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Are you wasting your time?

Many of us do.

It's usually in the form of busy work or other activities that shouldn't be a priority.

Before you know it, a week has gone by and you don't even remember what you did!

What if you could do the fun things you want and still get done the necessary stuff that isn't as enjoyable?

According to Laura Vanderkam, the author of I Know How She Does It, it's completely possible.

She conducted a time diary study that focused on the 1001 days in the lives of professional women, who have children, to see how they used their waking hours.

The results were quite eye-opening.

During this interview, you'll learn...

  • How many hours you really have to dedicate to creating the work/life balance you crave

  • How to find out what you'd truly like to do with your spare time

  • Why tracking your time is absolutely crucial to your future happiness

To find out more about Laura and her books, visit http://lauravanderkam.com/.


EPISODE TRANSCRIPTION

Michael Palmer: 00:52 Hey everybody and welcome back to The Successful Bookkeeper podcast. I am super excited about today's guest. She is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I know how she does it and What the most successful people do before breakfast. Her work has appeared in publications including fast company USA Today and the Wall Street Journal and she's also a busy mother of four children, so she knows time management and productivity are always on your mind and as well her mind. So I'm honored and pleased to have you. Laura, welcome to The Successful Bookkeeper podcast. 

Laura Vanderkam: 01:32 Thank you so much for having me. 

MP: 01:34 Yeah, absolutely. And you know I wanted you on this podcast because one of the conversations that are constantly happening in our community of bookkeepers is that there's just not enough time to get it all done. And bookkeepers, they get a lot of components that they're dealing with, right? They're running their own small business. Typically, they've got a lot of information that's going from and to clients. They've got deadlines for filings, year ends, client needs. And what's also really challenging is they have some really big spikes in the demand on their time, especially for a year-end. So all of that plus a family. And I think our listeners love the fact that you've put out all of these books and you know if you go to your website, you can see you're very accomplished person, you, you've done a lot and yet you've got four children under 10 years old. So where do you find the time to build your successful business and as well have the time to keep your family going and, and all of those good things. So really excited and I know this is going to be super valuable for our listeners. So should we start off with giving our listeners a little bit of an idea of your career journey before you became, you know, an expert in time management and productivity? 

LV: 02:45 Sure. Well, I started out as a journalist, so one of the things I was always doing is interviewing people about their lives, their businesses, their careers. And as I was doing that, I became very in how people spent their time. Because one of the first things you think about when you realize this is that we all have this exact same number of hours in the day. We have the same number, 24 in a day, hundred 68 hours in a week. And so when you find people who are doing amazing things professionally and yet don't seem to be sacrificing their personal lives, either that they have a full personal and family life as well, it's not because they have more hours than the day, they don't, they may have other advantages, but they do not have more time. And so I'm always curious to say, well, how are you spending that time? What are you doing with your time and what can the rest of us learn from that? And so I became a very interested in that topic and studied it more and that's what my books will come from. 

MP: 03:40 Mm, that's excellent. And so once you, you've got that sort of the table set here around where you've been. What have you seen since you've started becoming more and more, you know, you've written books, you've obviously, I'm really curious as to how your view of time management has changed over the years that you've been working on it. 

LV: 04:02 Well, I think that more so in the past, I'm very interested in this idea of taking the long view of it. Uh, I think that we often talk about how there's just not enough hours in the day and I actually agree with that. There aren't enough hours in the day, but unfortunately, we don't live our lives in days. We tend to have sort of a regular cycle of life that is weekly. Um, that a week is sort of the cycle of life that repeats naturally. But even looking longer term than that, you know, what can I get done in a month? What can I get done in a year? Maybe it doesn't have to happen every day, but if I do something a certain number of times a year, it can be part of my life. So this idea of taking the long view is very important. We often overestimate what we can get done in the short run, but we underestimate what we can do in the long run. And I think it's important to keep our eyes on that. 

MP: 04:48 Okay. Awesome. Well, I completely agree with you and I'm excited to get into this and see if we can give the listeners as you know, their bookkeepers, see if we can give them some real solid things they can start to think about and move them towards more of an expert in their own personal productivity and management of time. Before we do that, I'd like to talk just a little bit about the book that you wrote called, I know how she does it, which is based on a time diary study of 1001 days in the lives of professional women and their families. Tell me a little bit about this idea and the background of this book. Cause I think this is a book that it sounds like would be very appropriate for our community, which is you know, a lot of women in this industry, not all, of course, I'd say it's probably around an 80 20 80% of the industry in terms of bookkeepers are, are women and then about 20% men. So tell us a little bit about this book and why should they be reading it. 

