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Where does the time go (and why do I get nothing done?)

Updated: Sep 5, 2019

I'm a little obsessed at the moment with Laura Vanderkam.

She's an author of time management and productivity books and she talks so much sense. She is a mum of four, so has a particular interest in time management for busy mothers!

In a nutshell, we lament that we have no time for anything! (Life is so busy, work, kids, laundry, more laundry... )

But Vanderkam argues that we probably have much more time than we think-the problem is we don't have a clue where our time goes. And chances are (she maintains) we are spending time on TV or social media that would be much more beneficial to us if spent on other things.

Not sexy is it? Time management? But important and potentially liberating.

Vanderkam helps to re-frame many areas of thought around how we spend our time. For example, do you feel like you spend most of your day in work? The common thinking goes, you'd better love your job because you'll spend a 1/3 of your life in work.

Fine, maybe you've found the thing you love and someone to pay you for it. Lucky you.

For most of us the things we love and things that someone would be willing to pay for us for are a Venn diagram that doesn't overlap.

A third of our life? Sounds like a lot-doesn't it?

Except Vanderkam proposes a different perspective on our hours.

  • 7 days in a week, 24 hours a day = 168 hours

  • Take a 40 hour workweek. That's 20% of your time.

  • Let's say you sleep 8 hours a night- you're still left with 112 hours of waking time.

  • 40 hours is a third of that, sure, but that still leaves 72 hours that are yours. That's the equivalent of 9 working days by the way.

9 working days is substantial. More than a second job. If you've ever worked hard on a work or personal project deadline you know this- you can get a serious amount done in a week and a half of focused work.

Yes, kids take up a huge amount of that time, especially when they're teeny tiny. Vanderkam acknowledges this, but also reminds us that

But they do sleep sometimes, usually more than you do (even if it doesn't feel like it). Older kids might watch TV, or play alone or with a playmate requiring minimal supervision. Many of us co-parent. Many of us have someone else who would be prepared to watch the kids for a couple of hours.

So why do we sometimes feel like we have no time, when clearly we do?

First.. it may be that we really have no idea where we spend our time.

You can change this by tracking your time- Vanderkams has time tracking sheets on her website to help you with this.

Be honest here. A side effect of tracking can be that you are more likely to pursue activities you see as good and spend less time (for example) lost in a social media trance. Try not to dramatically change how you spend your time immediately. You want to get a clear idea of where you usually spend your time.

Once you have your time tracking done, take a look. How much TV are you watching? How much time on your phone? Irish people look at their phones on average 55 times a day.

Even if the time on the phone per check was 1 minute (a conservative estimate for sure), that's an hour a day

Even an hour a day is a full work day every week.

Again, no guilt here, but can you grab some of that time back? Grab the minutes back from the things you'd like to spend less time doing for the things that you never seem to have time for?

Puttering. Pottering. How much time do you spend in this state. Filling time?

I would tell anyone who would listen how busy life was with working for myself, juggling the kids with my husband, a new home with lots of DIY projects. I tracked my time and realised I spend much more time that I thought pottering about the house, half tidying, picking up my phone to check a message, half listening to my 4 year old's tell me about his new game, tidying again without any real commitment. I could spend hours in this state and never feel like I got anything done. Once I tracked my time it was obvious. I could potter without any clear result for hours..

It made me realise- when I have short periods of free time. I often didn't know what to do with it. Cue the pottering or getting lost in my phone. I resolved to plan for it instead.

I felt like I wanted to read more, so I started making sure I had a few good books on hand to dip into when the opportunity arose (Pro-tip- keep a few in the car so that becomes your go-to instead of absent-mindedly scrolling when the toddler takes an impromptu nap in the car five minutes before you arrive home).

If I want to meditate, I can postpone the post-dinner cleanup and take 10 minutes to do it (and feel better about doing it in a new mellow mood).

One you get clear on where you are actually spending your time, Vanderkam suggests overhauling your schedule to focus on the important things. We all have a tendency to respond to the urgent things, but take some time to consider the important but not urgent things in life (or work). Can you give these priority instead? Can you schedule them- so the likelihood they'll get done becomes greater?

And if you've got the really teeny tiny ones, yes, your time log (if you manage to find the time to fill it in!) may be entirely choc-a-bloc with baby-focused tasks. Feeding baby takes a long time. Nappy changes come one after the other, lulling baby to sleep takes huge chunks of the day. Yes, your day is filled with baby tasks- but look at what you are achieving. Nourishing a human, ensuring their comfort, happiness and growth.This is a HUGE thing you are doing. Look at your time log and celebrate the vital work that you are doing!

At the same time, are there any spaces on the timelog where you could carve out a little 'me time'? If it seems like there is really no space, is there anyone else who can help you out on this? It's a cliche- but you really do need to fill your cup too.


Try it out. Track your time your time for a week, report back below! Let me know any grand discoveries!

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