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Not Enough Hours In A Day?: How To Find Free Time


Free time, so how much of that do you have? Are you, say, too busy to breathe? Well, author Laura Vanderkam says that she used to be too busy to breathe until she figured out that most of us who don't think we have time to spare in a day are really only fooling ourselves, maybe even lying to ourselves. She says you're not that busy. Hmm. Are you? If you're convinced that you really are that busy, give us a call, maybe Laura can help you out and convince you otherwise.

800-989-8255 is our number, and our email address is And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION. So now, Laura Vanderkam joins us from a studio in Philadelphia. Her piece "Are You As Busy As You Think?" ran in The Wall Street Journal on February 22nd. Laura, welcome to the program.

LAURA VANDERKAM: Thank you for having me.

DONVAN: So in your piece, you say that you used to be too busy to breathe, that you used to work 60 hours a week and sleep six hours a night. And now, you've got all those numbers improved. You're saying you're working 45 hours instead of 60, and you're sleeping eight hours a night instead of six. So how did you figure it out?

VANDERKAM: Well, nothing really changed for me. I just realized I was lying to myself, more or less. We live in a very competitive world. We like to talk about how long our work weeks are and how little we sleep and so and so on at the water cooler, comparing our lives. But when you actually keep track of these things, you start to see that Americans in general don't work as much as we think. We sleep more than we think. And I certainly found that was the case for myself as well when I started keeping track of my time.

DONVAN: When you say you kept track of your time, how - did you just pay more attention?

VANDERKAM: Well, I actually kept a time log. I wrote down what...

DONVAN: Oh, you wrote things down.

VANDERKAM: I wrote things down, just - it's like a food journal. If you've ever tried to lose weight, any of your listeners have tried to lose weight, you know that nutritionists tell you to keep a food journal because it keeps you from eating mindlessly. And it's the exact same thing with time. Time passes whether we're aware of it or not. And so by writing down what we're doing, we get a sense of where it's really going.

DONVAN: And was it - I find it interesting you're saying that you were lying to yourself, and you think that maybe people are lying to themselves. And you're almost saying that there's an agenda there, that there's a reason that we would want to think that we're too busy, that we like to feel too busy?

VANDERKAM: Well, certainly feeling busy is a way to show the world that what we're doing is important. I mean, many times, we have these conversations with each other where we talk about who has the busier schedule, right? I mean, who's...

DONVAN: It's about...

VANDERKAM: ...we've all gotten into one of those conversations, right?


DONVAN: You're talking about the one-upmanship of timelessness.

VANDERKAM: The one-upmanship of timelessness, you know, who had the worst night last night, right? So if somebody saying, well, oh, I got six hours, and somebody else is basically pulling the line from "Monty Python." You were lucky. I wish I could get six hours. We do this all the time, but it's such a boring thing to have happened at parties, for instance, or in any sort of networking event. And really, it's kind of a sad hook for one's self-esteem to talk about how little time you have.

DONVAN: So - but you said you actually, in addition possibly to making yourself feel good by saying that you didn't have a lot of time, you actually were - you felt overwhelmed. And you needed clear perception of your real-time situation.

VANDERKAM: Well, certainly. One of the reasons I thought I was working more hours than I was is that I felt like I was working a lot. And that's more a matter of the amount of stress you're under than the actual hours of time. But we tend to use hours of time as a proxy for feeling like we have a lot on our plates, but that's a different matter. That's a different matter of getting that organized and figuring out what your responsibilities are and what really are your priorities.

DONVAN: Yeah. Because there...

VANDERKAM: And it's also a matter of multitasking. I mean, one of the reasons people feel so starved for time these days is we're trying to do many things at once, and so we feel like we can never catch our breath.

DONVAN: But don't we try to do many things at once in order - because we think we don't have enough time to do things sequentially?

VANDERKAM: Probably. But it's a bad game to go into because there's a wonderful quote - and I forget who said it - but it said that there's, you know, time enough to do anything if you'll do one thing at once, but there's not enough time in a year to do anything if you try to do two things at once. But there's not enough time in a year to do anything, if you try to do two things at once.

DONVAN: I see. I was thinking that part of this - the problem we may have is that we're just incredibly disorganized, as opposed to overwhelmed by multitasking and secretly motivated to be boasting. But we're just not too good at organizing our time.

VANDERKAM: Well, there certainly is something to do that. I mean, many of us react to things that come into our lives; if the phone rings, if get email. That's a big one. Just because an email shows up in your inbox doesn't mean you actually have to do anything with it. And yet, many of us set our to-do list by what's coming into the email, constantly reacting to it. And you can spend your whole day doing this. I mean, you'll, you know, answer emails until it's time for a meeting, and then you'll come back from the meeting and check the emails and go back and forth on this. And, you know, finally, it's 5 P.M. and you say, wow. I haven't gotten to anything I intended to do today. And that's one of the problems we have, is that we are disorganized about how we spend our time. That's not that we lack time. Many of those emails probably didn't have to actually be read.

