Reclaim your weekends... this guru tells you how to ensure you don't waste your weekend
Drowning under an endless to-do list? That's how Lucy Dunn felt before she met with productivity guru Laura Vanderkam
I bump into an old friend and ask her how she is. "Busy, really busy. Manic." She sighs dramatically and looks stressed, "You?"
Her eyes flick to her phone. I could be wrong but I swear she's got the Tesco app open.
"Oh yes, busy too," I echo. "Everything's frantic…"
I trail off, trying to think of something interesting to tell her. It's been months since I last saw her, yet what have I done? Yes, I've worked, dealt with the usual household drudge, but what have I actually achieved?
Honest answer: not much. I'm too busy to be interesting. Weeks are filled to breaking point. As a fully paid-up member of the antisocial brigade, I live for a weekend with nothing on the calendar, but then I mope listlessly through Saturday and Sunday, reach Monday morning and get cross with myself for frittering away precious free time.
I also have a terrible habit of comparing other people's schedules to my own. Take my friend. Here I am, sympathising with her busyness, yet the voice in my head is screeching: "What has she got to complain about? She only works three days a week!"
Panic rises, distorting reason, not helped by the realisation that it's now September, which means work, school, kids - life in general - it's all about to ramp up to warp speed. Also, I don't wish to alarm anyone, but it's only 15 weeks until Christmas…
"Busyness as a notion can be contagious," is writer Laura Vanderkam's first pearl of wisdom in our chat about her new book, Off The Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. "When people tell us how busy they are, we feel like we need to be busy too."
And when we talk about being busy so much, we start to believe it. We fall so far into the busyness trap that when we do have free time, we default to spending it in mindless ways, like on social media or watching TV.
Laura specialises in 'time makeovers'. For her to assess my time management, she's asked me to log a few days on a sheet to see where my hours actually go.
Just a few hours into filling the form, I can see how my weekdays are a stop-start of meetings, phone-checking and more meetings. A feature I'm trying to write gets picked up, put down and picked up again. I have few uninterrupted blocks of time and, as a consequence, feel anxious and constantly on the back foot.
Laura looks at my timesheet. "While we automatically all assume we're starved of time, we should instead be thinking about how to spend it in a more meaningful way," she says. "In my research, I found lots of busy people who were relaxed despite insane demands on their schedules. Their secret is that they are mindful of their time."
These non-busy busy people don't have an army of PAs - they're just good at filtering the necessary from the unnecessary. "Time discipline leads to time freedom," says Laura. "People often fill up time with things they think are worthwhile just because it makes them feel useful and productive." I look down at the sea of meetings I've recorded. Guilty as charged.
"There is also a temptation to 'out-busy' other people," she continues. "This is self-validation, a way of saying - to ourselves and others - how important we are."
Another flicker of guilt: who am I to judge that my busyness is more important than my three-days-a-week friend's?
Of course, there are things we can't wriggle out of - commitments are commitments - but it pays to prune. "If an upcoming week is blank and we are free, we tend to say yes to things. But that's not necessarily the right rubric. Time doesn't have to be filled."
Laura points out the other big rabbit hole we fall into: social media. Most of us have more leisure time than we realise, but we don't view it as free time.
"People tell me they have no time - on Twitter," she laughs. "We think we're working longer than ever but it's because we have phones. Those who try to be more conscious of their time count how many times a day they unlock their screen. It's usually an astounding number."
It doesn't take much to make life feel good and doable. You just need to take control
We discuss the fact we're living in an age surrounded by distractions. "We choose to fill our time because it can feel mildly unpleasant to be bored. Boredom isn't a bad thing, but a lot of people don't like it."
I'm keen to know if those people who are good at being busy are good at managing their personal life too. Laura nods: "This is where many people go wrong. Most of us are good at planning our workday and knowing what tasks we need to accomplish, but we don't treat our free time in the same way."
It is easy to waste our weekends and, as a result, feel like we're always working. "If we don't plan weekends, we default to chores and errands, which are not very fun or rejuvenating. And we need to feel rejuvenated to hit Monday with enough energy to get through the rest of the week."
Laura's also a big believer in spending time with friends and family. "People make memories, and memories punctuate time and slow it down. They stop you feeling like all the days are blurring into one.
"The busy people I met also made sure they did something out of the ordinary once in a while," she continues. "These don't have to be big adventures - something like learning salsa dancing. They stop life feeling like it's just one big hamster wheel.
"Time is a choice. Nobody gets to do what they want to every moment of the day, but it doesn't take much to make life feel good and doable. You just need to take control."
As I start a new week, Laura's words echo in my head, with a positive effect. I feel calmer, my head spins less. It is just as hectic a week as any other, but it feels more worthwhile. In turn, I feel more worthwhile: busy but not boring, and in charge of my time. In my book, that's mission accomplished.
Off The Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done by Laura Vanderkam (£13.99, Piatkus) is out now.