LV: 05:47 So I would here, you know as I'm talking about time management, oh well it's just impossible to have it all. Whatever that phrase means for people. Generally what it means is that success at work will require harsh trade-offs at home. And so that if you're achieving at work, you must be letting various balls drop at home. And if you somehow manage to see your family or not sleeping or exercising or having any fun in life whatsoever, this is a very common narrative out there and probably hear a lot of people talking to these stories of reaching, you know, dark moments where they decide something must change and life is unsustainable or what have you. These stories are out there all the time. I said, well is that actually the whole truth? And so I wanted to look at the lives of women who did have big careers and who also had families and see, well what are these lives look like day by day, hour by hour in fact. 

LV: 06:46 And so I did a time diary study how people keep track of their time and I wound up with 1,001 days in the lives of women who earn six figures, so big jobs and also have kids. And I found that their lives were a lot more balanced than most people would think or give them credit for. The average woman in my study worked about 44 hours a week, which is more than 40 a but it is not around the clock. It is not 80 hours. Good to know. They were sleeping enough, which is another thing nobody ever believes, but a, they were sleeping just a tiny bit under eight hours a day average over the whole week. And so because of this, you added up, there are 168 hours in a week, subtract what they were working. So they were sleeping at least 70 hours for the rest of their life. 

LV: 07:25 So it's not surprising that people were able to see their families to exercise, to hang out with their friends, all that stuff. See their partners in 70 hours a week because 70 hours is a lot of time. And so I just really wanted to change the narrative of bed that, you know, professional success does not mean you will have no life. Now there are strategies that you can use to be more out of the rest of your life and to make sure that work doesn't fill every available space. But I looked at it in the hall, it is quite possible to have it all. If you mean to have a big job, have a family, have time for yourself too. 

MP: 08:11 Okay. So if I'm hearing you correctly, there's like 70 hours that that's our wheelhouse of where we're going to have time and it's that time that they're going to be used up, you going towards work or doing things that make us feel overwhelmed or it's going to go to other areas like our family and life balance, fitness, uh, those sorts of things that we value. So is it the idea that we need to move in a way that's having us change? I like this idea of changing the narrative. So help me understand. And the listeners understand how do you start to change that narrative based on what you learned? 

LV: 08:46 So I had everyone in my project keep track of their time for a week because I wanted to see the data, but I think it's honestly it a useful tool for people to do just on their own. If you want to use your time better, the first thing you should do is figure out where you're going to, where it's going now. Um, but it's not even just about that, about, you know, figuring out, well is there a time I could use for other things. It's about making sure we're not telling ourselves these stories that aren't true. I mean, I had many people keep track of their time and realize that they'd been telling themselves stories either it's that, you know, they told themselves they were working 70 hours a week, they kept track of their time, their time log had them working, I don't know, let's say 45 hours, which is a long week. 

LV: 09:22 45 hours is a long week, but it is not 70 a and so that's good to know, right? That you're not working 70, those are different hours. Uh, and so that's the time you have for other things. People would tell themselves, I never see my family. Right. Like I am a woman with a big job, therefore I must never see my family. That's what you hear all the time out there. Not true for the most part. Um, I had one woman who was an executive at a tech company keep track of her time. She had been telling herself she never saw her kids. She looked at her log after the week and said, wow, I used to feel guilt. I don't feel guilty anymore. I love to hear that. She like, if she wanted to go to the gym some night it was okay. She was seeing her kids a lot. 

LV: 09:59 You know, I had people generally, you know, I find it was very positive. I mean our lives are often better than we think they are. And I think the reason that we have often a negative picture is will negative things stand out in the mind more than positive ones. I mean, psychologists know that there's negativity bias. It's probably self-preservation. We want to know if something's wrong so we can address it, but it may not be a great way to go through life looking at what is wrong. We also tell ourselves stories based on this format with three points of evidence leading to an epiphany. And so if you want to find three moments in a week that are crazy harried, you know, awful than definitely find three examples of that. And so then you can tell yourself like, oh look, these three things happen. Life is crazy. Something has to change. But you can also find three wonderful moments, three calm moments, three good moments. Yeah, there's in 168 hours, you can find three moments of any sort if you want. Um, and so consciously choosing to look at those, which is what happens when you keep track of all of your time is the first step toward noticing that things are not necessarily all that bleak. 

MP: 11:05 You know, fascinating stuff here. Logging the time and as well, these three moments, the logging of the time. I've done that exercise before a long time ago and I found it extremely valuable, but I went to do it again several years later and I found myself procrastinating around even doing the logging of time because I was busy and there was this like not even willing to do that. Do you find that comes up with other people? 

