Home » Laura Vanderkam: How to Gain Control of Your Free Time at TED Talk (Transcript)

Laura Vanderkam: How to Gain Control of Your Free Time at TED Talk (Transcript)

Laura Vanderkam at TED Talks

Here is the full transcript of author and time management expert Laura Vanderkam’s presentation on: How to Gain Control of Your Free Time at TED conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: How to gain control of your free time by Laura Vanderkam at TED Talk conference

TRANSCRIPT: 

When people find out I write about time management, they assume two things. One, is that I’m always on time, and I’m not.

I have four small children, and I would like to blame them for my occasional tardiness, but sometimes it’s just not their fault. I was once late to my own speech on time management. We all had to just take a moment together and savor that irony.

The second thing they assume is that I have lots of tips and tricks for saving bits of time here and there. And sometimes I’ll hear from magazines that are doing a story along these lines, generally on how to help their readers find an extra hour in the day. And the idea is that we’ll shave bits of time off everyday activities, add it up, and we’ll have time for the good stuff.

And I question the entire premise of this piece, but I’m always interested in hearing what they’ve come up with before they call me. So some of my favorites: doing errands where you only have to make right-hand turns —

Being extremely judicious in microwave usage: it says three to three-and-a-half minutes on the package, we’re totally getting in on the bottom side of that.

And my personal favorite, which makes sense on some level, is to DVR your favorite shows so you can fast-forward through the commercials. That way, you save about 8 minutes every half hour, so in the course of two hours of watching TV, you find 32 minutes to exercise, which is true.

You know another way to find 32 minutes to exercise? Don’t watch two hours of TV a day, right?

Anyway, the idea is we’ll save bits of time here and there, add it up, we will finally get to everything we want to do. But after studying how successful people spend their time and looking at their schedules hour by hour, I think this idea has it completely backward.

We don’t build the lives we want by saving time. We build the lives we want, and then time saves itself.

Here’s what I mean. I recently did a time diary project looking at 1,001 days in the lives of extremely busy women. They had demanding jobs, sometimes their own businesses, kids to care for, maybe parents to care for, community commitments — busy, busy people.

I had them keep track of their time for a week so I could add up how much they worked and slept, and I interviewed them about their strategies, for my book. One of the women whose time log I studied, she goes out on a Wednesday night for something. She comes home to find that her water heater has broken, and there is now water all over her basement. If you’ve ever had anything like this happen to you, you know it is a hugely damaging, frightening, sopping mess.

So she’s dealing with the immediate aftermath that night, next day she’s got plumbers coming in, day after that, professional cleaning crew dealing with the ruined carpet. All this is being recorded on her time log. Winds up taking seven hours of her week. Seven hours! That’s like finding an extra hour in the day.

But I’m sure if you had asked her at the start of the week, “Could you find 7 hours to train for a triathlon?” “Could you find 7 hours to mentor 7 worthy people?” I’m sure she would’ve said what most of us would’ve said, which is, “No. Can’t you see how busy I am?” Yet when she had to find 7 hours because there is water all over her basement, she found 7 hours. And what this shows us is that time is highly elastic. We cannot make more time, but time will stretch to accommodate what we choose to put into it.

And so the key to time management is treating our priorities as the equivalent of that broken water heater. And to get at this, I like to use language from one of the busiest people I ever interviewed. By busy, I mean she was running a small business with 12 people on the payroll, she had six children in her spare time. I was getting in touch with her to set up an interview on how she “had it all” — that phrase.

I remember it was a Thursday morning, and she was not available to speak with me. Of course, right? But the reason she was unavailable to speak with me is that she was out for a hike, because it was a beautiful spring morning, and she wanted to go for a hike. So of course this makes me even more intrigued, and when I finally do catch up with her, she explains it like this. She says, “Listen Laura, everything I do, every minute I spend, is my choice.” And rather than say, “I don’t have time to do x, y or z,” she’d say, “I don’t do x, y or z because it’s not a priority.” “I don’t have time,” often means “It’s not a priority.”

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