DONVAN: Well, we've asked our listeners to challenge themselves to ask seriously your question of themselves: Are you as busy as you think? But also to challenge your thesis that maybe you're not. So I want to go first to one of our listeners, and that's Christina(ph) in Greenville, North Carolina. Christina, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.



CHRISTINA: How are you?


VANDERKAM: Hi, Christina.

CHRISTINA: Hi. How are you?

DONVAN: Hi. You can ask your question or make your comment.

CHRISTINA: Well, actually, I think I - after listening to you, think and everything, maybe I do have more time than I think. But I am a 30-something part-time graduate student, three jobs, and I always find myself - it's midnight, and I still - there's still 10 or 15 things left on my plate. And I just don't know - there's, you know, I just need to learn how to say no, I guess. Maybe you can help me with that. So much of that...

VANDERKAM: I think saying no is very important. Definitely, Christina. I think that many people take on more than they need to that other people might be able to help them with because, again, we feel like we can do more things than we actually can in any given 24-hour period. So it might help to list everything that is on your plate and go through it and ask, well, do I absolutely have to do this? Is this one of my core competencies? Is this something only I can do that nobody else could help me with, that nobody else could do? And if it is, then maybe it does need to stay on your plate. But if it's not, then you sound like a very person, and so maybe there are things that could get off your plate right now too.

DONVAN: Christina, I'm curious about your take on Laura's thesis that at some level we kind of like to be too busy. It makes us feel important and...

CHRISTINA: Well, I mean, I agree with that.


CHRISTINA: I think that's probably - I'm also a people pleaser so - and I enjoy helping with different organizations and be on being on boards and, you know, but then when you, you know, add three jobs - one full-time, two part-time, and then you add graduate school, there comes a point where you're going to break your plate. And so, you know, setting things aside, you kind of just have to step up and go, I can't do this anymore.

DONVAN: All right, Christina.

CHRISTINA: And I actually started to do that, but what's happening is people are getting kind of upset with me that I'm now starting to step back, evaluate and say, no, I can't do that, be on your board. And I don't think they like it very much 'cause I've always said yes.

DONVAN: I guess, Laura, that's risk she takes.

CHRISTINA: Yes, that is the (unintelligible). Yeah.

VANDERKAM: That is the risk you take. Time is a choice. This is something that really took me a long time to get my head around, is that time is a choice. You don't have to spend it necessarily how other people think you should be spending it. You have to figure out what are your priorities for the day, for the week, for the month. And then when you can do those, hopefully, scheduling those in first and then letting other people's priorities come in around that.

When we say yes to too many things, we're really saying no, in a way, to all of them because we won't be able to devote adequate time to them.

DONVAN: That is very poetically put. I want to thank you for that. And, Christina, thank you for your call. I want to bring in David in Polk County in Florida. David, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

DAVID: Hi. How are you?

DONVAN: Good. Thank you.

DAVID: So I'm interested in your conversation concerning timing and finding more time and possibly saying no to things that we don't need to undertake. However, I can't find any of those things that I can say no to. I have - I'm a self-employed artist. I have a store three and half hours away from me. I have a 7-year-old boy that I home school and a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter that is mentally and physically disabled, including needing therapies and doctors appointments.

DONVAN: So what do you have for your - leftover for yourself in terms of time?

DAVID: Sleep. Sleep.

DONVAN: Yeah. And how much of that are you getting?

DAVID: It varies from day to day. Often, I'm getting somewhere between midnight and 6 if I'm lucky. But that's if nobody wakes up during the night, that's if everybody finishes their schoolwork, that's if we don't have any episodes throughout the night.

DONVAN: Laura?

VANDERKAM: Yes. Well, David is definitely in a difficult situation. There's a lot of needs that he has do address. I think when people are feeling very overwhelmed it helps to make small changes on the margin to - tiny changes to give yourself just a little bit more breathing space. So if there is, maybe, a 15-minute time period in this busy day that he can have for himself to just go outside, walk around really quick and come in, if there's any way he could find that space in a day. And if you don't think you can find it, that's when you really do have to start keeping the time log, and see, well, where could this possibly happen?

I mean, I've interviewed people who have, you know, half a dozen children and their own businesses and are still finding time for very small things for their personal lives. That there usually is time somewhere...


VANDERKAM: ...and that may mean taking something else from business off your plate for right now. It may not be the time for your business to grow quite as quickly as it might otherwise, but that's something that you could maybe reallocate time from to finding a little bit more relax time in your life.

DONVAN: And you're also saying even these slivers count.

