Learning How to Say “Yes” More Often: Time Management with Laura Vanderkam

Laura Vanderkam is the author of five books, four of which center around time management, life, career and family. I came across her trending New York Times article “The Busy Person’s Lies” in May and knew that she was an expert worthy of asking the golden question to— How can we all learn to say “yes” better? And aside from learning how to say yes, have we forgotten how to say no? Laura, who in her article discloses that she has four children under the age of eight years old, has spent the last year logging her days 5am to 5am, that is, every single hour of the year. Previous to this timelog, in 2015, she released I Know How She Does It which accounts for 1,001 days in the lives of women who earn six-figures and also have children.

They too kept time diaries, some via Excel doc’s as Laura does, others via time tracking apps on their phones or journals. “You can have a big job without earning six-figures, but I thought that was one objective way of showing that they probably had a fairly demanding career. Then kids because there are many ways you can have a full personal life, but that’s a big one. I looked at what their lives really looked like: what did they do, how much did they work, how much did they sleep?” Laura explained.

A common thread she found throughout was that women were saying no to things that might be exciting to say yes to, such as big professional opportunities and promotions. “In many cases because people worry that it will make life too busy and unsustainable. One of the things that I try to write about is that many successful women actually do have quite balanced doable lives. It’s not that women say yes to too many things, it’s that sometimes we say yes to small stuff rather than saying yes to big stuff and no to some of the smaller stuff,” she continued.

Is a time log time consuming? I asked. “It takes about 3 minutes a day and 20 minutes or so a week, so it’s not that much time. I like spreadsheets because I think they give a good visual representation of life. People ask me to send them the template, but it’s just Excel. It has the days of the week across the top, it has half hour blocks on the left, and then I just write what I was doing during those times. If I knew I was going to be away from my computer for awhile, I made mental markers. I didn’t put that much detail into it. For instance if I was at Disney World with my kids, I would write Epcot Center. I wasn’t like now we did this ride…” she laughs.

Laura’s personal relationship with time management was a trial by fire, she tells me. She attended two high schools and at the first she was an A student. When she made the switch to an academically selective residential high school, she received consonants on her transcript. “I had to sit there and say if I want to return to the image of myself as a straight-A person, what do I need to do? It was just about devoting more time—buckling down and studying,” she explained.

She went on to double major at Princeton University and write two book-length senior thesis’. “It was two topics that I was really interested in. People looked at that and thought it was nuts. To me it didn’t seem that crazy, so I guess I’m someone who has always tried to be efficient,” she continued. As for the notion of having it all, Laura admits that for her that means having the life you want. “To me that means writing the books I want to write, enjoying my family, and having time for my personal pursuits as well.”

Saying yes to life should be encouraged. But awareness of what is currently consuming your time will enable you to say yes better to the things that truly matter, while relinquishing the things that simply do not serve you.

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