Renegade Writer Q&A with Laura Vanderkam, Author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think
Laura Vanderkam is the author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, which posits that we can make the most of the 168 hours we have in a week if we examine where our time goes and how to use it more wisely. She also runs the my168hours website.
In 168 Hours, you talk about how it takes people a certain amount of time to ramp up for projects before they become really productive.
With anything there’s accelerating returns up to a point and then a point of diminishing returns. It’s a concept in economics. I think that applies to our work and applies to home. If you were spending only one hour a week with your children, spending another hour would probably do a lot of good and spending another hour would do even more good. But if you’re already spending 40+ hours with them, at some point each additional hour becomes slightly less important.
I think the point of accelerating returns is really relevant to writers because a lot of aspiring writers who want to become full-time freelancers are working around their day jobs or their kids’ schedules, so they’re fitting their work into small bits of time here and there. But if it takes you a half hour to get into the flow with your writing, it’s not very productive to work an hour here and an hour there.
People do get good at seizing 30 minutes when they can — but if you’re good at seizing 30 minutes, giving yourself a full three hours would probably be even better. Partly this is a matter of taking our work seriously. Often people think that freelancing is something you do while the kids nap or that you can just do on nights and weekends. It’s true, you could do some of it that way. But where people really start to see the money coming in and their careers moving forward is when they make it their full-time occupation. The brain focuses on it. If this is how you make your money then you will work harder, you’ll start seeking out new opportunities — and that’s more difficult to do if you’re writing only during naptime or only on evenings after your day job.
So do you encourage people to make the leap into full-time freelancing?
I do. Obviously, there are things you could do to make the leap easier or more safe and secure for your family, like having a couple of months’ worth of expenses in the bank. It’s also good to make sure that you’re making a leap with open eyes, as opposed to just closing your eyes and hoping nothing bad happens. That said, yes, you do just have to make the leap because that’s when you start to see the real returns.
I hear even full-time freelancers say, “I don’t have time to write” or “I don’t have time to market.” Why do people love to feel so busy that they can’t get everything done?
Partly this is a way of showing how dedicated we are to our jobs and our families, and of reminding ourselves that we’re important. If we say we’re busy, that means we’re in demand and that people want our time and therefore think we’re important.
I think we also have a tendency to confuse being busy with doing thing that are important. Often people will take on things that are not necessarily advancing them toward their career goals or helping their families become happier.
Can you talk about the myth of the time crunch?
There are 168 hours a week. If you’re working 40 hours a week and sleeping 8 hours a night, that’s 56 hours a week. That leaves 72 hours for other things. If you look at time diary studies, people are not spending 72 hours a week on childcare and housework — they’re just not. So there is time somewhere, but most of us have no idea where it is because we’re not aware of our time and where it goes. That’s why I tell people to try tracking it for a while. It’s always enlightening to see where your time goes.
I think what’s hard about tracking your time — maybe it’s just a writer thing — is that we jump from project to project. It’s so hard to track it because it’s not a big chunk of time.
I would say don’t do that. One of the things people learn by tracking their time is that they’re very disjointed. They say, “I don’t know how to characterize that hour because I was on Facebook, I was on e-mail, I took a phone call, then I ran and got a snack.” The next thing you know an hour and a half is gone and you have no idea where it went. As much as possible, try to carve out longer blocks of time to focus on individual things.
As you plan your week, you could say, “From nine to noon I’m going to work on writing this article, and then from noon to one I’m going respond to e-mails. From one to three, I’ll try to set up some more interviews and do some marketing, and then from three to five I’ll answer questions about edits that came in during the day.”
Try to batch things together, which keeps you from being all over the map. You have a better sense of how much time you have to do other things. There’s a quote in my book that says, “There is time enough for everything if you only do one thing at a time. But there’s not enough time in a year if you’re trying to do multiple things at the same time.”
I noticed that you interview a lot of writers for your book, and I was wondering if you think we’re particularly guilty of saying that we don’t have enough time to do things we want to do.
I interviewed writers partly because that’s just who I know. But because our work is so flexible, we’re prone to believing we can do two things at once or that we can get away with having our personal lives come in at the same time as our professional lives, and that it’ll still all get done.
