Zibby Owens: Welcome, Laura. Thanks for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” after I mistakenly deleted our episode. Thank you.

Laura Vanderkam: Thanks for having me back and not just leaving it in the trash can. I appreciate that.

Zibby: It’s so ironic because you’re a time management expert, essentially, in addition to other amazing skills. We had this great conversation about using time efficiently and managing our time and all this other stuff. Then I wasted your time completely by having the podcast not record. Anyway, here we are.

Laura: It’s fine. Here I was five minutes late to this one because I was using the wrong link.

Zibby: I was literally about to go digging for the time zone. I’m like, really, did I mess this up again? These things happen. Nobody’s perfect.

Laura: All good.

Zibby: Thank you. Let’s talk about your book, The New Corner Office: How the Most Successful People Work from Home, which basically is almost everybody right now. Give listeners the low-down on what this book really helps people do and how you can empower people to work more successfully from home.

Laura: I wrote this book after I noticed in March that there were a lot of people who were working from home for the first time and suffering through a lot of really terrible Zoom happy hours and that they were probably going to be looking for advice on how to do this long term, to work from home both productively and ambitiously. I cranked this out, got tips on how you can redesign your workdays to take advantage of some of the upsides of working from home, how you can handle a self-directed schedule, how you can stay social and build your network when you’re working from home, how you can think big about your career, and how you can take care of yourself at the same time.

Zibby: I want to hear all of those things. Where do we start? How do you stay social and expand your network while at home?

Laura: It is challenging. I think there’s a bit of a false view of this, though. I know in the past when people were asking to work from home and negotiating to work from home, that term implying you need to give something up in order to do it, one of the arguments against it was that relationships are best built face to face. Obviously, when you’re working from home, you are then not face to with many of your colleagues on those days. Very few places going forward from this are going to be a hundred percent virtual. Most places, it’s just going to move the needle a little bit on how often it is acceptable to work from home. Most places will not stay five days a week remote for all of eternity once this is all over. In that sense, if you’re going to be working from home two to three days a week and in the office two to three days per week, you don’t have a problem with this because you’ll just be very social on the days that you are in the office. That will be perfectly fine.

In the meantime, there are a couple things you can do. You can certainly begin meetings with a little bit of social chit-chat. People are going to do it anyway, so it’s good to put it on the agenda for all your meetings. Then it’s accounted for, so it doesn’t run over. Also, people are expecting it so you don’t get that one guy who’s always like, we don’t have time for this, and cutting it all off before people have actually said what they meant to say. That helps. You can pick up the phone and call people. In our world where we have smartphones in our pockets, very few people use them as actual phones in the sense that you can call someone. If you’ve been working with somebody for six years, you don’t actually have to schedule an appointment at a certain time, trading emails back and forth to be like, would it be acceptable to call you for ten minutes at this moment? You are allowed to pick up the phone and call. That is often the most efficient way. It’s very good because then you hear their voice and talk and all that good stuff.

Zibby: I always find myself apologizing if I call.

Laura: How dare I use my phone, to this person who gave me your number.

Zibby: I should’ve checked with you first to see if it’s okay. Also, I feel like if I call certain friends, they’ll think something’s wrong.

Laura: Oh, yeah. That’s true.

Zibby: I’m like the school nurse. It’s not emergency.

Laura: It’s okay. That is true. Although, once you do it more regularly, people get used to it. Definitely if you’re managing people and you’re working from home, you do need to call your employees frequently so that they don’t think they’re in trouble every time you call. That’s a very important managerial tip here. I’d actually say that one of the ways that working from home can be better for network building is that when you work in an office forty hours a week, a lot of your immediate need for social interaction and for professional networking feels satisfied by the people who you are working with closely. You go to lunch with your colleagues. You go to coffee with your colleagues. You chat with your colleagues. That’s great except that the people you work closest with are not the only people in the universe that you probably should be getting to know. When you work from home, it’s not so automatic that you would be going to lunch every day with your colleagues. Maybe you find somebody else to go to lunch with or somebody else to call, somebody else to have coffee with as that becomes more that people can do that as we come out of this. Then you could build a broader network when it’s not just enforced by the social norms of your immediate office.

