Often, Laura Vanderkam will reply to an email after what feels like an “uncomfortably long time.” In return, she’ll receive a message saying, “Thank you for the swift response!”
Vanderkam describes this recurring experience in her new book, “Off the Clock,” to illustrate how most people don’t notice all the ways you’re supposedly disappointing them. (For the record, I’ve emailed Vanderkam multiple times, and she typically replies the same day.)
The lesson here is that most of your must-do activities aren’t actually must-dos. You can give yourself a lot more leeway with them — sometimes you can even eliminate them — and you and the rest of the world will be fine.
Vanderkam calls this challenging your “stories” about how you should spend your time.
One example: “No one here takes a lunch break, so I can’t.” This is the kind of story that, as Vanderkam puts it, “falls apart under cross-examination. Unless you are physically chained to your desk, you can probably walk outside for some fresh air.”
Will your boss fire you, demote you, or even reprimand you for being gone for 20 minutes? I don’t know your boss, but I’m guessing not.
Similarly, Vanderkam purposes that putting away family members’ laundered clothes neatly in their drawers isn’t something you absolutely need to do. Can your kids put away their own laundry? What would happen if the laundry never got put away neatly? Would your kids be scarred for life? I don’t know your kids, but I’m guessing not.
In other words, Vanderkam is holding you at least partly accountable for feeling busy and overwhelmed. If we establish that the world won’t explode if you take a lunch break and/or stop folding the laundry, then it’s really just the fear of sitting with your own discomfort that’s holding you back.
Even at work, you can probably cut some of your less rewarding tasks from your schedule
Vanderkam’s observations reminded me of advice shared by the Stanford professors who wrote the book “Designing Your Life.” One of those professors, Dave Evans, previously told me about a woman who kept a log of all the work activities that gave her energy and drained it.
When the woman shared the log with a colleague, the colleague asked her why she didn’t simply stop doing the draining tasks. So she did. Apparently, none of her other coworkers noticed that she’d cut out half her previous responsibilities, and she was much happier.
To be sure, it’s not always so easy to eliminate tasks you don’t like, particularly at work. But there’s a chance that if you simply identify the tasks that aren’t working for you, you will, in fact, be able to limit the time you spend on them.
Vanderkam writes: “Everyone lives in his or her own little world,” thinking their deficits occupy more space than they do in everyone else’s minds. If you can shake off these delusions, you might find yourself happier and freer to do the stuff that really matters to you.