Transcript of Setting Priorities to Make Time for What Matters
John Jantsch: This episode of The Duct Tape Marketing Podcast is brought to you by Klaviyo. Klaviyo is a platform that helps growth-focused eCommerce brands drive more sales with super-targeted, highly relevant email, Facebook and Instagram marketing.
John Jantsch: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. This is John Jantsch. My guest today is Laura Vanderkam. She is the author of several time management and productivity books, including one we had on this show about a year ago, Off the Clock, and she’s got a new book. We’re going to talk a little bit about Juliet’s School of Possibilities: A Little Story About the Power of Priorities.
John Jantsch: So Laura, welcome back.
Laura Vanderkam: Thank you so much for having me.
John Jantsch: I want to get this one out, because a lot of your books have, I mean, productivity, time management. I’m going to borrow another title, let you answer this question. What do the most successful people do before breakfast?
Laura Vanderkam: Yeah. So a good question to ask, right? Yeah, I found in researching how people who are doing a lot, sort of professionally and personally, spent their time, that many of them were using their mornings quite intentionally. They’d recognize that this was time they could have for themselves before everybody else wanted a piece of them, both at work and at home. So, if there was something that they had aspirations to do, and didn’t necessarily fit in the category of work or family, this tended to be the time to do it.
Laura Vanderkam: So that could be exercising. For a lot of people, it was certainly exercising. But it could be creative pursuits, you know, you want to write that novel, you can tell yourself you’ll do it at the end of the day with the time that’s left over, but we both know that that probably will not happen. Whereas, if you get up a little bit earlier, and, you know, commit to writing, say 300 words a day, you’d have a draft of that novel in about a year. So, using that morning time for things that matter to you, is really what sets up the day for success.
John Jantsch: Yeah, and I know in my own personal experience, because I have somewhat of a morning routine, that if it gets knocked off, I’m sort of unsteady the rest of the day. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, but I know it does impact me.
Laura Vanderkam: Yeah. Well, we all have things that help our days. For many people, having something that feels like you scored some sort of victory in the morning, and a meaningful victory here. I mean, you know, yes, I guess we all got out of bed, which is good, but, you know, something that advances you toward your goals, can really make this day feel great.
John Jantsch: I know in listening to you reading your books, that you have a pretty good sense that most of us have no idea how we actually spend our time doing.
Laura Vanderkam: No. Which is interesting, right? Because we live life every day, and yet time passes, whether you think how you’re spending it or not, and so it is very easy to spend time mindlessly. Because of that, we tend to tell ourselves various stories about where the time goes. You know, some of them are probably true, but a great many of them also aren’t. So the good thing about tracking where the time really goes, is that you can figure out what’s just the story and what’s the actual truth.
John Jantsch: You know, there’s so much great advice, so many great books, hacks, apps, whatever, to help us manage our time. Why do we ignore them all?
Laura Vanderkam: Well, I think it’s the same thing of time continuing to move along. I mean, it’s like the challenge we’d have with spending money well, if all our money was burned at the end of every day, right? You know, it’s very difficult to make use of this extremely limited resource given that it’s constantly going. So, you know, you have to kind of think about what you’d like to do with it, and think about what are my intentions for the time? To think about your time before you’re actually in it.
Laura Vanderkam: It’s kind of like, you know, somebody paddling down a river, you know, pausing on the edge of their canoe and looking to see where the current’s going. If you do that, you’re a lot less likely to run into a rock. But, you know, it takes time.
John Jantsch: A few years ago, and it only took me about 20 years of owning my own business to get there, but I stopped really trying to manage time, and actually have gone to managing priorities, and actually working less hours, and found that I’m getting just as much or more done, rather than stressing about, “Oh, I should add some stuff to my checklist, because there’s two hours left in the day.” How does that idea settle with, you know, kind of your thoughts about, you know, how people manage their time?
Laura Vanderkam: Yeah. I’m a big fan of not filling time just because it’s there. In fact, many of the most successful people I’ve studied have a fair amount of white space on their schedule. They do this for several reasons. I mean, one, you know, everything takes longer than you think it will. So, you know, you got to make sure you build in space to deal with that. Also because it allows them to seize opportunities that, you know, if something unexpected but very good comes up, it’s great to be able to follow where that leads, instead of, you know, having your day already spoken for.
Laura Vanderkam: So, you know, I try to make very limited to-do lists, you know, definitely not stuff that’s going to fill the entire day. Because I know stuff will happen, you know, and if I finish everything on my list, the short list, I’m sure I can go find some more stuff if I feel like it. But if I make a very short list of the things I know absolutely have to happen, then I know that regardless what happens, you know, if I wind up spending half the day in the ER with one of my kids, for instance, I’ve still made progress. So I think that is the core of being productive.
