There must be people cooking out there, but who, and where are they? Everyone I know seems to be scrambling between protein bars and stale sandwiches. Who is going to cook a nice dinner when it’s often nearly 8 PM before they get in the door?
This is where I advocate for Dinner One and Dinner Two.
It’s true that nobody has the time for anything. Actually it totally isn’t. Everyone gets the same 24 hours. Good person, bad person, busy, not busy, nobody gets any more time and nobody gets any less. We just use it up while we try to pour it from one bucket into another.
I started to realize how much time I could reclaim when my husband I were first dating. He preferred, over what I always saw as the enticing reward of weekend brunch, actually cooking a hot breakfast at home? Why? Who on earth doesn’t like to go to brunch? He pointed out that it involved driving across town, putting your name on a list, standing around for an hour waiting for a table, finally getting seated, waiting twenty minutes to order, waiting half an hour or more for the food, and then waiting another twenty minutes to get the check.
If he made the breakfast, we could eat, clean up, and take a nap in the same amount of time.
He sealed the deal and proved his point by making massive hubcap-sized waffles.
I started cooking dinners from scratch around the same time. I had grown bored of the selection of frozen dinners available to me, and I also realized that I really wanted two of them. I would always be hungry afterward and round out my meal with a large bowl of cereal. If I started buying double meals, I’d double my grocery bill, and also my trash. What if I tried cooking, making some soup or something?
It took so long, though! I didn’t like having to go directly to the kitchen when I got home from work, and then, because I was new to cooking, have to work for ninety minutes before I could eat.
That was the beginning of Dinner One, Dinner Two.
I would come home and cook something quick and easy, one of the microwave meals on which I had been subsisting. I would eat it, and only then would I get started on the real meal, Dinner Two.
Dinner Two was fancy. Dinner Two would be something I really wanted to try, something I’d look forward to. Since I had already eaten, I could take my time and enjoy myself. I found that I liked cooking for myself as long as I wasn’t hangry!
When you’re only cooking for yourself and yourself alone, it can be miserable or it can be fantastic. The misery is when you just aren’t motivated and you find yourself eating directly out of a can, or shrugging and eating a bowl of cereal and then just going to bed. As a bachelorette, I ate meals alone that I would never, ever feed to a guest.
The fantastic part of cooking for yourself and yourself alone? Actually there are several. One. If there is a mess in there, it’s your mess and you have nobody else to blame. If you keep it clean, it stays that way. Two. You can make whatever you like, and nobody else will complain. Three. You get all the leftovers. If you stock something, it’s still there later.
(The trick to that last, if you have roommates, is to hide special leftovers in ugly containers. Wrap it in foil, use old stained and melted plastic containers, or reuse a frozen okra bag as a sleeve. Hide it behind the spinach. Write up a label reading ‘CABBAGE STEW.’)
It was cooking Dinner Two while listening to audio books that convinced me I could learn to be a good cook. I would eat a small serving when it was ready, because I was never satisfied by my cardboard-encased frozen meals. Then I would portion out the rest in containers, some for lunch and some for dinner.
Depending on the recipe, I would have anywhere from 3-8 servings.
If you have a small freezer, it will fill up with leftovers very quickly. After the third time I did Dinner Two, I didn’t have enough room (or containers) to fit any more. As I ate servings from earlier batches, I would free up more space, and that helped to add more variety. My goal was to have at least six different kinds of leftovers stored in there, which was about the same as the frozen aisle at my grocery store.
Bringing homemade lunch was fun. I would carry it in still frozen, and by lunchtime it would have defrosted. I would heat it up, and people would wander into the break room, sniffing, saying, “That smells good!” A far cry from the microwave popcorn/diet cola “lunches” of my friends. Our office park was too far from civilization to go to a restaurant for lunch, and the cafeteria served the singularly worst sandwiches I had ever tasted. Nothing I made could be had locally at any price. Conspicuous consumption!
Dinner Two bought me time. Every batch meant I traded one evening of cooking and cleanup for roughly two additional dinners and three lunches. In a sense, they pop magically into existence. They seemed to stack up at a rapid rate. A couple of times I even managed to feed a friend who dropped by for a surprise visit.
With time, I learned to be faster at food prep. I invested in better knives, bigger pots, grander glass pans. Not only could I cook more, faster, I also found a bunch of recipes that took less than half an hour. A few dinners in my repertoire can be on the table in ten minutes!
I prefer cooking for a family or a dinner party to cooking for myself alone. It gives me a reason to get fancy. I eat better, and certainly I eat more fresh vegetables. It doesn’t hurt to have extra hands to help with the cleanup, and someone else to trade nights. In that sense, Dinner One and Dinner Two can represent an alternating schedule.
Cooking from scratch and cooking in batches has a lot going for it. It saves money, tastes better, and frees up all the time everyone else is spending waiting in line, waiting for a table, waiting for delivery of what is so often disappointing and unsatisfying. The more you do it, the easier it gets and the more variety you have on hand. In another way, Dinner One, Dinner Two is a form of time travel, a way to send gifts, money, and time to Future You.
It was certain doom when we realized we were both marching band geeks. My husband and I still sometimes go around whistling Sousa marches together. He played tuba and I played (but you knew this) clarinet. Therefore we can do a reasonable rendition of Fairest of the Fair.
Our musical training also helped when I taught him various ballroom dances. He knew what I meant when I taught him to swing dance and suggested we try double time.
Then, triple time!
I kinda do everything triple time now.
I just discovered that one of the library smartphone apps I use offers a higher playback speed than the other one. For the enthusiasts, that’s Hoopla vs. OverDrive. Although I was in public at the time, I bounced in my seat and let out a little ‘woohoo!’