Zibby: How do you work from home while your kids are around?

Laura: This is complicated. Before all this happened, one of the most frequent conversations I would have with people who are looking to work from home was the “don’t think you can save money on childcare” conversation. Some people would be like, wait, hey, maybe I don’t have to pay for it. It’s like, no, no, no, you still do. You cannot, long term, be the adult in charge of your young children during the hours you intend to work. Unfortunately, that reality has not changed just because we are in the midst of a pandemic that has thrown many people’s childcare arrangements for a giant loop. What do you do? The most obvious thing, if your childcare arrangements are not available or the ones that are available are not acceptable to you, you can trade off with your partner.

I have a schedule on my blog from a couple months ago that documents how each party can work either twenty-nine or thirty-one hours a week. Of those, twenty-five are pure focused hours. Four to six are probable hours using a combination of naptime and movie time and spouses covering for each other. If you are going to do that, it has to be strictly delineated who is in charge. The party who is in charge not only has to keep the kids safe, you have to keep them out of the other person’s home office. That is the nature of the job. That’s what you can do. If that’s not going to work for your family, maybe there’s another adult in a similar situation that you could likewise swap with, if it’s a neighbor or another family member that you’re willing to enter into the bubble together with. It’s challenging. Hopefully, people will come to a place where if they need to, they can also find some sort of paid childcare that they feel they can trust for at least a few hours a week because the honest truth is you will get more done in two hours of focused work while somebody else is dealing with the children than you will in four hours of going back and forth between work and dealing with your kids.

Zibby: Look how focused I am. I have a babysitter in the next room.

Laura: There you go. That’s what it’s got to be, honestly.

Zibby: Otherwise, they’re over my shoulders and popping in and whatever else. Although, sometimes I feel guilty. I’m home. Why do I need a babysitter?

Laura: You should get over that. I hear this from people. I think it’s just a change in mindset. When you’re working from home, you’re working. The operative part here is not at home. That just happens to be where you’re doing it. You achieved the efficiencies of not commuting to an office. Great. Go you. That doesn’t change the fact that you are working and the work still has to get done. If you were not available for intense in-person childcare when you were working at an office, that does not magically change just because you happen to be doing the same work at home.

Zibby: All right, okay. I felt a little guilt ebb, just a little.

Laura: You see your family a lot. A lot of this is predicated on feeling guilty that you are maybe not seeing your family. I always suggest people try tracking their time if they are feeling that way. There are 168 hours in a week. Even if you are working 40 hours a week, which is a full-time job, if you subtract 40 from 168, you’ll notice that there are a lot of hours still there. Even if you subtract your sleeping hours, you’ll notice there are still a lot of hours still there. You can subtract housework. You can subtract whatever else you want. There are still a lot of hours. Many people do spend the majority of those with the people they live with. That tends to get rid of some of the guilt.

Zibby: I feel like my kids are experts at using the time that I have designated for sleep.

Laura: They want to interact with you during that time. Yes, exactly.

Zibby: Wait, tell me more. We talked about this last time that I deleted. I was in awe of your extensive time tracking system and how long you’ve been doing it and how meticulous and detailed. Tell me more about it.

Laura: All your listeners are going to know that I’m a bit of time management freak. I have been tracking my time on weekly spreadsheets since April of 2015. My spreadsheets have the days of the week across the top, Monday through Sunday, half-hour blocks down the left-hand side, five AM to four thirty AM, so half-hour blocks for five and a half years at this point. I’m not going to bore everybody with a recounting of the five and a half years. The truth is, it’s not terribly exact. I tend to check in three to four times a day. For instance, when I sat down at my desk this morning, I noted what I had done since about six PM last night. I will check in probably after this, so maybe one thirty, two PM will be another check-in, another in the evening, and that’s it. Then it will be tomorrow morning again when I check in. Each check-in is thirty seconds to a minute. I just write down really quickly what I’ve done. It’s not this big ordeal. It takes about the same amount of time as brushing my teeth. I like to think that a lot of your listeners have also been brushing their teeth quite regularly since April of 2015.

Zibby: That would be nice.

Laura: Yes. It’s along that lines. It’s just more data that I’m getting from it.