Laura Vanderkam: That, you know, anyone can plan a perfect schedule, that’s not very exciting. The question is whether you can keep moving forward on the things that matter to you and the people you care about, when life happens, as life always happens.
John Jantsch: Well, and I think that that whole idea of priority is so important too, because a lot of the things that are priorities, are things I don’t want to do. They’re not fun, you know, they’re hard work. Maybe I spend a whole lot of time finding ways to not do that until, you know, it’s April 14th, and the taxes are due, right? All of a sudden, I’ve got all kinds of time to do that thing.
John Jantsch: So, I think forcing yourself to do this stuff, again, as you said, that’s important, even if you like it or not. You know, because I know I create a lot of wasted time and probably wasted stress, by having that thing just sitting out there going, “Oh, I’ll get to it next week.”
Laura Vanderkam: Yeah. I would tell people to acknowledge that. If there’s something you really do not want to do, you can ask yourself why that is. Sometimes that’s offering you some insight into your life, into your skills, and into things that are not your skills. You know, and there’s plenty of people who really, really hate doing the paperwork associated with their taxes, who might be better off hiring, you know, an assistant to get some of that, to coordinate with the accountant and all.
Laura Vanderkam: You know, so maybe it’s something that you could figure out a way over time that you can spend less time on. Whereas if something is truly energizing and fun, and meaningful to you, maybe there’s ways you can spend more time on those things.
John Jantsch: Now, you spend a lot of time, I mean, we’re sort of, I think, logically talking about work here so far, but you spend a lot of time working with people and how they spend their leisure time as well. I think as work and leisure, or whatever we call it, family time, play time, you know, seems to be no line anymore, you know, between those. How do we make sure that we are getting the most out of what we are calling leisure time?
Laura Vanderkam: Well, I think we need to have some of the same intention for our leisure and family time that we have for our work time. I don’t mean that you need to, you know, send calendar invites for dinner and schedule every 15 minutes, in the way some people do at work. But people will come home from work at 6:00, go to bed at 10:30, 11:00, that’s four and a half, five hours. You wouldn’t have a four and a half, five hour block at work and have absolutely no idea of what you intended to do with it.
Laura Vanderkam: So, you know, just saying, “Well, we’re going to go for a family walk after dinner, or, you know, tonight is the night I’m going to read 100 pages of that novel.” You know, whatever it is, having some intention for your personal time makes it feel richer and more full. So it winds up, you know, expanding in our mental space and making us feel, in fact, like we have more time.
John Jantsch: This, you know, sometimes is a luxury of owning your own business. I mean, I don’t necessarily have people putting meetings on my calendar and things. So, I’ve actually, over the years, found that I’ve gotten much more intentional about playing harder. So in other words, instead of saying, “Oh, I’ll sneak in an hour here, I mean, I’m going to go fishing for half a day or something.”
John Jantsch: But, I’m going to plan that, I’m going to put that into the calendar and I’m not going to think about not doing it. I’m going to be 100% in on that. I think what that’s done for me, is then when I come back to work that afternoon or the next morning, I’m much more intentional about work, actually.
Laura Vanderkam: Yeah. I mean, being intentional about leisure time, it can really be life-changing. You know, part of the issue is that people are so busy with work, they think, “Well, I want to do nothing, or I don’t want to commit to anything, because that’s just more commitments, and then I’ll feel like I have less time.” But that turns out not to be true.
Laura Vanderkam: Having commitments, that are meaningful to us and energizing to us in our leisure time, makes us feel like we have more time, you know? An evening where you kind of while away the hours and scroll around online and watch TV or something, is very forgettable. Whereas, one where you, you know, go volunteer somewhere in an organization that you’ve been doing some really serious work with, and you’ve committed to being there every Thursday night. I mean, that’s more memorable, that feels more important. So it actually stands out in this wash of time.
John Jantsch: I think most people, maybe there are other people that don’t, but I know myself, I’ll throw in this category, I probably get 90% of my work done in two or three hours of a work day. I mean, 90% of the real pay off work, you know, happens in two or three hours. I think that, you know, when you start, and we can talk about time diaries in a minute, but I think we really underestimate how much time we waste on things that we think are busy or productive.
