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We all tell ourselves stories about our time. We often start the day with the scarcity mindset and thoughts of “how am I going to get it all done?” The media loves to spread the “Time Crunch” myth and pump up the story of how much unused vacation time Americans leave on the table. But when you look at the data of your own life you may find a different tale. How you spend your free time is often largely a matter of choice. According to Laura Vanderkam, gaining control of your free time starts with tracking your time.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I’m a big fan of Laura Vanderkam. Her 100 Dreams List kicked off my 40s with passion and purpose. I quote her lessons and ideas all the time in the gym and workshops. I was overjoyed when I learned she was going to be the keynote speaker at Biz417’s Ladies Who Launch event.

In the spirit of doing something memorable, I even asked Laura Vanderkam to dinner after the event. I wanted to soak up all the insight I could and say thank you for all of her wonderful writing and inspiration.

In her talk and our dinner conversation, one theme continued to ring clear. You have more time than you think.  You just need to understand where it is really going if you’re going to make real changes, gain control of your free time and create the life you want.

Gaining control of your free time has to start with tracking your time.

You will resist this as surely as you resist logging your food, even if it is just for a few days. The only way to get away from the stories we tell ourselves about how we spend our days is to record the data and examine it for what it really is.

You can track your time anyway you want. Laura Vanderkam uses a good old-fashioned spreadsheet (which she will gladly share with you). I prefer the app Toggl but there are other tools for your computer and smartphone. You can use a notebook for keeping track of your time in 30-minute chunks.

Try tracking your time for one week. In her talk, Vanderkam remarked that it is better to look at our lives in weeks not days. When we look at the bigger picture of 168 hours we have an easier time seeing how to achieve work/life balance and move our “tiles of time” around to do the things we want to do AND the things we need to do.

After you have a week’s worth of data, Laura Vanderkam said in her Ladies Who Launch talk you should ask yourself three questions:

What do I like most about how I spend my time?

What would I like to do more of?

What would I like to do less of?

After this honest assessment of where your time goes and what you want out of your hours, you can do the work to start gaining control of your free time.

For example, here’s a personal challenge of mine.  I easily identified with a story she shared during her talk and as we chatted over beet hummus at Van Gogh’s. I want to write more. I have a bigger story to tell, one the pages of this blog can’t hold. I have an intention to get started. I think there will be more time on Friday. There is time but by Friday afternoon all I want to do is downshift with a good book before cooking dinner. Working on my writing project never happens.

“First things first” is something I know from my love of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People but Vanderkam’s reminder was very timely. If you want something, you have to MAKE the time and front load it at the beginning of the week. A planner by nature I will now include work on my writing projects on Monday or Tuesday. In the spirit of her advice to “look forward” I’m also setting a goal to set myself writing goals and block off a whole weekend to work on this effort before the end of the year. (I am expecting YOU to hold me accountable on this.)

What about doing less of somethings? Learning to say NO is helpful. Learning to delegate is great. And so is learning to say good enough. Thankfully I’m pretty good at all of these things. If you’re not, start small and look for one thing you can outsource or let go. Maybe you can ask the baby sitter to pick up the dry cleaning too. Or can you ask your husband to grill extra chicken on Sunday so you can use it for fajitas on Monday. Leave the dishes in the sink one night so you can get some extra sleep or quiet time before bed.

If saying NO is really hard, instead of YES try “let me get back to you”. This gives you time to really look at your schedule. We all know that our future self is much more optimistic about time, especially when the calendar next month looks so pleasingly open. Yet we often feel very different when the event or obligation arrives.  Laura Vanderkam wants you to ask yourself this important question, “Would I do this tomorrow?”

If the answer is no, then just say no. You won’t feel any differently next week or next month.

If you really want to gain control of your free time it starts with knowing where the time is going today. I’m going to challenge you to this time tracking exercise. It’s just for one week. That’s really all it takes to start creating and living the life you want. Armed with the data, you can start putting all of Laura Vanderkam’s useful and effective advice into place. There is so much more in  her newest book, Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done.  For even more tools (including her time tracking spreadsheet) and regular encouragement check out her blog at lauravanderkam.com (plus get the story of the unexpected turn our evening out took on her visit to Springfield!)

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