LV: 11:35 I think it can sometimes. I mean, sometimes what happens is people have been billing their time for years and their jobs, whatever their jobs happened to be with their law, accounting, anything like that. Bookkeepers certainly understand that. Um, you know, and so they keep track of their time for work and they really have no interest in doing it with the rest of their life as well. Some have a difficult time describing what they're doing and words. It's just a different way of experiencing life. And it doesn't mean anything's wrong with you, it's just some people have that I'm sort of block on how they can think about their time. You know, others really don't like the idea of shoe hunting their life into cells on a grid. I definitely got some pushback on that. I like my life is more than an excel spreadsheet, which is true. 

LV: 12:18 Your life is much more than an excel spreadsheet, but I view this as a nice little tool to help with living in an awesome, fantastic and wonderful life. You know, it takes a little bit of time. It doesn't take an incredible amount of time, but it takes some time. And so I think, I think these are all reasons that people are a little resistant. So I tell people, well, you know, you don't have to do it for the rest of your life. Like, try doing it for a day. If the day seems okay, then maybe try it for two days and have two days seats. Okay. Maybe like two workdays and one weekend day. And if you get through that then probably you could do a weekend. If you do a week, that's great. You don't need to do anything more than a week to get a very good picture of where your time really goes and what the rhythm of your life really looks like. 

MP: 13:03 Well, yeah, absolutely. Fantastic. I love this concept of the story and as you're speaking, I'm kind of getting, you know, it's the story of a why are you doing it in the first place? You, if you want to have a breakthrough in your time and have like some of the people who went through your program of the 1,001 people that are not peep people, I guess you didn't have a 1,001 people, but that's how many days they had breakthroughs. They had this puffiness. And so if you want the epiphany, you gotta do the, the work. So you're recommending, you know, at least a day and maybe a weekend day as a start and see what you learned from that. Now, you gave them a format. Is that a format that they, that our listeners can get at your website or is that something that we can have as a download for them to go in and get this information? Kind of like a, I guess instructions on how to do this themselves? 

LV: 13:54 Yeah, I mean you can definitely go to my website and download a spreadsheet. Those, I had people use 'em but it really just excels. And so I'm sure most of your audience has, has far more experience with excel than I do and can make it look a lot fancier if they want. Um, you know, it doesn't have to be a whole lot of bells and whistles and it's not very profound either. It's really just write down what you're doing as often as you remember in as much detail as you think will be helpful to you. If you think it's going to be hard to keep going for long term with too much detail, then it's fine to have it be a little bit vaguer. You can just say work or hanging out with kids or cook or go to the grocery store, watch TV and like, you don't have to actually document every single minute. I'm just a broad brush of what happened in the last 30 minutes is fine. And you know, that sort of forgoing a little bit of detail can help you stay with it longer. Some people like to do like a time tracking app. There's a lot of different apps out. Uh, I'm not a real app person, but for people who are, there's, there's many of them, dozens know, just Google time tracking app, plenty will come up. Uh, and that may be a slightly easier way for some people to do it. 

MP: 15:02 Hmm. Okay. Well, I like it, I like the idea of it. So we've got the tracking. You've, you've got some data that we are, we are hurt, our community is bookkeepers. So this is going to be, they're going to be interested in the details and the information that they're collecting. So I think this will be something that they'll, they'll be really good at. So they've got this information where to from here. Tell us a little bit about your own personal struggles and you know, as you learn more about yourself, what you did to actually move it. So like you've had this epiphany and now how do you actually start improving how you manage your time? 

LV: 15:38 Well, I think one of the best things you can do is ask what you want to spend more time doing. We often focus on ways to save little bits of time here and there. And I think a more profound question is, well, what are you saving that time for? Right? Like what is most important to you to be doing? And so I have people think about this, you didn't even make sort of a three-category list of career relationships and south and then within each of these categories think about, well what would I like to spend more time doing? Go ahead and make a really long list if you want. There are probably lots of things that you know, you'd like to try at some point and be very specific. It could be like, oh I want to take my kid to a baseball game or you know, I'd like to go out to a beer garden with my husband, I'd like to um, know, get a massage, whatever it is. 

MP: 16:22 So you've got a good long list of the specifics. And then you can start saying, well, you know what, how could I fit some of these? Not all of them. Obviously, you're not going to fit like a hundred things in, in a week, but maybe if you take a little bit of time on Friday afternoons, I found it is a great time for this. Take a little bit of time on Friday afternoons. Look at the next week and again, make yourself that three category lists, career relationships self, and choose two to three items for each that are going to be your top priority over the next week. Look at the next 168 hours and see where you can plan those in. And you know, doing six high priority things a week is pretty awesome if you think about it. There's really no need to make it more complicated than that. Wow. 

MP: 17:08 and so they're going to increase the time. So I guess that's going to have them be enjoying the benefits, the fruits of their time if you will. What other strategies have you found that these people have gone through these 1001 days, what are some of the things that they started doing differently in their lives? 

LV: 17:26 Uh, so I think a key one is recognizing that weekends are incredibly important for people who have full lives. And it's very easy when you have a family to let the weekend disappear both into chores and children's activities, but then you kind of hit Monday exhausted rather than rejuvenated. And so who is really good about it? Think about, well, what three things could I do this weekend that would add to my energy level? Um, and you know, so not the half throughs, but three things you might want to do over the weekend, be energizing for you and how can you fit those in? Um, and if you think about it ahead of time, you often can make that happen. I think this idea of thinking through time before it happens, it's a skill that some people have and some people don't, but it's one we can all get better at. 

LV: 18:15 And I also realize that some people are not planners. Um, some people are, uh, I'm definitely a planner as some people are not. They're like, well, I want my life to be spontaneous. That's more fun. And I agree that spontaneity, spontaneity is awesome. The problem is that when you have a business, you have kids like fun does not just spontaneously happen, like your fun is just going to be watching TV. Like that's the only thing you're going to manage to pull off if you don't think through it ahead of time. Whereas if you do think through it ahead of time, you can say, oh, I can see one of my kids has swim practice at 8:00 AM on Saturday morning. I'm going to tell my partner that I'll bring the kid, I'll do a run while my kids at swim practice and that way I can get my long run in for the weekend, something I want to do. 

LV: 18:58 I'm not fighting over it later of when it's going to happen. Being resentful that it didn't happen because I know that that's when it's going to happen. That's a time that can work for everybody because I've thought it through. So I think that the idea of planning ahead is just so important for people who want to make the most of the time. And some people do it more naturally than others. If you're not a natural planner, try to learn to be at least to a little bit. You don't have to plan every minute. There is a huge space between planning every minute and planning nothing. Try to be just somewhere in that gray area. And I think you'll find a lot more fun in your life. 

MP: 19:29 Yeah, I agree with you completely. And you know, just hearing you speak about the example of your, your Saturday morning, I mean I can hear already listeners going, yeah, you know what this is. You've just taken something that you'd have to do already and now you've just stacked something that you want to do and it's a win, win, win, which is, which is I think what people are looking for and that must feel great. So let's kind of do a day in the life. What would you recommend to start this kind of planning? Is there a better time than other times to do this kind of planning? How does that look for you? 

LV: 20:02 Well, we talked about Friday afternoons is a great time for this and I think it's really because it's a low opportunity cost time like nothing else is happening of substance on Friday afternoon. People aren't willing to start anything. So it's a good time to think about what should go on for the rest of your life. I would say that if you have too busy of life, oh, I don't like to use the word busy. Let's say if you have to full of lifelike lots of kids, different sports, lots of stuff going on. The weekend. Friday is probably a little bit too late to plan your weekend, so you might want to back it up a little bit. You can do your workweek planning on Friday, do your weekend planning on Wednesday. Um, that way if you have the need for tickets, reservations, babysitters, calling friends, anything else you can, you can do it then. 

MP: 20:44 Okay, I like that. So we're talking an of days, whether it's Friday or Wednesday, and sort of giving you enough runway, I guess to make sure that you can have an impact on it. When you're talking about the planning, how does that look? Should they sit down and put it all into their calendar or what have you seen work for people now? You know, they've got a lot of things that they're dealing with year ends, deadlines, these sorts of things and not everybody uses a calendar. What do you see as the best in the class application for this? 

LV: 21:17 So you want to use something that has a lot of reliability for you and that you're accountable to. So it really doesn't matter what system you use as long as you commit to checking into it regularly and to put everything that you're going to do in there. Right. I use a paper calendar. I am an incredibly old fashioned way. I just like it. I prefer to write it down. That's what works for me. It's a weekly calendar. I do my planning and a little notebook and then I look at the calendar and write in when things are going to happen and plan out my days that way. Other people, especially if you're working with others, you maybe need a shared calendar. There are lots of different hacks you can use to just sort of code things as personal and then have your own copy of it that you can then say what the person is. So that's somewhere else. You know, anything will work as long as there is integrity to it, meaning that everything goes on there and you check it frequent 

MP: 22:21 Now any system that's put in place, and a lot of what we talk about in the successful bookkeeper is building a system-dependent business. You know, if you think of a business that needs to scale, you've got to have systems in place in order for things to be done the same way and be able to bring other people into it. But systems they're designed and not always do. People follow them. So have you fallen off your own system and how do you get back on when you've, when you've done it, if you've fell off you, it sounds like you have this pretty wrapped, but what do you think there? 