Earlier this year, I finally figured out the secret of how to input ebooks into my speed-reading app, Outread. Depending on what it is, I can read at triple or quadruple speed.
This is probably why I have little patience for TV or movies. Sometimes I want to watch something terrible purely for pop culture reasons, and I feel stuck at regular playback. It creates a weird paradox, where it takes me longer to absorb something that doesn’t really interest me than it does to indulge in something I enjoy.
Note: I have seen some unbelievably, staggeringly bad horror films...
...a genre which, at high speed, might quickly morph into screwball comedy.
It often does at my house, because my little parrot likes to walk behind me on the couch, making smooching sounds and imitating games of ping-pong.
Doing things faster is funny. Sometimes, when I bust through my chores, I think of Lucille Ball stuffing chocolates into her mouth.
The way we look at our daily routine is entirely our own choice. It’s equally as possible to take great pride in drudgery as it is to resent even the lightest duties. That’s because we don’t necessarily care about the nature of work; we care about whether we feel like it’s our choice or someone else’s.
Example: I find nail art mystifying. I utterly cannot understand it. I once had to wear a coat of clear nail polish for a gig, and I was counting the hours until I could remove it, because I couldn’t escape the smell. If I had some job where I was forced to sit still and have nail polish applied on a regular basis, and then wear it all day, I’d be climbing the walls. Yet a lot of people wear it for fun. Go figure.
We should all be more aware of what we enjoy for its own sake and what we’d rather trade off for something else.
I like hustling and bustling around, getting things done. It doesn’t even really matter what I’m doing, because I’m listening to a book. Might as well keep busy.
Often, I play Beat the Clock, trying to get a set number of tasks done before a timer goes off. That’s because I no longer have a washer and dryer.
Don’t get me wrong - there’s little that annoys me more than folding laundry. Carrying fifteen pounds of sweaty workout clothes across the apartment complex, and back again when it’s clean, is not my idea of a fun time. Sixteen washers and dryers are shared by 332 units, which is probably 400-500 tenants. This creates some interesting constraints, and constraints are all you need to make up an interesting game.
Can I find a block of time when two or three machines are available? How much can I get done in 28 minutes while waiting to put the wash into the dryer? How much can I get done in 44 minutes while waiting for the dryer to finish?
Part of my game is refusing to do housework on the weekend, and that includes Fridays. I try to avoid Mondays as well, because several holidays include a Monday. And I’m busy on Wednesdays.
Okay, to tell the truth, I only really do housework on Tuesday and Thursday.
Most of it on Thursday.
My game of doing things on triple time means that five or six days a week, I don’t have to do anything but walk the dog. No laundry, no errands, nothing!
Imagine that. Five or six days a week, I have zero stress about cleaning my apartment.
Oh, but you don’t have kids, I hear. Yeah, I’m about to turn 44. Most people don’t have little kids around at my age. Also, both of my parents saw children as little mini chore machines. My mom would tape a chore list for each of us on the front door every morning. We weren’t allowed to go out and play until our chores were done, and this started at kindergarten age. We were gradually considered competent to do every single household task except cleaning the bathroom, and I took that over in high school. I won’t claim that my brothers and I looked forward to doing chores more than any other kid, but I will certainly say that we did our share.
If you live in a home, and your chores stress you out, well, it’s your own home. You’re in charge of creating the rules there. If you insist on burnout, resentment, and annoyance, that is your seigneurial right. Far be it from me to tell anyone to quit being irritated or exhausted if they want to be.
There are lots of games that can be played with task lists. Chores can be regarded as claiming or expanding territory. There can be a race between players or against a timer. There can be bonus points for one thing versus another. Something like a list of business calls can be regarded as a treasure hunt or Mission: Accomplished. Kids are great for this as well, because their ability to continually generate new games is more or less infinite.
Triple time is irresistible to me. It puts a spring in my step. It adds a bit of interest and excitement to what could easily be a boring, routine day. It’s not for everyone, obviously, but... why not one and a quarter time?
I knew I had to do a sleepvacation the minute it crossed my mind. I have a flexible schedule, so I could make it happen. What I didn’t have was anywhere to sleep that was quiet for at least five hours at a stretch.
Q: Where could I go without upstairs neighbors?
A: Almost anywhere
I thought about bringing a sleeping bag down to our laundry room. I thought about making a trip to the airport terminal and stretching out under some seats. On my toughest days, I thought about digging a trench on the beach and sleeping in that.
Then I thought of house-sitting. I’m responsible and good with animals. Surely someone in my beach community would need a house sitter for at least a few days?
I mentioned it to my brother, who replied, “Well actually...” and it was just that simple. Ask someone you know for help. I had nine days for my sleepvacation in the peaceful suburbs.
The very first night, I slept nine hours!
My only responsibilities for over a week:
Eat and bathe
Care for a massive black dog, my niece Penny
Penny’s desire to be fed and go out at 6:30 AM
That became my routine. Go to sleep around 11 or midnight, wake up at 6:30, feed the dog, open the back door, go back to bed and read for a while, take a nap.
I thought I would be able to sleep twelve hours a day if only I had the chance.
If only it were quiet enough.
If only I could just take a break from the world, I’d sleep off and on all day and drool all over myself. If it works for Penny...
As it turns out, I can probably only sleep twelve hours if I’m ill. Nine is enough for me to feel well-rested.
This is helpful. It’s helpful to know that I don’t need to waste my time pining for something, not because I “can’t have” it but because I don’t actually need it. My sleepvacation showed me that I’m much closer to my goal than I thought.
Things happen when you finally start to meet a biological need, like watering a thirsty plant.
