Laura Vanderkam is sought after as a speaker about time management and productivity. She is the author of many time management books, has a TED Talk that has been viewed more than 12 million times, and her work has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, City Journal, Fortune, and Fast Company.
Below, Laura shares 5 key insights from her new book, Tranquility by Tuesday: 9 Ways to Calm the Chaos and Make Time for What Matters. Listen to the audio version—read by Laura herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. You need a bedtime.
Reputable time diary studies find that, in general, people get enough sleep from a quantitative perspective. Yet many of us feel tired as we go about our daily lives. What seems to be happening is that people’s sleep is quite disorderly. We sleep too little on some nights, and then crash on others—a cycle that leaves us exhausted or unable to maintain good routines.
It’s far better to get the right amount of sleep every night. Since most adults have to wake up at set times for work or family responsibilities, the only variable that can move is the time you go to bed. So, give yourself a bedtime. Figure out when you need to wake up, how much sleep you need, count back, and embrace that time as the end of the day. For instance, I need to be up with my high schooler at 6:30 a.m. on weekdays, and I need 7.5 hours of sleep, so my bedtime is 11 p.m. Between 10 – 10:30 p.m., I start winding down so that I can be in bed on time.
When the 150 Tranquility by Tuesday project participants followed this rule, their energy levels rose significantly for the entire duration of the project. This advice isn’t rocket science, but as one person told me, this was the “least sexy, but the most useful” rule.
2. Plan on Fridays.
Time keeps passing. During the busy years when we are building careers and raising families, it can feel like we’re hurtling down a fast-moving stream. We need some time when we can hover in the calm shallows to see what rocks or eddies we’ll be dealing with next.
“Ask yourself what is important, not just what is happening.”
Each Friday, take a few minutes to look at the upcoming week and identify your top priorities in three categories: career, relationships, and self. Ask yourself what is important, not just what is happening. Figure out where these things can go. Then figure out what else needs to happen in your life. Navigate any logistical challenges. Make sure there’s something you’re looking forward to. Offload anything that doesn’t make sense. You’ll feel prepared for the week ahead.
This rule encompasses two parts. The first, to plan, is the most important. Everyone needs a designated weekly planning time. People sometimes ask me that terrible question of how I “do it all” —even though I don’t know that I do. However, any success I have in that regard is due to my weekly planning session.
I specify Fridays because if you work a Monday-to-Friday schedule, Friday is what an economist might call a low-opportunity cost time. It’s hard to start anything new on Friday afternoons, but we might be willing to think about what we should do in the future. By taking a few minutes to plan the week ahead, we can turn wasted time into some of our most productive minutes of the week.
Planning on Fridays can also improve your weekends. Even people who like their jobs can feel a little trepidation on Sunday nights when they don’t know what’s waiting for them on Monday morning. End Friday with a plan so that you can relax. It’s as simple as that.
3. Have one big adventure and one little adventure.
Much of adult life can be the same, day-to-day. We get up, get ready, get everyone out the door, we work, we collect everyone, we have dinner, watch television, go to bed, and do it again. There’s nothing wrong with routines. Good routines make good choices automatic. But too much sameness stacked up means whole years can disappear into memory sinkholes.
“Two adventures a week won’t exhaust or bankrupt anyone, but they will change the experience of time.”
The answer to this is introducing things worth remembering into our lives. Each week aim to do two things that are out of the ordinary. A big adventure could take three to four hours—think half of a weekend day. A little adventure could be less than an hour, doable on a lunch break or weekday evening, as long as it’s memorable. As some recent examples, in the last week, I visited the 101st floor of a skyscraper as a big adventure, and I sang a small solo in church as a little adventure—that stretched my comfort zone.
Two adventures a week won’t exhaust or bankrupt anyone, but they will change the experience of time. Last week wasn’t just another week. It was the week that I saw that incredible view and sang that solo! Life becomes a lot more interesting as we build adventures into our lives. As we plan them in the future, we have more things to look forward to, getting us excited about life.
4. Take one night for yourself.
During the busy years when we’re building careers and raising families, we can be consumed with work and responsibilities. Even if this is meaningful work, it can still be work, and occasionally exhausting. To renew our spirits, we need time that is just for us.
I suggest that everyone take one night—or a few weekend hours—each week to do something that is not work and is not caring for family. Ideally, this involves a commitment to something that is fun just for you. Join a choir or play on a softball team, do a regular volunteer shift, or something along those lines. Making a commitment sounds logistically challenging, and it is. But when we commit to the fun, the fun happens. Make the childcare arrangements or trade coverage with your partner, and go—even if you are tired, or work is busy. Afterward, you won’t be so tired because you will reap the benefits of active self-care.
“To renew our spirits, we need time that is just for us.”
It might take time to figure out what you want to do regularly, but start by just doing something. Your night off will soon be the highlight of your week. Life feels more possible when we know our spirits will be fed.
5. Effortful before effortless.
Do effortful fun before effortless fun. Even the busiest people have some leisure time. The problem is that much of it is unexpected, short in duration, or comes at times when we don’t have a whole lot of energy—like at night after the kids go to bed.
Screen time fits these constraints incredibly well, and there’s nothing wrong with TV or social media. But because this effortless fun is so, well, effortless, it winds up consuming the bulk of our leisure time, even if in the abstract we’d prefer to spend more time on reading, hobbies, or connecting with friends. The solution to this problem is to do some effortful fun before effortless fun. Whenever a spot of leisure time appears, do a little effortful fun first. Read an eBook for two minutes before switching over to Twitter. Do a puzzle for 10 minutes before turning on Netflix.
One of two things will happen. You might get so into your effortful fun that you just keep going. But if you don’t, you’ll still get both kinds of fun. The balance shifts and that makes people more satisfied with their leisure time.
To listen to the audio version read by author Laura Vanderkam, download the Next Big Idea App today: