I'm one of those cringey people who writes in a gratitude journal near-daily. Each night my journal prompts me to consider: "How could I have made today even better?"
Over years of filling this journal out, at some point, I unintentionally began to scribble down one specific filler answer to the question: "I could have been more productive."
Most nights I didn’t give much thought to this, and it wasn't until recently that I stopped to dissect what it really meant.
Was I productive enough? Would I ever actually feel like I'd gotten enough done? And why was I so unconsciously fixated on this? I clearly had a fraught relationship with time.
After blazing through the book, I learned Vanderkam does occasional "time makeovers" and I immediately hit her up for one (more on that later). Meanwhile, I learned that Jenny Odell, the acclaimed author of How To Do Nothing, was also releasing a new work called Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, in which she dissects how we think about time and its inherent connection to capitalism and unequal systems.
In different ways, both books showed me how time is inherently connected to our happiness and wellbeing — but also to corrupt structures that detract from our lives and livelihoods. I also realized so many of us feel guilty about time, whether we're chronically late, struggle with deadlines, or just never feel satisfied with how we're using our waking hours.
"So often, when we think about time — whether on a personal daily scale or a longer, larger scale of life and things like climate dread — it always seems very painful," Odell tells Refinery29. "Most of the thoughts I had related to time were not generally happy ones."
I felt Odell's words deep in my core. And, as I was figuring out my own pain points with time, I found myself toggling between two different ethoses, both disquieting in their own ways. The first — and, admittedly, my most natural tendency — was the desire to optimize and do more with time, so I could "achieve my dreams," as my inner toxic girlboss would scream at me. Meanwhile, another, more intellectual part of my brain was telling me: girl, you've got to buck this capitalist, patriarchal society that has brainwashed you into thinking work is all that matters! Just find a way to opt out of this system that benefits mostly white rich dudes!
As I struggled with these extremes, I asked for guidance from one of Refinery29's go-to mental health experts, Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, the in-house relationship expert for the couples app Paired. "You have to say 'yes, I don't like that I'm feeding into this capitalist system, but I still have to pay the rent,'" DeGeare says. "I have to find a way to balance these two truths. I can do this by asking: What do I need, based on what I believe, and what just needs to get done? What behaviors do I use to ensure I have the time and energy to accommodate both? What behaviors are and aren't serving me?"
Although I still sometimes struggle between these two mindsets, I'm starting to realize you can hold them both at once. You can use time management strategies to give yourself the time to do things you value — and that will hopefully make a difference.
Stop telling yourself there are only 24 hours in a day.
Although their books have different takeaways, both Vanderkam and Odell suggest you stop thinking of time in blocks of 24 hours. Vanderkam notes thinking about your time in terms of the 168 hours in a week can be freeing, and give you the flexibility to prioritize. It's a lot easier to find 30 minutes to journal or jog over the span of 168 hours than 24. Meanwhile, Odell suggests we stop thinking of time only in terms of standardized increments. "The idea that you only have 24 hours in a day is one that you can get obsessed with,” Odell says “It's seductive to want to take control of and manipulate those hours and use them more efficiently. But the irony is, I think the more we subscribe to this way of thinking about time, the more it obscures avenues towards actions with others that would actually substantively change the experience of time."
Time doesn't have to be about when you'll fit in yoga or even when you'll die. Instead, Odell recommends considering time more collectively. After all, time isn't just yours.
If you think of time less individualistically, it can have real returns. Say, if you put your own time into unionizing, you may save everyone time in the long run if you succeed in mandating reasonable hours, breaks, and wages for you and your colleagues.
We tend to start feeling better about time and how we spend it when we think beyond ourselves. We have to shirk the "main character energy." "Anything that makes you feel like you're part of a community is a really good thing," Odell says.
In other words, it helps to not think in terms of "my time," but "our time" — and how we can all help each other feel fulfilled and well within the minutes we have, collectively and equally.
Figure out what you're already spending your time on.
It's important to figure out what you're doing with your time already to figure out if you can make some tweaks or improvements. For my time makeover, Vanderkam recommended I track my time for a few days to a week in 30- or 15-minute increments. Luckily, this wasn't so hard, as she provides a handy spreadsheet that's also available as a Google Sheet (she also has an easy guide for doing your own time makeover, for anyone who wants to try this). "The point is not to figure out how much time you waste," she says. "We all waste time. The point is to make sure you are not telling yourself false stories." An example of such a story: you might be telling yourself "I work 60 hours a week," when, in fact, some weeks you might work 60 hours but others you work closer to 30 or 35, depending on the season.
"Everyone has trouble estimating time," Vanderkam adds reassuringly. "I've found so many people tell themselves their commute takes 20 minutes, and they do it five times a week, but if they track their time, maybe it takes 30 or 35 including the logistics of getting out the door and getting in the car; people don't account for transitions."
