As a coach, I enjoy keeping up to date with the latest thinking on productivity and time management. It’s a key part of the jigsaw when we’re looking to make change in our lives.

But most people, myself included, have times where we feel harassed, busy and pushed for time. We can end up wondering – what’s happened to my big life plans? How will I ever make progress when I have so much else on my plate?  How can I carve out time for myself and the things that matter to me?

Laura Vanderkam’s latest book “Off the Clock – Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done” (Piatkus, 2018) quotes a famous line from Mary Oliver’s poem ‘The Summer Day’:

‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?’

In answer to that question, the book focuses on some practical techniques that you can use to ‘stretch’ your time to make space for the activities and people that will make your life more purposeful, memorable and enjoyable.

Vanderkam’s key point is that, in order to expand the time available and increase our levels of life satisfaction, we need discipline and a mindset shift. She recommends that, day to day, we don’t fixate on our big outcome goals (‘I need to lose 10 kilos’ or ‘I need to change my career’) that can frustrate us because they seem so difficult and distant to achieve. Instead, we should focus on smaller process goals – the good habits we can develop and the small steps we can take that, when repeated regularly, will lead us to our desired outcomes over time.

Time management strategies

The book outlines 7 principles for a productive and enjoyable life; these are summarised in a neat appendix. My main ‘takeaways’ were more about the specific ‘time hacks’ that we can adopt in our own lives. Alongside input from scientific research, many of the strategies outlined have been gleaned interviews with people who are already successful and productive with their time.

I particularly appreciated the story about the busy CEO who does his focused, ‘thinking’ work in a coffee shop early in the morning – so that he has space in the rest of his day to talk to his staff and meet the inevitable challenges and interruptions with a calm mindset.

Ideas that make a practical difference

Off the Clock’ builds on the ideas in Vanderkam’s previous books on time management, including ‘168 hours’ and ‘What Successful People Do Before Breakfast’.

In truth, the content isn’t particularly new or ground-breaking and there are already some great books on personal effectiveness and productivity out there. What make this book valuable are the practical tips based on the routines and practices of people who already have worked out how to use their time to optimise personal happiness and career success. They clearly demonstrate that, when we make more conscious use of our time, we get more out of it!

Although I read a lot about productivity, I’ve still taken on board some of the ideas here to make changes to my own routines.  I tracked my time for a couple of days and then decided to get up 30 minutes earlier to work on some personal goals. Trying to do the big stuff early in the day, and early in the week,  has been remarkably effective in making me feel as if I’ve got more time.

After reviewing my commitments, I’ve also cleared a few out of my calendar so I now have more ‘white space’. The result? I’m definitely feeling less pressurised, day to day.  I also loved Vanderkam’s concept of ‘Better Than Nothing’ (BTN) Goals. Sometimes, we have to be OK with just doing what we can do, confident in the knowledge that every small step is gradually taking us forwards. Like the story of the artist in the book, being gentler with yourself can sometimes actually make you more productive!

Probably the most enjoyable tip I’ve taken is to start planning regular ‘mini adventures’ – doing something new in my city, taking a family member or a friend along with me. Having a fun activity to look forward to, and to look back on afterwards, definitely makes me feel like I’m doing more with my time.

‘Off the Clock’  certainly provokes you to reflect on what you’re doing with your life…and specifically with your finite supply of time. It doesn’t dwell particularly on big picture thinking, but it’s a short read with plenty of practical, actionable steps. So, if you want to feel calmer, more productive and happier in your life, it’s worth reading and trying out a few things for yourself.

 Other great reads on personal effectiveness and productivity

Out of the sea of books on the subject, I have a couple of enduring favourites to recommend:

  • ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ by Stephen R. Covey
  • ‘Busy’ by Tony Crabbe
  • ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport
  • ‘168 hours: You Have More Time Than You Think’ by Laura Vanderkam