The first thing that happened was that I started dropping weight. I lost six pounds in nine days.
[This is the part where I’m supposed to put a disclaimer that losing weight is not happiness because people are incapable of thinking ‘weight loss’ without attaching it to body image. I don’t give a flying leap about body image. I’m here for my overall energy level and quality of life. In my world, with my history of thyroid problems, weight gain correlates with migraine and night terrors, and losing six pounds was delightful!]
After a week, something else happened. I started having ideas.
The biggest issue with chronic sleep deprivation is being tired all the time. That low-energy feeling seeps into everything. All I could think about was 1. How to get more sleep and 2. How selfish my neighbors are, running a vacuum at 8 AM on Saturdays. A year of sleep deprivation, I can tell you, starts to turn into distraction, poor concentration, and memory lapses.
Like leaving your purse at a cafe overnight, forgetting your phone when you leave for a day trip, filling the dog bowl and leaving it on the counter, that kind of thing.
That day that the lightbulb flickered back on in my brain, I remembered who I really was.
I remembered that not all that long ago, I was a high-energy, positive, cheerful person who radiated ideas day and night.
Somewhere along the way, my personality had been dampened. I was burned out and exhausted. I started to convince myself that I was stuck, trapped in an infinite prison sentence in a tiny apartment with inconsiderate neighbors.
It isn’t true, of course. Nobody is stuck or trapped. Even a convict can discover philosophy and inner peace. It’s all what we buy into and what our minds tell us.
My situation is easy in every single way, except that I have a parasomnia disorder and I don’t know how to sleep through heavy footsteps over my head. Or blenders, or vacuum cleaners.
I had no plans for my sleepvacation, no work plans, no productivity goals. My intention was to sleep as much as possible, care for my furry niece, eat convenience foods, and read. No vision boards, no journals, no sprints, no insanity workouts, nada.
I found myself taking notes and jotting down ideas throughout the day, something I realized I hadn’t done all year. More than a year.
When HAD I last felt like I overflowed with ideas?
One of my ideas was the realization that I really have only a little over three months left before our lease is up. Part of that time will be spent traveling. We’re almost out of the woods!
Then I had an insight. I had a few days to play with the idea.
I realized that I was sleeping roughly the same core hours on sleepvacation that I do at home. The difference was roughly one hour in the morning, and the nap later on. Not that much to ask. What if, just for the three months, what if I used an over-the-counter sleep aid to train myself to fall asleep earlier? Could I buy the missing hours of sleep?
When I came home, I tried it (ZzzQuil, for the curious) and it’s sort of almost working. It tastes freaking awful and it makes me groggy until after lunchtime. The first night, it took me 90 minutes to fall asleep. The second night, it took an hour. The third night, it took 40 minutes. It’s basically sort of working.
Mainly, it’s helped me sleep through my neighbors’ early-morning two-hour family noise relay.
The difference between five hours of sleep and nine hours of sleep is remarkable. On five hours, I think a lot of people don’t even realize how consistently crabby they are, how much they underperform, and by ‘they’ I mean ‘me.’ Nine hours is enough to feel joyful.
The difference between 35-40 hours of sleep in a week and 63 hours of sleep in a week, that’s big. Can you start to see how, say, 160 hours a month vs. 250 hours a month can add up?
Everyone in our busy, always-on, hustling culture could probably use a sleepvacation. More, though, we could probably use a better sleep routine.
You know what’s weird? What’s weird is how much time we’re willing to waste to get a bargain or “save money,” even though time is limited and money is not. We sometimes say that “time is money,” but that’s only true in a very constrained and specific way. Time is the only thing that money cannot buy. Time is the only thing we cannot replace. This is why it can be helpful to think of time in financial terms.
What if we thought of time spent as a tax on our resources?
Which it is, of course!
Being busy costs extra time, and that’s a tax. Extremely busy people feel that they don’t have time to do certain things, such as calling ahead to find out if a store is open or if they have something in stock. Lack of focus on preparation and organization leads directly to wasted time.
I was a witness to this recently. One of those so-busy-we-suspect-drugs people picked me up on the way to a meeting. We were already late. My ride felt a level of time pressure that can only be described as Warp Speed Desperate Frantic Urgent Emergency. The reason? Trying to buy an item that wouldn’t be needed for 18 hours. We made the stop, we asked two employees, we looked all around the store, and the item was not in stock. My ride bought another unrelated product and we stood in line for it.
When we got to the venue for the meeting, half an hour late, it turned out that both items were already on hand. Both the one we were looking for and the one we stood in line to buy.
Not only did we drive around like bats out of hell, showing up late and scattered and frantic, wasting time and money for things we didn’t really need. We also wasted the time of no fewer than eight other people.
Multiply half an hour times ten people (us and the eight others) and that is FIVE HOURS. Five person-hours that could have been used to do other things. What can be done with over half an entire business day? Who knows? We could start, though, by making a list of all the things we “never have time for.” Writing a major report, holding a planning meeting, catching up on email, taking inventory of the supply closet, conducting a training, finally learning to set up the A/V equipment or use an advanced feature in the software... anything other than having eight people stand around waiting on the most chronically disorganized person.
The busy one.
The worst part of this is that a person who is capable of this kind of thing, is capable of doing it more than once. It becomes habitual, as certain as death and taxes.
Having your time taxed by a professional superior, a person whom you can’t disobey, is taxation without representation.
I’m in a situation in which I am often waiting on other people. This is pretty typical in the business world. My dentist is one of the few professionals I know who is always ready on time; my boxing instructor, on the other hand, often starts early. Everyone else, who knows what on earth they’re up to. This creates a lot of predictable time gaps, a tax on my time.
