Fast Company in 2005 published an article titled “Change or Die” that I’ve thought about regularly since then. It noted that two years after receiving coronary-artery bypass grafting, 90% of the patients had not adopted healthier lifestyles. Changing their behavior—to not smoke, eat better, be more active—literally would extend their lives. But even though the patients knew that, they just didn’t do it.
“The central issue is never strategy, structure, culture, or systems,” the article quotes John Kotter, now an emeritus professor at Harvard Business School, as saying. “The core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people.”
Laura Vanderkam’s new book published this month, Tranquility by Tuesday, tackles the more day-to-day topic of personal time management. She grapples head-on with a similar challenge: in the chaos of busy lives, it’s hard to change your behavior and commit to the things that will make you happier, and perhaps even healthier, over time.
Vanderkam, who has written other books on time management and productivity and given a popular TED talk, proposes nine rules for “making time for what matters.” (p. 242) Vanderkam tested the rules with about 150 people over the course of 10 weeks in 2021, and found that satisfaction with how they spent time rose 16% by the end.
Her nine rules, while largely intuitively obvious, are constructive and accessible:
- Give yourself a bedtime. “If you would like to experience the additional energy and optimism that comes from being well rested, choose a time that you would like to go to sleep more nights than not,” Vanderkam writes. (p. 7) She recommends aiming for about 7.5 hours of sleep per night, keeping a consistent bedtime that allows you to get that, and setting an alarm 15 to 30 minutes beforehand to start winding down.
- Plan on Fridays. Vanderkam believes in taking 20 minutes to think about how you want to spend the next Monday to Sunday week, listing a few priorities in each of the areas of Careers, Relationships, and Self. Doing it on Friday allows you to avoid being anxious on Sunday without a plan for the week. And planning for a whole week is helpful because “a week is long enough to encompass actions beyond immediate crises, but also short enough for you to have a good sense of the landscape, and to be able to commit to times and actions with reasonable certainty,” Vanderkam writes. (p. 35)
- Move by 3pm. Vanderkam advises doing at least 10 minutes of physical activity—anything ranging from walking to doing an exercise class—in the first half of every day. She recommends the first half of the day based on research finding that people who exercise regularly are more likely to do so in the morning, and given that 3pm is generally an energy low-point during the workday. “Fundamentally you are in charge of your time,” Vanderkam writes. “A daily 10-minute break is a reminder of this truth, and a nudge to expand this scope of authority as you can.” (p. 63)
- Three times a week is a habit. Vanderkam notes that weeks contain 168 hours, and that if you work 40 hours and sleep eight hours a night, you still have 72 hours left to work with. “If we wish to add something meaningful to our lives, the time is probably there,” she writes. (p. 93) Aiming to do something three times per week means it should feel doable, even if it’s not possible to make it happen every day. Many people have meaningful activities that they do once or twice a week, and with some intention can make happen three times.
- Create a backup slot. Vanderkam compares it to outdoor event organizers having a “rain date.” “Most likely the slot won’t be needed, but its existence vastly increase the chances of the original event happening, even if not when originally planned,” she writes (p. 116) A resilient schedule includes regularly scheduled open space in your schedule to get to your priorities if the messy realities of life—such as unexpected sickness or caregiving crises—intrude during the original time you allocated, as often happens. Vanderkam’s personal approach is to keep Fridays open until she’s sure she won’t need the time for something else. Her goal “is to build a life that is at least partially inoculated against the common lament that ‘something came up.’” (p. 120)
- One big adventure, one little adventure. Vanderkam advises each week planning a big adventure that takes a few hours and a small one that takes just an hour—adventures are anything that has some element of novelty. That makes for more indelible memories, and reduces the feeling that you’re slogging through your weeks.
- Take one night for you. “Building a career—and raising a family—are meaningful activities, but they require a lot of energy,” Vanderkam writes. “To do our best, we need time we can count on to recharge, apart from these obligations. We need time to do things we find intrinsically energizing for ourselves, as individuals.” (p. 163) Ideally it’s the same time every week so it doesn’t require planning, and a commitment like having a regular reserved tennis court time. Vanderkam advises that to succeed with this, you need to abandon the idea that your work or family will not function if you’re not there. (Participants in her research said this was the hardest rule to implement.)
- Batch the little things. Set aside specific blocks of time to blast through small tasks, allowing you to protect your focused work. Vanderkam estimates that most people need just one to four hours each week for little tasks, and recommends keeping a list when they come up to return to later. “We’re doing what energizes us first, and confining the little things to the time we choose to give them,” she writes. (p. 211)
- Effortful before effortless. Vanderkam advises only turning to undemanding activities like watching TV (“the siren song of the sofa”) or browsing social media after you’ve done some more engaging activity that involves planning, coordination, or mindfulness such as reading a book or doing a puzzle. Her observation is that it’s harder to shift out of the effortless activity, which might deter you from ever engaging in things that can make you feel happier and more productive.
“All these rules have a deeper purpose as well,” Vanderkam explains. “They nudge us to think about time strategically.” (p. 2) For example, “when we give ourselves a bedtime, we give shape to the day. We start to make more active, mindful choices about what a given day can and cannot contain.”
To be sure:
- Vanderkam’s rules are largely obvious, and the research behind things such as the power of habit was previously explained in greater depth elsewhere. Her own research study was effectively designed to validate her rules rather than to generate them.
- The literal reference behind the title Tranquility by Tuesday isn’t developed or explained much beyond an early reference: “I want you to change how you spend an average Tuesday. I want you to know that even an average day will feature levity and purpose.” (p. xxix)
- “Life is not going to be less hectic next week. Life probably won’t be less hectic next year. We have to make time for what matters now.” (p. xv)
- “Most of us understand that each day has a beginning. We are a bit fuzzier on the notion that each day has an end.” (p. 18)
- “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” —a statement president Dwight Eisenhower said he heard in the army (p. 45)
- “My general rule is that most things take longer than you think they will. That means planning less per day than you think will fit.” (p. 50)
- “Exercise (like sleep) doesn’t take time. It makes time.” (p. 60)
- “First, you fill your life with what matters to you. Then, you will naturally spend less time on shower cleaning or email or whatever else seems to fill the hours.” (p. 82)
- “Anyone can make a perfect schedule. True time-management masters make resilient schedules. They harbor no illusions that life will be easy, and so they shape their hours to foster progress even when things don’t go as planned. In doing so, they make life feel a lot more tranquil, even when it is hard.” (p. 116)
The bottom line is that the concepts in Tranquility by Tuesday aren’t completely surprising or original, but Vanderkam’s constructive, optimistic approach is highly accessible and infectious. It’s likely a helpful read for people looking to use their time more intentionally.
You can order Tranquility by Tuesday at Bookshop.org or Amazon. (We may earn a commission if you purchase a book.)
Read Vanderkam’s recent articles in Harvard Business Review and The New York Times.
Read our 2021 book briefing on Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman’s critical take on productivity and time management rules.
Read all of our book briefings here.
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