Zibby: What have you done with that data?

Laura: More in the beginning than I do now. In the beginning, I was quite into the analysis of it. I wound up writing an article for The New York Times in 2016 on what I had learned from tracking my time for a year. It was useful because I found some interesting stuff. In my speeches, for years, I’ve had some laugh lines about people overestimating how many hours they work. I joke about a guy I met at a party who told me he was working 180 hours a week, which is very impressive when you multiple 24 times 7. Everyone laughs about this, ha, ha, ha. Then it turns out when I track my time — I used to think I worked like fifty hours a week because I had tracked my time here and there over the years. Then I realized in the past I had chosen very specific weeks to track, like those weeks where I worked fifty hours a week because that is what I wanted to see myself as doing. When I track a whole year, of course I can’t do that. It turns out the long-term average is a lot closer to forty, which is a different number than fifty, turns out. I saw that I was very consistent on sleep. I didn’t get the same amount week to week, but over the long haul I tended to get 7.4 hours per day. If I tracked for two months, it would come out to 7.4. If I tracked for six months, a track comes out to 7.4. If I track for two years, it comes out to 7.4. Good to know. These days, it’s serving more of a diary function. I haven’t really added up the major categories in quite a while. I do love that I can look back over a previous week, any previous week from the past five and a half years, and see what I was doing. When I look at those notes, I tend to be able to reconstruct it in my brain, and so that week is not completely gone. The memory is still there. That has the effect of making time feel a lot more rich and full.

Zibby: When you’re tracking it, how much detail are you putting into — if I were to, say, work today, would I then put “interview Laura Vanderkam”?

Laura: You could if you wanted to. Oftentimes, I just put work. That’s the basic email, writing an article, unless it’s something that I’m trying to track to see how much time I am devoting to. Sometimes I will put the names of people I am speaking to, like if I’m interviewing or somebody’s on my podcast or I’m on their podcast, just partly to have the names. It’s the memory. I will remember it more if I say talk with Zibby versus podcast or just work. Sometimes I’ll be a little bit more specific, but there’s no rules. It’s just for my benefit.

Zibby: I know, but if I were to try and maximize this, if I were to try to do this, I would want to go all in. If I’m going to spend a week tracking my time, I want to do it the right way.

Laura: The right way. Then you might want to be more specific. If you’re only going for a week, it’s a little bit easier to do that because you’re not worried about the sustainability so much.

Zibby: You’re trying to make time stand still, essentially. You’re trying to capture the most elusive thing on the planet which cannot be captured. What’s this about deep down, do you think?

Laura: Do you want to psychoanalyze this?

Zibby: Yeah, I do.

Laura: Time passes. Once a second is gone, all the money in the world cannot buy it back. Yet our interactions with time are very different depending on what we do with it. I have found that recording it makes these years that people say pass so quickly feel a little bit more like this rich tapestry as opposed to a slick linoleum floor which is just sliding away. I do have more memories of the past five and a half years than I would have had if I had not been recording it. I’ll still die anyway, but I do have this that I can look back on and recall.

Zibby: Do you take pictures?

Laura: I do, like everyone, just a cell phone. I’m taking like ten a day of my toast. It’s kind of the curse of modern life.

Zibby: I know. That’s how I feel like I fill in my memory.

Laura: It’s helpful too. Although, to some degree, photos are of particular moments. Then you can go long bits of time that are not particularly memorable, but there are things you could remember of them. I do both. Sometimes it’s fun to look back at photos as well. I think that’s something we could definitely spend more time doing too. Recently, my older kids and I were looking back through the whole iCloud thing from the past four years. It was amazing to see just how different even they looked in the past four years, let alone their younger siblings who were a baby and then one who didn’t exist. Seeing that change is pretty profound to note the passage of time too.

Zibby: I don’t know if you can see. I’m in my office in New York. Here, I’m going to just slide this. That bottom shelf is all photo albums. Each one has, I don’t know, a thousand.

Laura: Oh, my goodness. Good for you for doing that.

Zibby: This whole shelf is also all photos.

Laura: So many people don’t print them up anymore. That’s the issue.

Zibby: That was pre-digital. Then starting on that shelf are all my digital albums. I am obsessive about monthly recounting in photos. Maybe I have the same complex as you in a different way.

