day, so it’s doable, but he is finding two hours a day to read. In a life as somebody who works full-time, has many young kids, it’s not easy. You have to think about it. And so he has carved out time for reading first in his life, and I think this is something that a lot of people can do. If you have a spot of leisure time that you know is gonna happen, challenge yourself to do something like reading or other sorts of effortful fun first before you do passive leisure, like screen time. So maybe you’ve got an hour at night after the kids go to bed and before you go to bed, you could say, “Well, I am going to read for 20 minutes and then I can scroll or out online or something,” or, “I’m gonna do a puzzle for 15 minutes and then I can watch a show.” The problem is, if you start the show first, you’re not gonna stop that to go do the puzzle. That’s just not how our brains work. So then you’ll only have one kind of fun.
But you can also do this during little chunks of time, and I think this is sort of Jeremy’s secret weapon here of how he squeezes in so much time to read, is that he uses those little chunks of time, like five minutes while you are waiting for a phone call to start or five minutes while you are waiting for the carpool to bring your kids home. Instead of using that time to scroll around online, Twitter, Instagram, all those things, read an e-book for just a few minutes first. And I’m not saying you have to do it for the whole time, like if it winds up being longer, if you wanna go check social media, fine, but by flipping that automatic order and doing something more effortful first, you can find quite a bit of time in the day in order to make these things happen.
Brett McKay: Well, that was a trick that I think a lot of people did with a lot of these rules, was a lot of these important things you wanna do, they take effort, they take planning and you gotta have materials, and what a lot of people did is, when they did your project, they started thinking of ways, “How can I make these effortful task more effortless?” They did some planning ahead so they could do it easily. So with Jeremy, he had the Kindle app on his phone, so he could just get in some reading. If you wanted a paint, you’d have to encourage people to have their painting stuff set up so they could easily just get to it and maybe do five minutes and then move on, instead of having to like, “I gotta pull everything out, set it up,” ’cause if that’s the case, you’re never gonna do it.
Laura Vanderkam: No, you’re never gonna do it. If it takes too much effort, you won’t. And sometimes, even the effortful fun, we can lower the effort quite a bit. One example I use for people is when I travel, I’m waiting for boarding the plane. It’s so hard to do anything other than scroll. You don’t know how much time it is, you don’t know when you need to be ready. Half the time, you’re standing out ’cause you can’t even get a seat anymore [chuckle] in the area. So what I do is I try to read very effortless books. I don’t know. I like to read books on decluttering or home organization, and it’s not Tolstoy, not by any means, but it still feels a little bit better than looking at ads on Instagram. So that’s what I’m trying to do, and it’s a work in progress. Like all these rules, it’s a work in progress, but the more I do effortful fun before effortless fun, the better I feel about my time.
Brett McKay: With this research you’ve done and working with people on the Tranquility by Tuesday project, was there a rule or two where you thought, “If you did this, you get a lot of bang for your buck right away.”?
Laura Vanderkam: So I think giving yourself a bedtime rule is probably what… It’s what somebody called the least sexy but the most impactful rule, because simply controlling how much you sleep every day and making sure you get the amount of sleep you need every single day means everything feels far easier, right? It’s so much easier to make good choices when you are not sleep-deprived. And I think people are surprised by just how much it matters, but it does.
And then the second rule, to plan on Friday, is kind of… Whenever people ask me that question, “How do you do it?” Which I really don’t like that question, but when I get asked that, I would say that, honestly, it’s the Friday planning. Like taking some time every week to think about, “What needs to happen in the upcoming week? What do I want to have happen in the upcoming week? If there are any problems, how can I solve them? Is there something that I am looking forward to? What am I doing that’s important professionally? What am I doing that’s important personally?” And just taking 20 minutes on Friday to think through those things and give yourself your marching orders for the next week means that you do calm the chaos, even if your life is something of a circus, it’s like a circus in the sense that it’s orderly, like people are moving around those three rings exactly as they are supposed to be moving around. All the acts are getting where they’re supposed to go at the right time, and when things go wrong, there’s a plan for dealing with it. So that’s probably the second rule that I would say. And that’s why those are the first two. There’s a reason for the order, it’s not just random, it is that once we get control of our lives in that way, it is so much easier to do everything else.
Brett McKay: Alright, so bed time, Friday planning, I start with that?
Laura Vanderkam: Bed time and Friday planning, yep.
Brett McKay: Well, Laura, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Laura Vanderkam: Yeah, so you can come find me at my website, which is lauravanderkam.com. You can learn about the book there. I write about topics of time management, usually three or four times a week there and love interacting with people. So hope some of your listeners will join me there.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Laura Vanderkam, thanks for your time. It has been a pleasure.
Laura Vanderkam: Thanks so much for having me back.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Laura Vanderkam. She’s the author of the book Tranquility by Tuesday. It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about her work at her website lauravanderkam.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/tuesday, where you can find links to resources, where we delve deeper into this topic.
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