I think that that’s why people feel very disjointed and like they’re not moving forward, or they’re staying up late at night in order to finish things. One of the things I kept seeing was people who said they did not need childcare in order to write. So they had young kids and they were trying to write at the same time. I would say, “What are you trying to do here? Are you trying to stay home with your kids and make a little extra money on the side, or are you actually trying to build your career as a writer?” — because these are separate things.
If you’re trying to move your career forward, then it’s important to give your career the time it deserves, and that probably means having someone else take care of the kids for at least a few hours so that you can devote your full attention to your children and you can devote your full attention to your work.
What does a typical writing day look like for you?
I usually get to my desk at 8 o’clock; that’s when my childcare starts in the morning. I work for about 45 minutes — usually I get a blog post up on my168hours.com or do something else real quick. Then I walk my 3-year-old to preschool, and then I’m usually back at my desk by 9:15. From 9:15 to about noon or so, I try to keep that time free if at all possible for writing longer pieces. Then I usually take a break. Sometimes I’ll go for a run or sometimes I’ll have lunch.
In the afternoon I try to get caught up with e-mails, schedule interviews, and do my interviews. I try to have a workout in there somewhere. I work until roughly 6 o’clock and then I hang out with my kids for a bit until they go to bed around nine. Then I’ll either read or do a little more work or hang out with my husband, depending on what’s on order for the day.
I like where you wrote about how you took a 90-minute nap and woke up with ideas for your book. Can you talk about how important down time is?
It is. I’m not as good about this as I should be because when things get very busy your tendency is just to work, work, work, work, work and hopefully ideas come to you. But that doesn’t always work. If you can just get away from your desk for 30 minutes, nothing is going come into your e-mail in 30 minutes that will cause earth to crash into the sun. Go for a brisk walk. Go take a nap. Go meet a friend for a coffee. Even just having one break a day will really clear your mind. I discovered this myself — I’ll be sitting there banging my head against my keyboard all morning trying to figure out what the thesis of a column is, and then I’ll go for a run and 15 minutes into it I’m like, “Oh, that’s what it is.”
Our brains will do their work if we let them but they often don’t like to work in the way that we think they should be working.
In the book you also talk a lot about core competencies. Can you tell us what that is?
A core competency is something that you do best and other people either can’t do as well or can’t do at all. One example is how you mentioned getting somebody to transcribe this interview. You are doing the interview because that’s what you do, but somebody else can transcribe it because that’s not something that only you can do.
We have core competencies in our personal lives as well. The time spent with your children or nurturing your relationship with your partner is something that no one else can do as well, whereas making Valentines for your preschooler’s class — Hallmark can do that. Hallmark can probably do it better than you can do it. So why not just let Hallmark do that?
Instead of you hand-making Valentines, spend that time with your kids. It’s also better to spend time playing with kids than to spend time cleaning your house. Cleaning the house is not what you do best, whereas nurturing your children is.
Is there anything that you as a writer tend to delegate out so you have time for your core competency of writing?
I certainly try to delegate out publicity. I have a part-time publicist who works with me. That’s what she does professionally. She’s worked in PR for years, whereas I have not worked in PR for years, which is something that I’m often reminded of when I attempt to do it. Writing is what I do best. So we split along those lines.
What about aspiring writers who don’t feel that they could afford a transcriptionist or a publicist? Is there anything they can delegate out so they can work on the things that are going to earn them income?
When something isn’t a core competency, you have three choices: you can ignore it, you can minimize it, or you can outsource it. Outsourcing usually costs money but ignoring and minimizing don’t.
Minimize things that you may not have to do. So instead of logging your tax receipts each day, for instance, just put them in a pile and do it real quick once a month or even once a year. Or you could ignore stuff: You don’t have to respond to every e-mail. You don’t have to take every assignment that comes in. Really think about what you would like to go after and which kinds of articles would be best for you to do.
Do you have any additional tips for making time to write?
Writing is the kind of thing that can be done at any point, so people are always willing to put it off for something else. I tell people to try to make those hours happen, even if it’s only in the morning, for instance, and then the rest of the day is a blur. Try to figure out what is most important for you to accomplish that day, and then knock it out as soon as you can. — because life will catch up with you. If you put writing off something else will come in and you won’t get to it.