Laura Vanderkam: Yeah. I mean, it’s the parade of [inaudible 00:10:50], that is 80% of your good stuff happens in 20% of your time. With that said, I mean, it sounds then like maybe we could only work four hours a week or whatever it is, that if we could only identify the important stuff. The problem is, it’s not always quite that clear. I know that you and I have both had say random conversations that we just decided to take a phone call for some reason, and then it leads somewhere great, right? Or that we are reading something that maybe is tangential to our jobs, but it triggers this idea that leads to something big as well.
Laura Vanderkam: So I would say that yes, you know, a lot of our major stuff does get done in probably a short amount of time, and we’ve all had the experience of if you’re getting ready to leave for a vacation, you were just on fire, before you get out the door and getting everything done. But on the other hand, you got to be careful about not trying to cut it too much, because then you miss that sort of serendipity that leads to great things.
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John Jantsch: So your latest book, Juliet’s School of Possibilities, is a parable style. You know, I’ve always wanted to write one of those, but I don’t think I could pull the whole dialogue thing off. So tell us a little bit about Juliet, and what you were trying to accomplish in that story.
Laura Vanderkam: Yeah, well I’ve been writing about time management for a great many years, and I’ve just noticed over this time that, and I’m given my speeches, the parts people remember are the stories. No one ever comes up to me and says, “Oh gosh, that statistic you quoted about X, that was life-changing.” It’s really more like, “Oh, when you told that story about this,” and people can quote back these stories pretty much verbatim, which is amazing. But, that is how we absorb information. The human brain is very wired to remember stories in a certain format, that stories that teach a lesson.
Laura Vanderkam: So that’s basically what parables are, is stories that teach a lesson. You know, I love reading, I love writing, and so it was fun to try my hand at something a little bit different, that, you know, I could actually write dialogue, as opposed to writing straight non-fiction.
John Jantsch: So, give us the preview of Juliet’s story then.
Laura Vanderkam: Well, so Riley is a hot-shot young consultant whose career has been on fire up until the moment when suddenly it isn’t. Her life begins to fall apart on various dimensions, because she’s having such a hard time figuring out what she should be doing with her time, and her personal life is also falling apart. In the midst of all of this, her company gives her an ultimatum, kind of strong-armed into going into this retreat for the weekend at a place called Juliet’s School of Possibilities. She thinks it’s going to be a huge waste of time.
Laura Vanderkam: But then she meets Juliet, who is a successful business owner, who is also just incredibly calm. She seems to have infinite amounts of time for the things that are important to her. So, in the course of the weekend, Riley tries to learn Juliet’s secrets, and figure out how she can put these into practice in her own life.
John Jantsch: So, I just heard you speak recently at the World Domination Summit, which is one of my favorite conferences. In fact, I’m trying to have many of the speakers on, so listeners will hear that line a bit over the next few weeks. But one of the things that you said that I know I need to do, and I know I’m not good enough at is, you know, we have a tendency to sit down, you know, in the morning and go, “Okay, what do I need to do today?” You talked about this idea of structuring our week, and that makes so much sense, because that’s really probably the chunk that’s going to be the measure of our productivity. You want to kind of talk about that idea?
Laura Vanderkam: Yeah. Well, we live our lives in weeks. You know, I just talk about how we often think of our lives in days, but we actually live our lives in weeks. A week is the unit of life as we actually live it. So, you know, I think that’s how we need to plan out our time, because any given day is not big enough to encompass everything that you’re going to need to get to. But in a week, you can probably get to most of the things that are important to you.
Laura Vanderkam: So, I suggest that people think through their weeks before they’re in them. A really good time to do this is Friday afternoon, just because Friday afternoon is a time when most of us are not doing anything of any consequence whatsoever, kind of sliding into the weekend at that point. So you take a few minutes, you think about the upcoming weeks, you ask yourself what are your top priorities for this in, you know, the work sphere, your relationship sphere, so family and friends. Then the personal sphere, so things you want to do just for you.
Laura Vanderkam: List, you know, just a short number of items, two, three, in each category, and look at the next week and see where they can go. If you do this consistently, you will find yourself, just by default, making progress towards your goals, because every single week you’re doing stuff that matters. Whereas, if you don’t think about this ahead of time, again, it’s easy for time to just get away from you.
John Jantsch: Yeah, and I think also the other thing, hopefully you say, “Hey, I’ve got these three big things I need to accomplish.” Maybe you say no to a few things now, because they’re already in your brain or already on your calendar.
Laura Vanderkam: Yeah. Well, the time on Friday afternoon where you’re planning the week ahead and putting your priorities, is also a great time to look at what is already on your calendar and get rid of whatever does not really fit with what matters to you, and what, you know, path you thought would be a good idea, but no longer does. So, you know, if you can get out of it, maybe that’s a good time to do so.
John Jantsch: I love this idea of time diary. I’ve been actually preaching it for many, many years, particularly when people, you know, were talking about just not being able to accomplish anything. I get a collective, “Oh, I don’t have time to do that or I don’t want to do that.” How have you been successful at getting people to track, even for a week, their time?
Laura Vanderkam: Well, I mean, my promise is that it will be useful, and useful in a way of not say, “Oh, well, look, we discovered that you said you’re so busy and you watched TV for X number of hours.” It’s not about that. I really don’t care for the game of got you on these things. It’s more that pretty much everyone who does this finds some quantity of time that they’re spending in ways they don’t care about so much, that they can use for things that they do care about.
Laura Vanderkam: I say this about people who are just extraordinarily busy, have so much going on in their lives, there’s always still some quantity of space. You know, it doesn’t have to be much, I mean, for many people, if they were able to find just, you know, a couple of hours per week to do things that they were very excited about, this would change their whole experience of time.
Laura Vanderkam: So, that’s why I suggest people do it. I also, you know, make sure people know that it’s not about recording every single minute perfectly. Good enough, is good enough. I check in three to four times a day, write down what I’ve done since the last time I checked in, don’t [inaudible 00:00:18:31]. If you did mostly work, and you also went to the bathroom and got a glass of water, work, it’s fine. You don’t have to account blow by blow on everything. But, you know, you do it for a couple of days, that’s good. If you can do it for a week, that’s even better. You’ll get enough information that I think you’ll find it worthwhile.
John Jantsch: Well, and I work with a lot of business owners, and they spend time doing a lot of things they should delegate, they could delegate, that would be much more profitable if they delegated. Sometimes, you know, what I actually do, is have them assign a dollar value to, you know, what was that worth? Or what could you have gotten somebody else to do that for? Some metric. That can be pretty eyeopening, when they look at, you know, how much of their time is doing work well below what they need to make in their business.
Laura Vanderkam: Yeah. No, I mean, when you realize something’s not a good use of your time, you have a couple of choices. I mean, one is you can just stop doing it, which is an option that, you know, people really should look into more than they actually do. You know, you can see if there’s a way it can take less time, which is of course what most time management literature deals with. How to make things, you know, more streamlined, more efficient, turn your 60 minute meeting into a 45 minute one. That has its purpose, of course. But, you know, that’s another option.
Laura Vanderkam: Then, of course, you could get someone else to do it, which is really the way that we leverage our time, and do things that we couldn’t do on our own. I find that people often resist this idea, but, you know, if you’re looking at the CEO of a major corporation, you’re not sitting there saying like, “Oh gosh, the CEO of Pepsi is failing, because she’s not doing it all by herself.” I mean, no, of course not. It’s the same thing, you know, even if your business is smaller, but it’s also the same thing on the home front too, that we can get help from various places and leverage our time that way.
John Jantsch: Yeah. That’s an interesting concept though, because a lot of people have a real, you know, guilt kind of factor of that. A lot of times they can delegate at work, “But, I’m not going to have somebody mow my lawn. I mean, I could do that, and that’s lame.” But that could be a way to actually free up time, couldn’t it? In the domestic front.
Laura Vanderkam: Yeah, for doing things that are a higher value of your time. People claim like, “Oh, well, you know, I should call my elderly relatives around more,” you know, whatever it is. “But, you know, I’m so busy, I just never have the time.” Well, maybe it’s possible that you don’t want to do it, that’s fine. But if it is truly a value of yours, then maybe you can get some of this other stuff off the plate. Maybe you order your groceries online, set up a recurring order that shows up every week, you don’t have to go to the grocery store. Instead of going to the grocery store, you call your grandmother, right? You know, these are things you can do to free up time for the things that are the best use of your time.
John Jantsch: So Laura, where can people find out more information on you, and your books, and all the work that you’re doing?
Laura Vanderkam: Well, people can come visit my website which is LauraVanderkam.com. You know, if you are listening to this podcast, and are all caught up in episodes for this, and you’re looking for something else to listen to, I have an every weekday morning short productivity tip podcast called Before Breakfast. So every weekday morning, five to 10 minutes, I give you a little tip that will hopefully help you take your day from great to awesome. So, people might enjoy listening to that.
John Jantsch: Awesome. Well, we will have those links in the show notes as well. Laura, I appreciate you stopping by. It was great seeing you in Portland, and hopefully I’ll run into you soon out there on the road.
Laura Vanderkam: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.