What I do about this is to try to be prepared. This is equivalent to calculating your withholdings ahead of time, so you don’t have to write an unexpected check.
I prepare by keeping a small backlog of minor organizing tasks reserved. When someone makes me wait, it’s not like I’m going to leave for a five-mile run or start watching a movie. I know it’s probably only going to be a few minutes. I can do a lot with five minutes, and every time I do, it makes my to-do list that much shorter.
Do a brain dump and put things on my to-do list
Add something to my online shopping cart
Update my hydration app
Check movie times
Look at my calendar for the week and the month
Unsubscribe from spam email
Delete unwanted email
Read a few messages
Research vacation activities
Read a short article
Curate recent photos, which means deleting most of them
Delete apps off my phone
Honestly, there’s no way I ever feel like I have enough “free time” to do all of these things in a big block. It’s boring.
More importantly, large blocks of uninterrupted time are hard to come by. This is partly because we’re affected by the disorganization of others around us. That, in turn, is why there are so many professionally printed signs on display in businesses around the world that say “Your problem is not my emergency.”
When an uninterrupted block of time does pop up, it can be used for something constructive, like taking a long nap, reading a novel, clearing space for an awesome new project, or going for a walk with a friend.
Time should be ours to do with as we will. It’s taxed at a pretty high rate for the demands of living. Try as we might, we can’t completely avoid the pragmatic needs of eating, bathing, cooking, housework, and dumb administrative tasks. Which reminds me, it’s almost time to renew my drivers license, and hopefully get a much worse photo than I’ve ever had before.
The best we can do is to avoid taxing ourselves. We can be organized enough to prevent that frantic sense of scurrying around, making multiple trips, losing track of things, forgetting appointments, and creating situations where we need to put in double the effort. Every time we have to apologize for screwing up, every time we have to fix problems that we created, every time we have to redo our work, that is a tax we pay for being too busy.
Let’s reclaim our time and focus. Let’s start treating our time like it’s more valuable than money, which, of course, it is. Down with the busy tax!
Travel planning, isn’t it the worst?
My hubby and I are going on a trip two months from now, and we’ve already booked everything. We have our plane and train tickets, we have our hotel rooms, and we even know where we’re going to eat at the airport. This is the sort of thing that happens to you when you marry an engineer.
(Not a locomotive engineer, no. He doesn’t even have a stripy hat).
None of this advance planning is natural to me. I’m a wing-it person. I grew up in the travel industry, and I started flying alone at age seven. That’s over thirty-five years, and I’ve never missed a flight. I feel justified in my visceral certainty that flexibility and brainstorming are better than rigid planning and punctuality.
Last November, due to a dumb scheduling snafu, I got to the airport just ten minutes before my flight was scheduled to depart. I didn’t even realize it until I was washing my hands in the restroom a hundred yards away. I hadn’t even been through security yet!
Against all odds, not only did I catch that flight, but I had to stand around waiting before my boarding group even got in line.
I’ve been delayed by everything from snow to a plane with a flat tire to a presidential motorcade. I have always caught my flight.
The trouble is that ordinary travelers do not have my decades of freak blunders and delays on which to draw. Most people have an emotional need for a greater sense of urgency than I can provide. Don’t go places with me if you’re tense about being hours early for everything, let’s just put it that way.
Here’s another thing: I know how to pack.
I’m a minimalist single-bag traveler, and I have been for years. I can cover unlikely distances in an improbable span of time because I can grab my luggage and sprint. I’m halfway there before you have all your straps over your shoulders.
There is a group of people who are very organized about time and calendars and schedules. Then there is a group of people who are very organized about objects and spatial relations. These tend not to be the same group. My husband belongs to the first group, and I belong to the second.
I’m the one who put the flight time down wrong in my calendar. He’s the one who put his passport on a chair and then lost track of it when it fell to the floor. We can both look at each other and legitimately think, Okay, that would never happen to me.
We make a good match. I taught him the virtues of one-bag travel, and he taught me how many more options are available for awesome things when you plan months in advance.
For instance, we got the last available hotel room on points in Jackson Hole for the solar eclipse because we booked in January. More than six months in advance. That’s due to him.
We were able to grab one of the last first-come-first-served campsites in the Grand Tetons, same trip, because we brought our backpacking gear. That’s due to me.
This all started on our honeymoon. We checked into our room in a four-star hotel, right down the hall from another couple. We could safely assume they were married because only a married couple could possibly hate each other so much. They roared at each other for two days.
What KIND of PERSON... LEAVES... a BAG???
I SWEAR... I WILL NEVER... GO ANYWHERE... WITH YOU... AGAIN!!!
These are touchstones for us, inside jokes that still have us shaking with laughter ten years later. Long after that couple have probably divorced, married other people, and gone on to divorce them as well.
How can you leave a bag behind when you each only have one bag, and they’re both lined up neatly by the front door the night before the trip?
Don’t people know how to do a proper perimeter check?
Why would you even think of marrying someone if you couldn’t travel well together? What are you going to do, stay home every single day for the rest of your life?
The truth is that travel can be extremely stressful, especially for people who only do it once every few years. People leave their medications and their glasses behind. They wind up in shoes that make their feet bleed. They set up schedules where they’re standing or walking all day, even when they think one mile is a long distance and they get tired walking through Target. Lack of planning guarantees a miserable trip.
That’s why we plan months in advance. Two months is actually pushing it for us.
Do we need visas?
Do we have the transport and lodging confirmed?
What’s the weather like that time of year?
What’s closed on Sundays?
Where are we going to eat, and what’s on the menu?
Is our ID going to expire?
Suitcase or backpack?
Do we need new clothes or shoes?
What kind of electric outlets do they use?
