Laura Vanderkam, the time management expert who wrote Off the Clock and Juliet’s School of Possibilities, is here to answer your scheduling questions. Check back every week for more advice, and send your own productivity problems to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Your name will not be used.)
Dear Laura: There are so many things I’d like to do — exercise, write poetry, learn French, try new recipes — but I get discouraged when I get to the end of the day and realize I haven’t done most (if any) of these things. How can I make more progress, or at least feel better about the progress I do make?
You mean you didn’t make the time today to exercise, write a poem, and practice your French, all while whipping up a pot of boeuf bourguignon? On top of your job, social, and family responsibilities? What’s wrong with you?
Or perhaps a better question is: Who says you have to do everything that is important to you every single day?
Your career is likely important to you, but few people report to their workplaces seven days a week. A week is the cycle of life as we actually live it. And when it comes to most habits, a seven-day mentality — instead of a 24-hour one — can be life-changing.
How? Rather than ask what you’ve done at the end of a day, ask yourself what you’ve done over the past week. The answer is usually far more positive. When I have people track their time for a week, most discover that they are spending at least some time on their interests. A person who claims “I never have time to exercise” might see that she did go for a brisk walk after dinner one evening to run an errand. “Never” turns out to mean “not as much as I want.” There’s a difference.
I’d argue that anything that happens three times a week is a habit. That guy hitting the weight room at your gym on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights has every right to think of himself as a regular exerciser. If you’re already doing something once a week — or maybe even twice — then all you have to do is fit it in once or twice more.
This is probably doable, even if you’re busy. Maybe you often make a new recipe on Sunday for a family dinner. Great! Try out a big experimental salad for Saturday lunch, and a weeknight one-pot dinner, and there you are: an adventurous home cook.
Or you might observe that you sometimes do write poems while sitting in the coffee shop next to your kid’s karate lesson on Saturday. Why not bring paper and pen and noise-canceling headphones, and do the same while you’re waiting at her dance lesson too? Then all you need is one more session — maybe one lunch break, or an early morning before everyone’s up — and you’ve achieved an enviable poetic discipline.
To be sure, some things — like teeth-brushing — should happen daily (or twice daily). But for many of our aspirations, avoiding the 24-hour mindset can make progress feel possible. Three times a week? It might not be easy, but most weeks you can get it done.