Laura Vanderkam is a frequent City Journal contributor and author of the newly published Tranquility by Tuesday: 9 Ways to Calm the Chaos and Make Time for What Matters. She recently spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about the book’s time-management tips.
What are the nine rules for time management?
Over the years, thousands of people have shared their schedules with me, and asked for advice. Eventually I realized that though people’s lives look very different, I was often suggesting the same things. For Tranquility by Tuesday, I honed my favorite time-management advice into nine rules that I’ve found broadly applicable and reliably useful. Then I had 150 people try these rules out over nine weeks. They are:
- Give yourself a bedtime—go to sleep at about the same time every night unless you have a good reason not to.
- Plan on Fridays—think through your weeks holistically, before you’re in them.
- Move by 3 p.m.—do some form of physical activity for ten minutes in the first half of every day.
- Three times a week is a habit—things don’t have to happen daily to become part of your identity, and “often” can be more doable than “always.”
- Create a back-up slot—make a resilient schedule where your priorities still happen even when life doesn’t go as planned.
- One big adventure, one little adventure—each week, do at least two things that will be worth remembering.
- Take one night for you—commit to an activity you love that is separate from work and household responsibilities.
- Batch the little things—keep most of your schedule clear from unimportant tasks.
- Effortful before effortless—do active leisure activities before passive ones whenever time opens up.
What surprised you most about the ways the study participants learned and applied these rules?
To give my participants the best shot at sticking with the rules, I asked them to think about any challenges they might face in implementing the rules, and to think about how they planned to overcome these challenges. My intention was for active planning to help them, but the observations they shared really helped me in writing the book, too. People became so creative and dedicated to sticking to the rules when they found that the rules made life more sustainable and joyful. My favorite anecdote involves a woman who had planned to go to a picnic, her “little adventure” for the week. As she was getting into her car, she discovered that thieves had made off with her catalytic converter. She got another ride and went to her picnic anyway! I was also surprised at how large some of the quantitative results were. Throughout the project, I asked people how much they agreed or disagreed with various statements of time satisfaction. Agreement with the statement “Yesterday I didn’t waste time on things that weren’t important to me” jumped 32 percent from the beginning of the project to the end—and this is for people whose lives didn’t suggest a lot of wasted time in the first place.
How did researching and writing during the pandemic affect the final results?
I think the nine rules can be followed even when external circumstances are shifting. For parts of the project, people couldn’t do some big adventures like going to concerts, or some common versions of the “take one night for you” rule like singing in a choir or playing on a softball team, but all these rules are more about mindset than anything else. When life is limited for any reason—be it time, finances, lockdowns, or a lack of childcare—we can simply avail ourselves of what is possible, rather than lamenting what isn’t. One study participant drew a giant Chutes & Ladders game on her driveway with chalk. Playing that certainly made life more memorable, even without leaving the house!
Which of these rules do you find hardest to follow?
Every night, I hear a little voice in my head telling me that I don’t need to go to bed at my bedtime (Rule #1). I can stay up just a few more minutes and it will be fine. Sometimes I overrule this little voice, but sometimes . . . I don’t.
I also find it challenging to do effortful fun before effortless fun (Rule #9). Like many people, I get sucked into Twitter drama and influencers’ picture-perfect lives on Instagram. I’ve had some success redirecting myself with good books and 1,000-piece puzzles. Sorting through a box for the right edge piece feels calming, and I can see myself making progress—something not exactly obvious with social media consumption.
What are you reading?
I recently finished Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart and enjoyed it—especially the descriptions of all the Korean food that I now want to try. I tend to read memoirs, novels, and light nonfiction at night; in the morning, I aim to make progress on my year-long reading project. For the past few years, I’ve worked through something big by reading a few pages at a time every day. In 2021, it was War and Peace. For 2022, it’s all the works of Shakespeare. I’ve just made it through Henry V after reading Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, and, while sometimes it’s a bit challenging, I’ve learned a lot by reading some of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works. It puts the best-known ones in context.
Photo: Pavel Muravev/iStock