What are we going to read on the flight?
Where are we going and how long will we want to be there?
This used to feel like a dreary amount of work. Then, after a few trips with my esteemed life mate, I started to realize how well it paid off. Not only did it make the trip easier in every way, but it also extended the fun of anticipation.
The last time we traveled together, at the New Year, I spent two weeks laying out every meal and every show and attraction in advance. I put it all in the TripIt app and shared it with my hubby. He was elated! Each day laid out in advance, every address and name of venue neatly lined up on a schedule, nothing to do but whip out his phone and show it to a cab driver. We got everywhere on time and enjoyed ourselves immensely.
We forgot one thing: to argue about how late we were and all the stuff we left behind.
The point of planning far in advance is to make life easier for Future Us. Boring Old Today Me can spend fifteen minutes here and twenty minutes there, putting together a fun and relaxing trip. Future Me reaps the rewards of having no decisions to make. Future Me flits from attraction to attraction, with plenty of time to spare, plenty of naps, and no straps digging into my shoulder. The point of the trip isn’t what we’re wearing or what we’re eating, it’s the memory that we’re creating.
The last person to arrive at the meeting was the person who called it. She texted to say she’d be ten minutes late, and arrived twenty minutes late. Nobody was surprised.
What did surprise us was when she pulled out a fancy new day planner. Time to turn over a new leaf? “Ooh,” we said, all dedicated day planner enthusiasts. It came in its own special box. We would have cheerfully spent five minutes fussing over it, the same as we would have if she’d carried in a little purse dog or an engagement ring.
“My friend got me this,” she said, obviously flipping through it for the first time. “Why is it so complicated?”
During the course of that meeting and the next dozen, we never saw the new planner again. It didn’t seem any more helpful than the laptop, the iPhone, or the numerous folders and stacks of papers had been.
Getting Organized is a sort of secular religion along the lines of Buddhism or yoga. It’s not for everyone, not that that ever stopped anything from becoming a cultural mainstay. Just because our colleague got a nice day planner as a gift did not obligate her to use it.
I mean, of course not. I’m not giving up my Cossac planner just because someone gets me a different one.
What’s important here is that this person was notorious for being chronically disorganized. It impacted other people, not just occasionally but daily. Our colleague was constantly pushing for extensions on deadlines while supposedly working from early til late. She lost track of objects and information, missed key details, forgot to attend her own meetings, dropped the ball on important tasks, and spent about as much time apologizing for not doing something as she did actually doing something.
She was mad as heck when she didn’t get the promotion she wanted.
That day planner? It wasn’t just a perfunctory gift. It was a thoughtful gift, and also a barely disguised coded message, a tactful one. YOU NEED THIS. Not using it was along the lines of turning down a breath mint.
Um, are you trying to tell me something?
Just the other day, a friend leaned over and told me, “I love you, you have something in your teeth.” Kale salad, Y U hate me? This really is what friends are for, to save us from ourselves and help us see what we can’t see on our own. We need each other for perspective.
Professional colleagues are under no such obligation of friendship. In many fields, work is a zero-sum arena of combat, where every bonus and promotional opportunity is desired by many and available to few. The only things that are widely available in the working world are cheap pens and layoffs.
That makes it even more valuable when a colleague reaches out with helpful advice.
Most of the things that top performers do are unusual. They’re often also guild secrets. You only start to find them out after you’ve demonstrated that you’re ready to listen and learn, that you’re worth the time.
One of my work buddies has a mastermind call every morning at 6:00 AM, including most holidays.
Most of my professional friends go to conferences and read business books on their own dime.
My husband buys and reads robotics textbooks cover to cover.
I’ve only recently started to find out how common it is for women in my sphere to hire style consultants to help with their wardrobe, hair, and makeup. It is vanishingly rare to get a recommendation to one of these folk, because they tend to have months-long waiting lists.
Gradually it starts to become obvious that the top performers are doing a lot more than “networking” to get ahead. They’re operating in a different world with different priorities, because they understand that the real game isn’t the game everyone else is playing.
My colleague remained scattered rather than use her new day planner. She probably didn’t see it as a conscious choice. She probably just felt “too busy” to take even half an hour to try using it. What she would have found was that if she started taking a break to get her thoughts on paper, she could have bought herself a bit more mental bandwidth. She could have gotten her most conspicuous issues under control. Maybe she could have quit texting and driving. Maybe she could even have started getting to meetings on time.
Maybe she would have gotten her promotion.
Anyone who uses a planner for peace of mind would understand this automatically. It’s a container for your thoughts in the same way that a grocery bag is a container. It’s easier to put all your apples and potatoes in a bag, and it’s easier to write down everything you need to do on a list. It’s also easier to take the hint when someone goes out of their way to give you that hint, easier than fighting against the current. Easier than fighting your own worst tendencies.
A day planner might easily seem like homework, like one more onerous task. Who has the time? For those who use them, though, it can be like gaining an extra brain. Suddenly you don’t have to make extra trips to the store or miss appointments. You quit running out of your dog’s pills. You start to have all the phone numbers you need. Not only are you getting stuff done on time, but sometimes you get a chance to work ahead a bit. You can go on vacation and not have to check your email. You start to feel like you actually know what you’re doing.
The best thing about Getting Organized is that it gives you time and breathing space to raise your head and look around you. It gives you the pause that you need to pay attention to what your friends and colleagues are doing. That’s when you start to notice small ways that you can connect with other people and make their lives easier. Burnout can get in the way of being present and emotionally available. It can make you feel isolated and alone. Maybe you don’t even realize that others are right there beside you, reaching out and trying to help.
