How The Pros Do It: 10 Questions With Laura Vanderkam

The only way to reach your targets in life is to get to work. But it’s easier said than done. Only a fraction of people in life are actively working towards their goals. They know how to create and use the right tools and processes to generate progress for themselves. A lot of these people have a ton of interesting things to say. So I thought I’d interview them.

Most of my weekly guests created their own business, and they got where they are today by successfully implementing self-discipline in their life. To each one of them, I ask questions about their life, their learnings, their tools, and sometimes about which celebrity they would like to have coffee with.

There are no rules for success, only consistency in the work you do. None of the people I interviewed are super-humans. They’re just dedicated, and they have a lot of awesome things to teach us.

Let’s get to it.

My guest this week is Laura Vanderkam. Laura is the author of several time management and productivity books, including Off the ClockI Know How She Does ItWhat the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, and 168 Hours. Her work has appeared in publications including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Fortune. She has appeared on numerous television programs, including The Today Show and CBS This Morning, hundreds of radio segments, and has spoken about time and productivity to audiences of all sizes. Her TED talk, “How to gain control of your free time,” has been viewed more than 8 million times. She is the host of the podcast Before Breakfast and the co-host, with Sarah Hart-Unger, of the podcast Best of Both Worlds. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and four children, and blogs at

Do you have a morning routine?

I don’t do the same thing 7 mornings a week, or even 5. My mornings are shaped by the times my children need to get going to school or morning activities, which varies day to day.

However, at least a few mornings a week I go for a run (sometimes outside, sometimes on the treadmill) before starting the rest of the day. I always have a strong cup of coffee. If I’m up before I have to be, I like using this time to read or do focused work. I spend a long time (sometimes an hour) sitting at the breakfast table, talking with my children as they eat in shifts. I think you can use your mornings well even if life doesn’t accommodate a strict routine.

What is the number one habit/routine you attribute the most success to in your life?

I think about how I’d like to spend my weeks before those weeks actually happen. I have various larger goals, but the bulk of my planning happens on Fridays. I figure out my top priorities for the next week, professionally and personally. I figure out where these things can go. I figure out the logistics necessary for these things to happen. By doing this consistently, I keep making progress.

What is the number one productivity item you can’t live without?

Nothing special. I use a regular old notebook and a pen for planning. I have a weekly pocket calendar where I write time-specific commitments. I think everyone needs some sort of calendar and planner but the format doesn’t really matter.

Can you tell us about your use of journaling and goal tracking?

I’m a big proponent of time journaling — or as I call it, time tracking. I’ve tracked my time on weekly spreadsheets for almost five years now. When we know where the time really goes, we can make choices based on reliable data, rather than stories we happen to be telling ourselves.

No one else needs to track time for five years, but I think a week is a good goal. Many people discover that they work less, sleep more, and have more potential leisure time than they might have imagined.

In one of your recent Before Breakfast podcast episodes, you talk about planning your 2020 vacation now, in January. What are things you plan way ahead yourself?

The upside of planning future vacations is that you can look forward to them! You can also plan the year’s vacations holistically. You might consider a wider diversity of options if you plan three trips at once versus each one individually. You also have a better shot at sticking to your budget and planning out your workflow.

I plan lots of things ahead of time. I set goals for each quarter of the year in three categories:

  • Career
  • Relationships
  • Self

For instance, I already know that I’m planning to finish a novel, take my family on an autumn leaf viewing trip, and run a marathon in Q4 2020.

You blog, give talks, manage a website, host 2 podcasts, have released many books… What does a 168h week look like for you?

I think 168 hours is plenty for getting everything that matters done. I tend to work about 40 hours a week, and sleep 7.5 hours per day (51–52 hours per week). The remaining 76–77 hours gets divided among several things:

  • Family members. My husband plus four kids, ages 12, 10, 8, 4, and another baby due in January.
  • Running. I’ve run every day since December 24, 2016.
  • Singing in my church choir.
  • Reading.
  • The various work required for life upkeep.

In your book What the Most Successful People Do On the Weekend, you talk about time off. How important is time off for you?

I want to make a distinction here. When you’ve got little kids, time “off” work is not automatically time “off” from responsibilities. Indeed, weekends can be far less relaxing than time at work! If you want time for adult rejuvenation, you have to plan ahead.

My husband and I think through our weekends and what we’d like to do as a family, and how each of us can have time for our own pursuits. To make that happen, we wind up trading off a lot. He’ll take the kids on an errand so I can spend some time reading. I’ll watch the kids at home while he goes for a long run.

At your TED Talk, you’ve said that “time will stretch to accommodate what we choose to put into it”. Can you elaborate on that?

No one can make more time, but whenever we have an emergency, we figure out a way to deal with it. In my TED talk, I tell the story of a woman whose water heater broke, spilling water all over her basement. Dealing with the flood took 7 hours of her week. Where did those 7 hours come from? When she had to find the time, she got rid of the stuff that wasn’t important. The key to time management is treating our priorities as the equivalent of that broken water heater. We decide to get to these things first, and let everything else happen as it will.

Your expertise is obviously time management. But what are your views and tips on motivation?

Over the long run, people won’t stick with things they don’t want to do. So the most basic secret of motivation is to fill your time with things you find naturally energising and interesting. I find time management, writing and talking about these topics interesting. If I somehow found myself assigned to write about a topic I didn’t care about, I’d be much less motivated. This goes for our personal lives too. I love running and singing, so those are the things I spend time doing.

That’s the broad solution, though it might not help in the moment where you’ve committed to something and now need to make it happen. I find it helps to set very small, easily achievable goals. Progress itself is motivational, so breaking a big project down into very small steps, and then crossing each small step off, can build momentum.

Imagine you get $100 to burn, all your friends are busy and you have the whole day to yourself. What do you do?

Did someone take my kids too? I’ve sometimes arranged with my husband for him to cover weekend days — usually it’s so I can focus on longer work projects, like reading through a draft of one of my books. So I’d probably do a writing retreat. I’m not sure what the $100 would be for. At this stage of my life, I view time as more valuable than money!

There you have it. I want to personally thank my guest for taking the time to provide me and my readers with really insightful answers. I am deeply grateful to Laura Vanderkam. Thanks a lot, and keep up the great work! Your book 168 Hours changed the way I use and live my time!

And thanks to you for reading my content!

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