How to gain control of your free time

“There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all”.

-       William James, American Philosopher and Psychologist

In October of 2016, Laura Vanderkam, a time management expert, hosted a TED Talk titled “How to gain control of your free time”. She shared a very interesting point: “We don't build the lives we want by saving time. We build the lives we want, and the time saves itself.”


Usually, we think that people who are good at managing time must have special methods to take advantage of fragmented time. However, this hypothesis is not true. In fact, time management is not intended to conjoin these fragments, rather it allows us to make a choice - time is a choice, and how do I effectively use the time I am provided?


To be specific, the following six arguments emphasize this statement in detail.


1. Time management ≠ use fragmented time to complete the items on your agenda

It is not true that time management experts are never late. Laura argues that the view of ​​’squeezing fragmented time together to accomplish something important’ is outdated. After examining the agendas of several "very busy" successful people, Laura realized that time management doesn’t mean one uses every part of fragmented time. However, mastering time management means one can focus on prioritizing tasks so that everything gets accomplished sooner or later.


2. The secret - treating our priorities as the equivalent of a broken water heater

Laura shares a case study:

A very busy professional woman comes home on a Wednesday night to find that her water heater has broken, and there is now water all over her basement. So, she's dealing with the immediate aftermath that night, and the next day she has plumbers coming. The day after that, a professional cleaning crew deals with the ruined carpet. All this is being recorded on her time log. Everything ends up taking seven hours.

Seven hours... We could always find seven hours to solve the problems that must be solved, such as the broken water heater. However, normally we wouldn’t dedicate one hour a day for such tasks.

What we can learn from this case is that time is very flexible. More time cannot be created; whether time is fully utilized or not is up to what we have accomplished. Therefore, the key to time management is treating our priorities as the equivalent of that broken water heater.


3. I don’t have time = this task must not be important

Another case study shared by Laura:

One of the busiest people Laura has ever interviewed is a business woman who was running a small company with 12 people on the payroll. Also, the woman had six children in her spare time, and she was unavailable to speak with Laura because it was a beautiful spring morning, and she wanted to go for a hike.

The woman told Laura, "Everything I do, every minute I spend, is my own choice." Time is a choice; we have the power to fill our lives with the things we want to spend time doing.


4. How does one identify what really matters? Decide to write an annual performance review of next year, today

Laura points out two strategies which will help us to identify priorities. The first one is on the professional side:

Assume today is the end of next year; you're giving yourself a performance review, and it has been an absolutely outstanding year for you, professionally. What three to five things did you do that made it so amazing? Write next year's performance review now.

Similarly, you can do this for your personal life. Pretend it’s the end of next year, you have a very good year, then write three to five things to make your personal life so wonderful during this year.

Therefore, you have generated a list of six to ten goals you can work on in the next year.


5. Break the 6-10 goals into doable steps and put them into schedules.

Laura suggests, create next week's plan on Friday afternoons. Why Friday afternoons? This is because a Friday afternoon is what an economist might call a "low opportunity cost" time. Most of us are not sitting at our desks on Friday afternoons saying, "I am excited to make progress toward my personal and professional priorities right now."

Also, Laura suggests dividing the week plan into three categories:  career, relationships, and self, in order to remind us to balance these three elements. There should be something in all three categories.


6. Time is sufficient; we should focus on putting the important things into free time that can be sustained.

There are 24 hours x 7 days of the week, and this equals 168 hours in one week. 5 x 8 = 40 hours for work and 7 x 8 = 56 hours for sleep -- that leaves 72 hours for other tasks. Truly, this is a lot of time.

Say you're working 50 hours a week, maybe a main job and a side project. Well, that leaves 62 hours for other things. Say you're working 60 hours. Well, that leaves 52 hours for other things. Say you're working more than 60 hours. Well, are you sure?

Small moments have great power – make the most out of your free time.


Click here to watch Laura’s TED Talk.