I’ve interviewed thousands of people about their schedules over the years, but one early conversation has stuck with me. I was talking to an astonishingly successful executive about her productivity secrets and began our call with my standard assurance that I would not take much of her time.
What happened next surprised me. She laughed. “Oh, I have all the time in the world,” she said.
This wasn’t literally true, of course. No one has infinite time, either in a day-to-day sense or as we ponder our mortality. But what I learned is that she found this to be a useful mindset. Having a sense of time’s abundance helped her make wise, relaxed choices with her hours. And that, in turn, is how she accomplished all she did.
Changing the mindset about how we spend our time
I found this insight so life-changing that I decided to turn it into a parable. In my newest time management book, Juliet’s School of Possibilities. Riley–a hot-shot young consultant whose crazed life is falling apart–finds herself on the doorstep of a mysterious place called Juliet’s School of Possibilities. This retreat on the New Jersey shore is just part of the eponymous Juliet’s sprawling business empire of television shows, publications, and the like.
Juliet stuns Riley by being calm despite her business’s demands. She has time to talk to her employees and make wise choices about how to direct their energy. She has time to think about big new projects. She has time to build a close relationship with her two daughters. When Riley apologizes for being slow on something, Juliet laughs. Like the executive I interviewed, she too has “all the time in the world.”
The reason this mindset is so useful is that how we spend our time is one giant negotiation–with other people, with the clock, with ourselves. In any negotiation, you get more if you go in knowing that you already have what you need. If you’re currently employed and have two competing job offers, you’ll feel more confident in your demands than if you’ve been out of work for months and need to find something. Likewise, falling in love with your own “busy” narrative is counter-productive. Rushing makes people feel rushed. When you assume you have no time for things, you don’t do them. But people who think there is enough time for what matters calmly make progress on what matters to them–at work and home.
How can you cultivate this mindset? From studying people’s schedules, I’ve found a few strategies that can help anyone feel less busy while getting more done.
Ask if you’d do it tomorrow
In Juliet’s School of Possibilities, Juliet informs Riley that she only says yes to what she wants to do. Most people, however, have a very vague sense of opportunity cost. When someone asks you to do something far in the future, you might look at your calendar and see that it seems pretty open. But this is a fallacy because in the future you’ll be just as busy as you are now. You’ll feel just as swamped, only now you’ll also have this other commitment competing for your time and energy (that you didn’t want to do in the first place.)
From now on, when someone asks you to do something in the future, ask yourself if you’d do it tomorrow. If you’re willing to rip up your schedule for this new opportunity, then, by all means, say yes. But if the answer is no, that’s the best response for the future too. When you’re more judicious with your “yes,” you can free up all kinds of space.
Plan on Fridays
Every Friday afternoon, list your top priorities for the next week. Schedule these important-but-not-urgent tasks. Then, just as critically, study your calendar for the upcoming week with an eye towards time’s importance. Are you meeting with the same people on Tuesday and Wednesday? Why? Why do you default to 30- (or 60-) minute meetings? Why not 20? Or 10? Are you scheduled to be on a conference call where you’re pretty sure you’ll be multi-tasking the whole time? Maybe you don’t need to be on the call. You should aim to dedicate time to stuff that matters and leave as much open space as possible.
Get off your phone
You probably already have open space in your life, but you chop it up with unnecessary email checks (that turn into headline scrolling). If you aren’t going to respond to an email until later in the day, it doesn’t help much to know it’s there.
I delete a lot of my emails unread because I know that I’m not winning at life by eliminating 15 emails every half hour vs. 30 every hour. I recently had 900 busy people track their time for a day, and asked them questions about how they felt about their time. The people with the most abundant perspective on time checked their phones about half as frequently as the people who felt starved for time.
Do fun stuff
Planning little adventures into your life will help you feel like you have more time. Why? Time perception turns out to be as much about identity as anything else. If you’re the kind of person who can throw a dinner party on a Wednesday night, how can you not feel like time is abundant?
Let it go
Ultimately, the vast majority of stuff will not matter in a month, let alone a year or two. Do you have any memory of what you were fussing about on today’s date two years ago? If not, then whatever is keeping you glued to your desk is probably not going to matter in two years either–even if you feel like your world will fall apart if you go outside for 20 minutes. Do yourself a favor, go for a walk to boost your energy, and you’ll feel closer to having all the time in the world.
Laura Vanderkam is the author of Juliet’s School of Possibilities: A Little Story About the Power of Priorities, published March 12, 2019, by Portfolio/Penguin Random House. Follow her at LauraVanderkam.com.