VANDERKAM: Even the slivers can count. And we tend to use slivers of time for things like checking Facebook or answering an email, but we could think of other things. In my book "168 Hours," I talked about using bits of time for bits of joy. So making a list of things you love to do that take 10 minutes or less - and I mean, this could be something like praying or reading a poem or writing a note to a relative who's maybe not on email - and keep a list of these. And when you find yourself even with 10 minutes because somebody hasn't called you back for your business yet, right? Or 10 minutes while your son is busy with something else with the homeschooling, you can do one of those things. And it's a way to squeeze out a little bit of time for yourself even in a very full-plate life.

DONVAN: We have an email from Hugh Horton who writes: Perhaps the author has not been among the working poor of our country. Many people do not have free time, and it's not an affectation. That's all he says. But what's your response to that, that - I mean, he's obviously sort of suggesting that maybe there's a class aspect here.

VANDERKAM: It's certainly, you know, advice is easier with more money and harder with less money. That is very true. I think that many of us have time that we are doing different things, like watching television, for instance. People of all income groups watch quite a bit of television in this country. So that's an area we can look at if there's, you know, if we need more time for something else in our lives.

DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we are talking about finding time for those of us who don't think that we have any. And we're talking with Laura Vanderkam, who has written about this. And we're going to go back to listeners' calls, and Karen(ph) in Virginia Beach, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

KAREN: Hi. Thank you for taking my call.


KAREN: I've been jotting down lots of notes on what she's already said. I have three kids, 6-months old, 2-year-old and a 5-year-old, and I've recently started to schedule to try get more done, but I only feel more rushed and more overwhelmed and like I have less time since I've been doing that. So I wonder if she had any advice. And as busy as I think I am, where could I make some changes?

VANDERKAM: Well, I certainly sympathize. I also have three little kids myself, and one of the things that really helps when you are in the situation of having a lot of little people in your life is to ask for help from friends, from neighbors, from family. If there's a neighbor you can trade off child care duties with for a few hours, for instance, just to get that extra time. Because what often winds up happening when we have little kids is we're trying to go back and forth between meeting their needs and then doing something else that we've put on our to-do list. And the problem is going back and forth, we lose that efficiency. Whereas, you know, if focus on one thing at a time, you can get a lot more done.

I mean, I'm always amazed when I - when the kids are with somebody else how much I can get done and, you know, time that I would have felt was nothing back before I had children. So if there is anyone that you could trade off duties with, for instance, that's a good way to focus on thing at once and get more done.

KAREN: Yeah.

DONVAN: Thanks very much for your call.

KAREN: Thank you so much. Have a good day.

DONVAN: Yeah. Thank you very much. And we're going to bring in Dave in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Dave, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

DAVE: Hey, two of the things that we're supposed to liberate us technology-wise I found I and other people became enslaved to. One of them was the DVR, where you get this DVR anxiety because you're recording way too much, and it literally eats up tons of your time. And the other one - when you mentioned email, I had to jump up and down. When I discovered the greatest secret in the world by having Gmail, that there's never going to be a limit to where you're going to ever have to purge anything. When people look at my inbox, they literally laugh out loud. I have 27,000-plus emails in my inbox, and I don't worry about it. I only look at the ones that I care about and the rest, a lot of them, just sit there. They never get opened.

VANDERKAM: I agree with you 100 percent, Dave. I have about that many emails in my inbox as well. It's not worth taking the time to file them. I mean, it's not going to go anywhere.

DAVE: Right.

VANDERKAM: And the DVR, oh, don't get me started on TiVoing.


VANDERKAM: When people ask me for time management advice, one of the things they say, well, should I get a TiVo? Would that help me save time? I said, well, it's hard to think that watching television is ever going to help you save time.

DAVE: Right.

VANDERKAM: But if you do have one, you're tempted to watch shows that you could never watch otherwise. I mean, if you had a normal job, you would never be watching television that comes on at 4 P.M. But because you have the TiVo, it becomes a possibility, and it opens up all this other time that you'll wind up watching television. So I think it's not the timesaver that we thing it is.

DONVAN: Dave, thanks very much for your call. Finally, I want to bring you one more email, somebody who really sounds burdened. This is from Courtney in Arizona. She says: I'll keep this brief. I'm in law school. I have 600 pages of reading due for law review in addition to my normal class work between today and Thursday at 5 P.M. Even if I don't sleep, I don't think I can get it all done. I think she might be right.

VANDERKAM: That is a lot of reading. It would be very hard to read 600 pages. This is where, you know, good study skills come in and, hopefully, will start before Tuesday for something that's due on Thursday. But we have to do that over time.

DONVAN: That's a different question. Procrastination, a whole different topic.

VANDERKAM: Procrastination is a different question.

DONVAN: I want to thank Laura Vanderkam, who held her own very well in making this convincing argument, that we have more time than we think. She's the author of an upcoming book, "All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know About Getting and Spending." But her piece, "Are You as Busy as You Think?" ran on The Wall Street Journal on February 22nd. You can find a link to it on our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. And she joined us from a studio in Philadelphia. Laura, thank you very much.

VANDERKAM: Thank you for having me.

DONVAN: Tomorrow, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us with primary results and more. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.