In the past week, I have:
Left my coat on a plane and had to run back for it twenty minutes later
Spilled half a bottle of water into my suitcase by carrying it upside down
Worn a one-inch hole in my reusable shopping bag because I didn’t notice I was dragging it
Left town and forgot to pack deodorant
Dropped my sleep tracker on the bedroom floor and convinced myself I somehow lost it in a public restroom, then found it the next day and forgot to charge it
Put an important appointment in my calendar an hour late
Dropped my sweater on the sidewalk and kept walking, causing a passing driver to honk at me
Forgotten to auto-schedule a day’s content on my blog
Forgotten to lock our dog in his crate, risking another barking-related citation
I also gained four pounds, which I believe consists almost entirely of cortisol and bitter unshed tears.
What’s my problem? One of three things:
The last time I was this tired, my upstairs neighbor was a crackhead who would smoke crack on the porch in the afternoon, play guitar above my bed in the early hours of the morning, and bust up furniture in the evening. My hair started to fall out in patches then, just as it’s doing now.
Nobody cares about one person who is tired. The reason I talk about this stuff is that a lot of people are voluntarily running around in a state similar to mine. It’s a lot like being drunk, or snoring. Drunk people don’t think they’re drunk, and people who snore refuse to believe that they snore, sometimes even if you play them a recording of their 70dB clamor.
If you’re chronically sleep-deprived, you’re screwing up. Somehow. You’re stumbling around and making preventable errors. If you’ve done it for a long enough time, you might even think it’s just part of your personality, like Bella from Twilight always talked about how clumsy she was.
(Why is that supposed to be an endearing quality in female characters? I sure don’t find it endearing in myself).
Making silly mistakes is fine. It’s not the end of the world if you have, like I have, pumped liquid soap onto your toothbrush, only put deodorant under one arm, or walked around with a pair of nylon underpants hanging out of your sweater through the pernicious powers of static cling. Stuff happens.
We just have to ask ourselves how often it happens when we’re well rested, rather than when we’re really tired.
Why am I so tired? Because my upstairs neighbors do a lot of loud stuff between 5 and 7 AM every day.
What are they doing? Some guesses:
Training a donkey to tap dance
Three-legged race promoting Dutch clogs
Why don’t I just go to bed earlier? I have, oh, I have. It’s annoying to have to shift your schedule by three hours to accommodate someone else, for one thing, but it’s also only somewhat possible. The same people who are up banging around at 5 AM are also up and around at 12:30 AM, not to mention our other neighbors and passersby on the sidewalk. The rest of the world isn’t all that interested in facilitating some cranky middle-aged woman’s need to go to sleep at 9 PM.
9:00 PM bedtime: the ultimate luxury!
It makes me crazy to think of other people indulging in sleep procrastination, choosing to stay up late when they don’t have to. Oh, you’re not using your nice quiet bed? Can I come over? You can stay up and binge-watch TV episodes that will still be there tomorrow, even though you have to get up and go to work. Meanwhile I will try to sleep enough that my eyelid will stop twitching.
Twenty years ago, I would stay up until 4 or 5 AM for the occasional party, just because that’s where the action was. I’ve never been a drinker. I just wanted to socialize and eat chips and hope something interesting would happen. It took years to realize that these are my same friends from daylight hours. They weren’t going to, say, transmogrify into a wolf or a bat or anything. Now the idea of being awake until 4 AM strikes fear into my heart.
Out of all the persistent problems in the world, a sleep issue is in the top ten. It’s not like a messy garage that you can cheerfully ignore for ten years. It’s not like having a pet that isn’t housebroken, where you might swear a lot and go through a gallon of carpet cleaner. It’s not even like debt, although debt and sleep loss do tend to go together. Being exhausted follows you all day, every day.
Yawning through movies. Blanking out on chunks of conversation. Leaving a trail of lost items behind you everywhere you go.
Generally not doing anything with full engagement.
Getting headaches, getting sick all the time.
Desire to kick in neighbor’s door and ask, “What are you even DOING???”
I was talking to a young friend who just got his dream job after eleven years of planning. I asked what he was going to do next, and he promptly shared his five- and ten-year goals. Later I thought about my own goals and realized that they now consist of: Sleep twelve hours every day for a week.
If you’re out there being all tired and clumsy and stuff, pause for a moment. Ask yourself whether you could possibly find a way to sleep more every day. If not, is there somewhere else you could go? If so, would you tell me where that is?
There was a baby shower. I had nothing to do with it. My husband chose the gifts, ordered them, and picked up a package of diapers on the way. He went to the baby shower and he played shower games. By all accounts, he had fun.
This story might be shocking to some, which is why I share it. The way I was brought up, doing everything related to this baby shower would absolutely be my responsibility. I’M THE WOMAN. Right?
Not only would I have done all the shower gift stuff, but I might have hosted it, probably would have helped plan it, and most likely would have baked cupcakes or a pound cake. I also might have been on the hook for making a handmade gift, cooking for the new mommy, visiting her in the hospital, and offering free babysitting on demand.
I used to do that stuff. I’ve crocheted blankets and baby booties and knit caps and poseable toys for various babies. I’ve visited plenty of new babies in the hospital.
This time was different, and I’ll tell you why.
My only contribution in the preparation for this baby shower was to answer my husband’s question about what to wear. He was planning to go in a t-shirt, which probably would have been fine. I pointed out that this would be a major photo opportunity for the family baby album, and he changed into a polo shirt.
When he came home, he told me that the family all dressed up, and the work colleagues all wore casual clothes. He would have been fine either way.
It was fine, either way.