LV: 22:55 I think the key thing that goes wrong is what we talked about earlier, that people overestimate what they can do in the short run. We underestimate what you can do in the long run. Like and in the long run, like in a year you could be running a marathon. Like even if you're not to run or now like you could do a lot in a year. At the end of the year, you could have written a book, you could like, you know, there are all sorts of things one can do in a long time pricing. The problem is we overestimate what we can do in the short run. And so people put too much stuff into their calendars, into there to-do lists and then they can't do it all. And then the system lacks integrity because there is really no point in putting something on your calendar, on your schedule, on your two lists, whatever. 

LV: 23:34 You're not going to do it like that's just lying to yourself and there's no virtue in saying you're gonna do something and then not doing it. It may as well not have on the list in the first place. Right. So keep the list very short on any given day because stuff's going to come out. It always comes up. You're running a business like things are going to happen. Employees who are going to need something from you, there's going to be some emergency with a client that is going to happen every day. I hear from people to be like, oh well I meant to get to x, Y, and Z, but this came up. I'm like, well, is there ever a day where something doesn't come up? Like has there ever been this perfect day that went exactly every minute structured as you thought it would with nothing happening that you didn't plan? Well, probably not. So keep the list short. Like, what are my top three priorities for the day? I'm going to try and get to those as soon as I can. Ideally first thing in the morning. Because then when stuff comes up, you've been dealing with it. You can relax, you can focus your attention where it needs to be instead of thinking about all this other stuff that needs to get done, you haven't done yet. 

MP: 24:33 Hmm. Wow. The way you started that off was very inspiring. Just the thought of, you know, we can do anything in 12 months, and I, I think it's such a great thought, right? That we don't often think about. Yeah. What, what will we do? So that's kind of that planning is like, well, what are we going to do in 12 months? What will our business look like? What does our life gonna look like? How's our health going to look like? And then, but chunking it back down into actual manageable and things that can be done in this whole concept of having integrity around your list of what you're going to do and your schedule of what you're going to do in that day. It's fantastic. So you know, kind of coming to the end of our time here, we're getting close some action steps that I like to get things that if they were going to take on three things based on what we've been talking about today, what would you recommend? Where do they start? And walk us through that. 

LV: 25:27 So first step, try tracking your time, ideally a week, but even a day or two is great just to see where it goes. Make sure that you have a very good sense of what your life truly looks like so you can decide what you like, what you don't like, what do you want to change? So that's the first step. Second, asking what you want to do more of with your time. I'm focusing more on the things that you want to put into your life that matter to you. And then finally doing that planning on Friday afternoons, thinking through the next week, what is a priority to you? When can it happen? Blocking out that time, putting it on the schedule and that will vastly increase the chances that it gets done. 

MP: 26:01 Fantastic. This should be a challenge. If you're listening to the podcast right now, Fridays coming up, whether it's a Tuesday or a Thursday, when's your next Friday challenge yourself to sit down and do what Laura has been talking about. Laura, let's talk a little bit about you and your work and where people can find out more about the vast amount of work and thought that you've put into productivity and time management. 

LV: 26:27 So I'm blogged most days over at Lauravandercam.com. That's just my name, Liu Ira Vandor, Kim, v, a n d e r, k, m as in Mary and A. I'm writing about time, career, life, family productivity, time saving tips, uh, and then just making more of the time we have because I really think the time is precious, but in some ways it's also plentiful. We'd probably have more time than we think and we can do the things that matter to us. 

MP: 26:55 Absolutely. Well that you've given us some gold today. Thank you so much for being on our podcast and I know that we'll have all of the links and information on how to get to you on Thesuccessfulbookkeeper.com under episodes. If you go to this episode with Laura and thank you for being on the show. 

LV: 27:14 Thank you for having me. 

MP: 27:16 Well that's another episode of The Successful Bookkeeper. We really hope you enjoyed today's podcast. We'd love to get your feedback. You can ask a question or give us feedback at Thesuccessfulbookkeeper.com/questions where you could just go there, record it right there when you're on the page and let us know what you'd like to see or what you'd like to see differently in the future and let us know what you thought and as well, we'd really love to hear if you've taken Laura's challenge of taking a Friday to plan up the next week, how did it go for you? Let us know. We'd love to get that feedback and I'd love to be able to pass that along back to Laura, have a great afternoon, weekend, wherever you are in the world, and 

MP: 27:53 we'll say goodbye from there.