7 Things Productive People Do to Get More Done (Without Actually Feeling Busier)

Woman at desk


April 13, 2024 at 9:44AM UTC

Have you ever found yourself wishing there were more hours in the week? 

As a researcher of the way people use time, Laura Vanderkam hears this sentiment often. It’s a sentiment that led her — a journalist, author of several books on productivity and time management, and mother of four — to investigate how people with successful careers and meaningful personal lives use their week’s alloted 168 hours.

The result of that investigation? Vanderkam’s most recent book, “Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done.” It’s a title that’s beguiling in its contradictions, especially to those of us who feel unrelentingly busy — yet aren’t always certain that our busyness is generating true value.

“We all have stories we tell ourselves about time, and many of those are negative stories: ‘I’m always behind, I never see my family, I never have enough time,’” Vanderkam told Romy Newman, president and co-founder of Fairygodboss, in a recent webinar. “When people feel starved for time, they tend to be more reactive and do whatever is screaming loudest in front of them... instead of surveying what tasks are in front of them and choosing more wisely and effectively.”

To help us gain a more accurate understanding of what time we have at our disposal, as well as how to most effectively leverage that time, Vanderkam studied the lives of high-performing women who make at least six figures a year and have children under the age of 18. Under her direction, participants tracked their time for a week, and some surprising patterns emerged. Notable among these was that the way we perceive time — and our own busyness — impacts our sense of well being, regardless of how busy we actually are.

The goal, Vanderkam said, should be to experience time as a “rich tapestry, versus a slick lineouleum floor you’re just sliding along.” With the goal of helping more people fit into the former category, Vanderkam shared with Newman and the webinar audience seven imperatives from “Off the Clock” we can all use to feel less busy and get more done.

1. Tend your garden.

How much time do you really have in a week? Before any progress can be made toward increasing productivity while slowing down the hamster wheel, it’s crucial to get a factual understanding of where your time goes by keeping a detailed log. As Vanderkam learned in her study of high-performing women, for many of us, our perspective of time doesn’t match up with our realities. 

“People were claiming to work over 70 hours per work week and were actually off by about 25 hours,” Vanderkam explained. “A 55-hour work week is still very long — but knowing that it is 55, let’s then figure out, what we are doing with those 55 hours? We need to try to view our lives holistically before we come to very harsh decisions about time.”

2. Make life memorable. 

“When we say ‘where did the time go,’ what we’re actually saying is: we don’t remember where the time went,” Vanderkam said. “We didn’t do anything memorable with that time.”

Squeezing memorable moments into an already jam-packed scheduled may seem daunting. But the spillover effects of those moments, she insisted, will make the rest of your schedule feel more manageable, and also part of a richer picture.

“We have to figure out how to put those memorable things into our lives, and to do it regularly,” she said. “A lot of leisure time we have is spent in non-memorable ways. You’re not going to remember scrolling through Twitter for an hour or most of what you watch on television. And if you can’t remember it, it’s as though that time never existed.”

3. Stop filling time. 

When we feel overwhelmingly busy, we lose the ability to intuitively prioritize. Thus, we wind up cramming our to-do lists with items that have very little impact. 

“Many of the things we fill time with are there just because they’re there,” she said. “We put them there because someone asked us to, and we thought to ourselves, ‘Are we free?’” 

That’s one question to ask when making decisions around our use of time — but it’s not a question that helps you understand value or impact. Vanderkam instead advised listeners to “be judicious about what you can take on,” as well as the worth of what you’re agreeing to take on.

4. Linger.

Feeling present makes for a richer experience of time, and of life. Whether it’s carving out time for a quiet cup of coffee in the morning before the day’s chaos takes hold or leaving the office to fit in a midday walk, Vanderkam recommends “stretching the experience of good moments” as often as possible. 

5. Invest in your happiness. 

“Move time from the ‘counting minutes category’ into the tolerable or even great category,” she said. “Expectations are infinite and time is finite. If you do something that actually rejuvenates yourself, you’ll be better prepared to tackle the other stuff later.”

When we feel busy, it can be difficult to prioritize ourselves — but, as Vanderkam put it, “your inbox will still be there.”

“Time will expand if we take in what we choose to do with it,” she said. “If your friends are going to dinner on a Tuesday night and you think it will be fun, challenge yourself to say yes to that.”

For Vanderkam’s part, she uses a three-category system to plan her time out in week-long chunks.

“I make myself a three-category priority list: career, self, and relationships. What are the top things I want to do in each category next week?” she said. “It’s very hard to make a three-category list and then leave one of the categories blank.”

6. Let it go.

Often, Vanderkam says, people are guilty of “anguishing over things that aren’t worth anguishing about.” Letting go of the tasks and perceived problems that we allow to needlessly take up mental space will create more room for what matters. And for tasks that aren’t necessarily time sensitive, she says she uses one trick in particular to keep her to-do list from becoming unnecessarily bogged down.

“I ask myself, ‘Would I do this thing tomorrow?’” she said. “It’s very hard to picture three to four weeks in the future, so sometimes we wind up saying yes to something that’s not the best use of our time.”

7. Remember that people are a good use of time.

Tellingly, in “Off the Clock,” Vanderkam found that people who felt the least starved for time devoted a higher proportion of their leisure time to interacting with family and friends. Meanwhile, people who felt starved for time spent a larger amount of time watching TV and on social media. 

“Being online is leisure time, but it doesn’t necessarily feel good,” she said, referencing an internet poll included in her research. “Fifty percent of people in the poll couldn’t remember the last time they had ‘me time.’ But scrolling around online taking polls is me time; it doesn’t feel like a day at the spa, so people tend not to count it, but it’s me time.”

People are statistically likelier, however, to perceive offline time as nourishing and well spent — particularly if it involves bonding with loved ones.

“Your phone is a great way to logistically carve out time to make space for real relationships,” she said. “If you’re texting to make plans with a friend, then that’s great. But if all you’re doing is texting, that isn’t deepening your experience of time.”


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