Laura: That probably has a good high-level view of your time as well. I’m sure if you looked back through it you would see plenty of things that showed daily life then if you’re being that good about tracking it.

Zibby: I’m trying, but I don’t know. So how did you manage to get a book out this quickly?

Laura: Well, you just write. I’ve written a lot of books, so it kind of flows pretty naturally. I’ve always been a swift writer. A lot of the material I was covering was stuff I’ve been writing about for years. I didn’t have to entirely reinvent the wheel here. I just wrote down some of the tips I had learned. Then I went and found people who had been working from home and running their own companies or had been working as part of distributed teams for a great many years. They had tips. I could incorporate those as well. It’s a short book. It’s a quick read. You probably could get through it in less than an hour and a half. It’s not War and Peace.

Zibby: We would have to track that, though. Now even reading the book is an hour. You’re all over my time tracking then this week. No, I’m kidding. Obviously, I read this a while ago. You have lots of kids yourself.

Laura: I do.

Zibby: Four kids? Did I make that up?

Laura: Five kids.

Zibby: Five kids, oh, my gosh. A baby is one of them, right? Didn’t you just have —

Laura: — Yes, one of them is a baby.

Zibby: That’s like four and a half.

Laura: Four and a half, sure.

Zibby: I’m kidding. Five kids, and you’re doing all this writing. How do you do it? Not to say, how do you balance it all? because it’s an annoying question. It sounds like you’re strict about, this is when I’m working and this is when I’m not. Then even in the not-working time, managing five different sets of needs is a lot.

Laura: Yeah, it’s challenging. Partly, babies are challenging too. This year, I’m doing it with a lot less energy because I’m not sleeping as well as I would certainly hope to be sleeping. That is what it is. Babies are tough. They’re worth it, but they’re tough. I try to get very clear each week on what needs to happen. I spend some time every Friday looking at the calendar for the upcoming week. I try to record anything that is time-specific or that’s coming up. I put it on the calendar so I know it’s going to happen. I spend some time on Friday looking at the upcoming weeks seeing what needs to happen to be on track for those things, looking at people’s schedules, the kids, the different priorities they’re going to have. I make myself a priority list for the next week with my top career things, my top relationship things, top personal things. The goal is to end every week with all of it crossed off, which means that I have to make it very limited. There is a strict winnowing that goes down through there. I look and say, is it possible for all this to happen in the week?

If I’m trying to bite off more than I can chew, then I need to crunch it down a little bit more so that I can cross it all off. It definitely has been more challenging the past few months, partly because when the kids have all been home, there’s just more potential for interruption. I haven’t had as much open time and space to be a little bit more flexible of when things happen. To record, I have to make sure everyone’s quiet and accounted for. That’s been challenging. The good news is the baby’s in childcare right now. The five-year-old, we put in a private school that was promising to meet in person and has been. Then the older three started school virtually, but they’ve been, past the first day, relatively self-sufficient. I did a lot of Zoom tech support the first few days. After that, they kind of go and disappear. I know roughly when they’ll come up for their breaks, but I can work around that. The past five weeks have been so much different than the five months before that. I feel sort of like, ahh.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Laura: I do, which is to write a lot. We can’t be too precious about writing. I find that each author who has a lot of good stuff coming up also just has a lot of stuff coming out. They discover cool ideas by trying different things and then seeing what resonates and then writing more about that or by forcing themselves to come up with hundreds of ideas of, say, blog posts per year. Out of those hundred, maybe one or two might be a good idea for a book, for instance. If you were only trying to come up with one or two ideas a year, the odds that those would be really good are minimal. Do a lot of it, as much as you possibly can. Your quality and your ideas and all that will become better through the sheer quantity of output.

Zibby: Love it, a perfectly quantitative awesome. I would expect none less. I feel like you did really well on the math part of the SAT.

Laura: Maybe.

Zibby: I’m kidding. And English. Look at you. You’re a writer too. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” You’re my only double.

Laura: I’m so thrilled. I’m honored. This is great.

Zibby: I learned new things this time. It was great. Take care. Thank you so much.

Laura: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. Buh-bye.