If I’d gone, if I hadn’t been sick, I would have known how to behave myself. I would have congratulated the mother-to-be and learned everyone’s names. I would have put myself to work helping arrange the food table and I would have stayed at the end to help clean up. The women of the family probably would have felt obligated to try to shoo me off and do it all themselves. There’s always that tension between “hosts do it all for the guest” and “guests shouldn’t wear out their welcome” that makes me want to be in the kitchen both as hostess and as guest. A dumb double-standard, isn’t it?
One day robots will do it all and we can kick back and have another cupcake.
I’m a little bummed that I missed the party. The weather was nice and it certainly sounded more fun than passing out sweatily in bed with my mouth open.
There’ll be another party, though. The baby will have a first birthday, or a baptism, or something. There will be a company picnic in the summer. I’ll meet the baby and hold the baby and smooch the baby. I’ll hand the baby back to New Mommy, a woman I like just fine and whom I also respect as both a shy person and an introvert.
There’s no pressure here, not unless I look for it.
I’ve gone to so many baby showers, and they’re bittersweet for me. Time and again, when I place my carefully wrapped gift and card on the table, it’s a goodbye gift. The baby shower is the last time I ever see the new mom. Even though we were friends before, her entry into motherhood is the last time she’ll call me, or return my calls, or write back to my emails. She won’t come to parties.
One of these friends? The next time I saw her, the incoming baby had a baby of her own on the way. There were five additional kids I’d never met, didn’t even know their names. I hadn’t seen a photo and I hadn’t been invited to any of their baby showers. I would have gone, I would have brought gifts. I would have sent graduation gifts, too, as the little ones grew up.
There’s no pressure here, not on my end. Just a willingness to have been there.
I’ve tried taking my mom friends out. I hear a lot about how desperate new parents are to get a break, to have an adult conversation, to remember that they have interests beyond Pat the Bunny. (Not that I have any issues with Pat the Bunny, personally). I’ll pick up the check and say, Here is your opportunity to talk about anything you like. Your thesis, the book you’d like to write, new research in your field... I’ll even read up on it if you want. Somehow the conversation keeps reverting to diaper rash. I don’t mind. It just feels like an opportunity lost.
Parenthood is like going through a security checkpoint or an airlock. You go through, and you’re on the other side, and everyone else is still over there were you used to be. Only the people on your side of the airlock understand what it’s like.
The same is true of other transitions, of course. Students talk the same way about finals week and ex-convicts talk the same way about prison. It’s not that other people haven’t literally been there or cognitively can’t imagine what it’s like. They simply are *not* currently there. Their emotional reality is different.
That’s why I’m perfectly content to let my husband manage the shower gifts for his work colleagues. It isn’t the first time. I’m not a part of the inner circle, and I don’t need to put social pressure or emotional labor on this particular lady. I’m a plus-one, if that, and I’m sure that suits everyone just fine.
This is the book to read if you’re burned out or planning a vacation, buried in work or preparing for summer, or really just any reason. In fact any of Laura Vanderkam’s books on time management would be a good idea. She is here on a mission of mercy to tell us that we have more time than we think we do, and we deserve to be spending more of it relaxing.
The title 168 Hours arises from the number of hours there are in one week. This is true for everyone. It’s true whether you have kids or don’t, whether you have a job or don’t, whether you’re married or single. Time is the only thing we all have in common. It’s our perception of where the time goes that is different.
Vanderkam has built her writing career on studying people’s time logs. How do we actually spend our time? What are we doing and how do we feel about it?
Core competencies are the things we’re best at, and that’s where Vanderkam recommends that we put our focus. One of the reasons to keep a time log is to find out what those are, because we don’t always realize there is something else that would be a good use of our time.
I’ll toss one of mine out there, because at one point I was spending quite a lot of time on it and now I’m not. That thing is language study. I have a true knack for languages and I can read six writing systems. There are few things I find as exciting as learning to read and understand a new language, so it’s really a mystery why I keep prioritizing other things. The only time I would be likely to remember this is at the movie theater, where I’m surprised and delighted that I can understand, say, a sentence in Russian or Japanese. Would I remember to write something like that down on a time log?
This is where the “List of 100 Dreams” of 168 Hours comes in.
Ms. Vanderkam, if you’re reading this, I am writing exactly ten years after you wrote down your “List of 100 Dreams.” How did you do? How many of these dreams have you explored in the last decade? I know at least one has, which was to write a best-selling book. Congratulations!
But we’re so busy! we cry. Working every minute! We work a hundred hours a week and more! Vanderkam doubts this and she has thousands of time logs to prove it. She also recommends that we find the time for our passions by ignoring, minimizing, or outsourcing the things that we don’t like as much. Two of the leading contenders would be housework and television. Yup, she went there.
I looked into outsourcing our laundry, a popular choice, when we moved from a one-bedroom to a studio in our apartment complex. Our old apartment had a washer and dryer, and the new one does not. It turns out that the local laundry service has a thirty-pound minimum. Imagine sleeping within fifteen feet of a 28-pound pile of sweaty gym clothes. I don’t mind hauling our laundry to the laundry room twice a week. I do, on the other hand, outsource DRIVING because I hate it. Nothing makes me feel as relaxed as calling a ride share instead of having to fight traffic. We save $700 a month by not owning a vehicle, and that’s enough to outsource quite a lot of things.
Personally, if I had more money I would spend it on shiatsu massage rather than a maid, because I can’t rub my own back and I don’t care about the forty minutes a week I spend cleaning house. This is also because I have a good idea of what I love to do versus what I find annoying. And that’s because I’ve had the good sense to read all of Laura Vanderkam’s books. That’s what I call time well spent.
...happy people are more productive and successful than unhappy people.
It is possible to ratchet up your career while investing in other parts of your life as well.
What would the next level look like for you? Picture it as vividly as possible.
