Spring cleaning usually brings up images of bleach and dust rags, but this spring, I’m cleaning up how I spend my time with the help of time-management author Laura Vanderkam.
A few years back, Vanderkam wrote 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, a terrific guide to figuring out where your time really goes—and how to use it better. One of her simple-yet-effective suggestions is to keep a time log for a week. Just as an attorney would bill time, for seven days, track how long you spend working, eating, exercising, sleeping , and doing everything else in between. I did it back in 2010 and got a rude awakening: Was I really spending that much of my week dealing with my email inbox . . . and that little time going to the gym? Yep.
I suspected my students were similarly unaware of how they spent their time, and invited Vanderkam, a friend of mine from college, to give a guest lecture in my Sociology of Everyday Life class. As a preparatory assignment, my University of Pittsburgh students tracked their time. At the end of the course, my students listed this time log, its revelations and Vanderkam’s tips among the most helpful bits of information they’d learned in my class. I included a young-adult version of the exercise in my own book, Generation WTF.
Since then, Vanderkam has used her own time productively. In All The Money In The World, she offers researched tips on how to maximize your financial happiness, and in a new e-book series, she’ll tell you what successful people do on weekends, what they do before breakfast and how the most successful people maximize their workdays to accomplish their goals.
The latest in the series, What the Most Successful People Do at Work: A Short Guide to Making Over Your Career is an easy, compelling read. In short chapters, Vanderkam offers practical suggestions in seven “disciplines” to make your workday as productive and rewarding as possible: Keep track of your time, plan, prioritize, separate real work from busywork, continue to improve your skills, increase your exposure, and remind yourself of the meaningful aspects of your job that give you joy.
So I got out that time log again last week and followed her guidelines. It’s still depressing to see how much time I devote to e-mails, but in the last three years I’ve gotten more productive with my work hours. (When you are paying for childcare, it really motivates you not to squander your work time.) I’ve also been doing more big-picture planning and figuring out ways to increase my exposure, just as Vanderkam suggests.
But it’s the final suggestion in Vanderkam’s seven disciplines—and perhaps the most intangible for most readers—that I’d argue is at the core of a well-rounded definition of success: Are you pursuing work that is meaningful to you?
When doing a spring cleaning of your time, the temptation is to get things crossed off your to-do list as fast as possible. Questions of big-picture planning, meaning, and purpose often get swept under the rug. Yet, as the late, great Stephen Covey advised, it’s important to begin with the end in mind (what are you working toward with that to-do list?) and to prioritize the important things over the urgent distractions that often pop up in our day.
In my work with young adults, I’ve found that asking questions about personal values, brainstorming on bigger-picture visions for change, and identifying your individual purpose, or role you might play, within that grand vision is a great way to start this conversation of meaning.
These “big questions” aren’t easy to answer. But especially for those at the start of their careers, any long-term feelings of success hinge on finding an answer that works for you. Indeed, I’d argue that the feeling of meaning, joy, and value that your work gives you is the reason you’ll download that time-log and follow Vanderkam’s advice: Because you’re doing something that matters.