Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, and 168 Hours.
Her work has appeared in publications including Fast Company, Fortune, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and four children, and blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.
What interests you most about the topics of time management and productivity?
Time fascinates me for two reasons. First, there is good evidence that how we think we spend our time is not actually how we spend our time. I am intrigued by the idea that perception and reality can differ on everything including how much time we work, sleep, or spend with our kids.
The second reason is that everyone has the same amount of time. If you see someone doing amazing things with their life, they may have more money or other advantages, but they do not have more hours. So I enjoy studying how successful people spend their hours to understand what the rest of us can learn.
What do you see as the key to people starting to feel that they actually do have all the time they need?
If we tell ourselves that we have no time, then we don’t think about how we want to spend it. But if we know the time is there, then we can start to ask what activities would be meaningful or enjoyable for ourselves and the people we care about. We can start figuring out when we can do these things, and when they happen, we will vastly increase the amount of joy in our lives.
How do find so many good stories from a variety of people to share in your books?
I am a journalist. Finding good stories is just what we do! Over the years I have built up a large network of people who are doing fascinating things with their lives, and I try to talk with as many people as possible.
I also read widely, and when I come across stories of fascinating people, I make a note. I find that many people are willing to talk about their lives if you are both curious and respectful.
In your own life, how did you manage your time in order to write and publish your first novel, The Cortlandt Boys?
Writing a novel was a passion project of mine. I came back to it several times over the years and eventually set a goal to finish it and get it professionally edited. I found an accountability partner, and I checked in with her every week to say what I had done.
Eventually, projects develop their own intrinsic motivation as the drafts become better and more compelling. When that kicked in, I found myself pushing off all other work in order to spend more time with my characters. A lot of times people ask how they can spend less time on email or other such things so they have more time for the good stuff. I think this gets it exactly backwards. When you fill your life with compelling activities, the stuff you don’t want to do naturally takes less time.
What are some common ways that you see people working harder than they need to be, and how can they start to “work smarter” instead?
I think a key victory is figuring out how to match your most important work to your most productive time. Most of us have a better ability to focus in the morning. After that first cup of coffee we feel like we can conquer the world! So that’s a good time for challenging but important work.
If you leave those projects until later in the day you’ll either not do them (if they’re not urgent) or if they are urgent, they’ll take twice as long and you’ll buy yourself a late night.