We don’t spend much time thinking about what we’d like to do with our free time, even though no one would take a 30-hour-per-week job without clarifying the job description.
Use bits of time for bits of joy
Productivity articles tend to sound alike, partly because there are a million ways to be unproductive and only a few ways to get things done. Or so they claim. The truth is that whenever you look at the specific habits of famously productive people, they’re always weird, offbeat, and often superstitious. Connect that with the obvious fact that sorting your office supplies probably is not a direct path to fame and cultural relevance. This is why there’s a lot of mainstream productivity advice that drives me up a tree.
(Which is a great place to be productive)
Here are a few of the most common bits of productivity advice that I find counterproductive.
Practice your negotiating skills by asking for a 10% discount on your coffee!
Ugh, really? There are two problems with this common advice. One, dozens or hundreds of people are going to try it, giving these benighted baristas a strong, deadpan NO reflex. Two, it’s a quick way to burn your social capital for pennies. I get free refills and extras at my cafe all the time, not because I ask but because I literally never would. I get freebies because THEY LIKE ME. I’m low-maintenance and cheerful. Once I put together a travel itinerary as a favor for one of my favorites, and now the entire staff knows my name.
Sure, you can get discounts when you ask for them. I’ve gotten a 10% discount on things in several ways many times. Pay in cash, pay in advance, order by the case, put together a group order... I don’t see the point of flexing for a couple of coins once per location, though. Build actual relationships with people you see all the time, give first, be generous, and not only do you get a sincere smile from people, you can get years of A-list service and the occasional free thing.
Pick up the phone instead of using email!
Nooooooo! Do not do that!
On my top-ten list of reasons I finally quit my day job and started working for myself was the tendency of people to call or come to my desk and say, “Did you get my email?” What, the one you sent forty-five seconds ago? This was even more obnoxious when I HAD already read it and was actively responding to it. One of the most annoying ways that one person’s behavior can impact the productivity of others is to constantly interrupt them, and another is to send the same signal through multiple channels. It takes extra time, it’s distracting, and it makes you look dumb.
True, most people are perpetually behind on their email. Therefore, never do anything that wastes other people’s time. If they’re not reading or responding to your email, it might be because they’re inefficient. It might also be because you’re asking for something that you shouldn’t be; that you have the wrong person; that your messages don’t make sense; that you’ve once again abused Reply All; that the recipient doesn’t realize you meant them specifically; that your headers are unclear; that they still have plenty of time and they’re planning on dealing with you tomorrow; or that seeing your name makes them cringe and they’re deliberately avoiding you.
As with most things, if you treat other people like friends and allies, they are more likely to do what you want. That’s because you’ve figured out how to consistently help them get what they want. Everything should be mutually beneficial. If you’re doing it right, people will actively look forward to hearing from you. Sometimes they’ll surprise you by taking the initiative to ask others to help out. Every now and then, they’ll really surprise you by asking if others can join your project, as a favor, because what you’re doing is cool and interesting.
In short, if nobody is responding to you with the alacrity that you desire, question your approach. Question your relationships and your communication style. Question whether your emails are longer than one or two sentences. Maybe even go to your reluctant correspondents and ask them for help in calibrating yourself.
Get up at 5:00 AM!
Please don’t do that. Please don’t do that, upstairs neighbor who works at world-famous tech company and keeps waking me at up 4:30 AM.
I have grievances with this early-rising advice. The first is that it definitely won’t work for everyone. So many people who are successful in the corporate world wake up at that time because it’s the only way they can get two hours to themselves. They’re able to do it because they have hired help, because they can afford to set up their lives exactly the way they like, and because anyone who would complain is probably beholden to them financially.
They never talk about what these early-rising habits do to the productivity habits of the people around them.
My neighbor is up and around between 4:30 and 7:00 every day of the week. Ask me how I know. His stay-at-home wife does laundry every morning at 8:00 (ask me how I know) and that’s only because we complained when she was doing it at 6:00. Have you ever slept under a washing machine on spin cycle? Or a running vacuum cleaner, on Christmas morning?
The early-rising neighbor has next-door neighbors on two sides, and his plumbing runs down the walls between three downstairs units. His early habits are definitely affecting his wife’s productivity - rumor has it that he wants her to get a job and go back to work. His kid is in middle school; I dunno about her grades but I was chronically tired at that age. He’s also affecting the other five households that share his walls. That’s before he even gets out of the shower each morning! This is the power that one individual has to negatively impact [counting...] a minimum of ten family members and neighbors each and every single day, including weekends and holidays.
What time a person wakes up and what time someone accomplishes sixty minutes of work is completely and entirely neutral. If they’re effective, efficient, and keeping up on their production schedule, how could it possibly matter whether they’re doing something at 6 AM or at 3 PM? Why is it so impressive just to wake up very early? Bragging rights, that’s all. Nobody brags that “I personally exhaust and devastate the productivity of ten people a day.”
Thirty-five people report to me. I make it a point to let them do it on their own time. As a result, they’re responsive. They come to me when they have issues. I don’t feel the need to micromanage them or insist that they work at specific times of day; frankly, I don’t have the time for that and I don’t see how other people do. I also tend to sleep until 8 AM.
Here’s my productivity advice:
Build relationships and treat people with respect and dignity, like allies and colleagues.
Give what you wish to receive.
Make sure you’re working on the right things. If your vision is clear and appealing, others will want to get in on it. You yourself will only need the occasional refresh on your vision, and that will be enough to keep you going.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
This website uses marketing and tracking technologies. Opting out of this will opt you out of all cookies, except for those needed to run the website. Note that some products may not work as well without tracking cookies.Opt Out of Cookies