Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

You Are Only As Busy As You Think You Are

Time management expert Laura Vanderkam shares the formula to help you craft a narrative of modern life—and what it means.

You Are Only As Busy As You Think You Are

[Image: Flickr user Super Awesome]

Years ago when I was first learning how to report a story, an editor shared the journalistic saw that "three anecdotes make a trend." It’s kind of a lazy formula, but a lot of people use it. Find three people or events that illustrate something, come up with some statistic to back it up and voila! You’ve created a narrative defining modern life.

The reason this formula works is that this is how our brains work too. We have various theories about the world. Then we look for evidence to back up our theses. If we get a reasonable amount of evidence—and three stories sounds reasonable—we decide we’re in possession of the truth.

The problem is that there are a lot of data points out there. In a world of 7 billion people, you can find anecdotes of just about anything. Choosing to see different bits of evidence can completely change how you see the world. Indeed, you can often make yourself much happier and less stressed if you consciously look for three pieces of alternative evidence.

Because I write about time management, I see this when people decide that "my life is crazy" and "I’m so busy!" and "I have no time!" If you decide this is your story, you can certainly find three pieces of evidence in any given week that this is true. You stay up until midnight working on two different nights. You have back-to-back big meetings in different places, your sitter gets sick and your partner is traveling.

Those data points may all be true—and all were true for me the week I am writing this—but stories can be told lots of ways. Any given week can produce plenty of other data points, too. In that same 168 hours, I found time to page through Martha Stewart Living. I spent an hour chatting in a coffee shop with a new acquaintance, and took a brisk walk through a wintry woods one afternoon just because I wanted to.

This is not the description of a life that lacks for space.

When you decide to construct a different trend story, and look for different evidence, life takes on a different hue. It makes you feel more relaxed about—in my case—working until midnight and then having a toddler scream at you at 6 a.m. It’s one data point, but no more important than another morning when you might have woken up, fully rested, before the alarm.

What would happen if you consciously wrote some trend stories about some counter-intuitive theses? I have plenty of time. My job is making a difference in the world. My friends and family love and appreciate me. My guess is that you could find three anecdotes to support any of those ideas. And the good news is that the more you start looking for evidence, the more evidence you tend to find.

The more evidence you find, the stronger you believe the trend to be. You have a truth—and it’s certainly a more pleasant truth than the alternative.