Sometimes, changing the story creates a happier ending, whether that means you're just on time or you realize you can make time for that hobby you've been wanting to pick up or something else. Amid my time management makeover, Vanderkam looked at one of my time logs, and made observations. I told her that spending time with my family and friends was really important to me, and I was worried I didn't give enough hours to the folks I really care about. She told me I actually spent more time doing this than many people, and she hoped that I could ditch some of the guilt and pressure I was feeling about that. In other words, she and the time tracking helped me change my story for the better.
Of course, like any kind of tracking — food, steps, or even sleep — it's important to realize when it's helping you and when it's harming you. Some people find the practice anxiety-provoking or otherwise painful, Vanderkam acknowledges in her book. There's also a difference between choosing to track your time, and feeling like your time is governed by a boss or other entity, and also to honor that time tracking has certainly been used for evil in the past. Odell cites the work of economic historian Caitlin Rosenthal, noting: "The tools that we would now call spreadsheets were used on colonial plantations in America and the West Indies to measure and optimize productivity."
We can and should rebuke this history, but we don't have to shun all spreadsheets. "There is a big difference between tracking your own time and having someone force you to track time," Vanderkam says. "As for spreadsheets themselves and historical use, they are a tool to organize information, and like any tool, they can be used for good or evil. It's all about the intentions of the person using the tool. If you're using a spreadsheet with the intention of becoming more satisfied with life, then the tool can serve you in that purpose."
If you don't want to track but want to start thinking more deeply about time, DeGeare suggests you ask yourself: Am I spending my time in service of something I believe in? Am I misusing anyone's time to protect my own? Am I spending time on things that reflect my values?
Stick to a routine. Really.
I have never been a creature of habit. Sometimes I stay up late writing or reading or hanging with friends, and, other times, I'm in bed by 10 and up and at 'em for a 6 am workout class.
Vanderkam noticed the variation in my bedtimes and wake-up times right away when she looked at my time log. She urged me to regulate my hours, and get into more of a routine. In her newest book, Tranquility by Tuesday, this is one of her top tips for people: set a regular bedtime and wakeup time — and do your very best to stick to it. "We often convince ourselves that time is not a specific amount of space, but each day does, in fact, have a start and an end," Vanderkam says. "And if you have a bedtime, that gives you a better sense of the shape of your day." This means you can't push off tasks or events to do late at night or even early in the morning (yes, I'm talking to you my fellow procrastinators who are "waiting for creativity to ~strike~"), which in turn helps you use your hours the way you want to.
Vanderkam helped me figure out when my start and wake times should by asking: "when are you most creative?" "when do you have commitments?" and "how much sleep do you need?"
Plan your week ahead, and do it on Friday afternoon.
When you're not prepared for what's to come, it can feel like you're drowning in an ocean of to-dos — and every time you get your bearings, another wave crashes into you and knocks you off balance.
You can prevent this feeling by being intentional and looking forward to what each week will bring, Vanderkam says. She recommends doing this kind of planning every Friday, so you can enjoy your weekend knowing you're prepared for the following week.
Look at your calendar and deadlines, and then, Vanderkam writes: "Make a three-category priority list: career, relationships, self. Making a three-category list reminds you that there should be something in all three categories! It can be short, two to three things in each, but listing these priorities, and plotting them into the next 168 hours, greatly increases the chances they get done."
This deeper planning and thinking ahead helps, and not only logistically. It focuses you and also allows you the space to linger on things that are really important. As you do this, "Make sure you have some things you’re looking forward to," Vanderkam says. "Looking forward to stuff is really what makes life worth living. Looking ahead also allows you to triage stuff that’s not the most valuable use of your time."
Vanderkam also encouraged me to stop thinking about "productivity" alone. While it is important to feel professionally fulfilled and take steps to do so, it's just as important to plan for "you time" and for giving time to your relationships. "I'm not saying you should do a Google Calendar event to book 15 min into your schedule for leisure time, I'm saying: don’t let it be an afterthought," she says. "Put the mindfulness and intention into these parts of your life, just as you would put thought into your job. That’s how you respect your personal time."
A final tip for when you're doing this planning: Vanderkam recommends leaving space and time for things to come up. I tended to want to cram a lot into my schedule, often overestimating how much I could do, which left me no room for life to come up. One way to do this is to guard your time on one specific day, or even an afternoon. "I try to leave Friday fairly open until later in the week," Vanderkam says.
Don't just plan, reflect.
As I plan on Fridays, per Vanderkam, I've started also working to reflect on my previous week. What went well? What would I have liked to spend less time on? Did the way I spent my hours reflect my values? Did I use it on things that helped my community, versus just me, as Odell suggests? I try to journal on these questions… or at least briefly noodle on 'em. Ideally, the more I consider all this, the more I'll let go of my entrenched desire to always be "productive" — and banish my filler "productivity" answer from my future gratitude journal pages.