Take Control of Your Time

Harvard Business Review

An interview with Elizabeth Grace Saunders, founder and CEO of Real Life E and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment.


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SARAH GREEN: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I'm Sarah Green. I'm talking today with Elizabeth Grace Saunders, founder and CEO of time coaching company Real Life E, and author of The Three Secrets to Effective Time Investment, How to Achieve More Success with Less Stress. Elizabeth, thanks so much for talking with us today.

ELIZABETH GRACE SAUNDERS: My pleasure.

SARAH GREEN: So as you point out in the book, time is not a renewable resource. And yet, I think all of us seem to think we can get more done than we actually can. How can we start to set expectations that are more realistic and achievable? What's sort of the first step in controlling the chaos?

ELIZABETH GRACE SAUNDERS: Absolutely. Well, I would say the very first step is to recognize that reality always wins. So no matter how many times we went to hope that we have more than 24 hours in a day or seven days in a week, the truth is time is the ultimate democracy. So rich or poor, young or old, male or female, we've got the same amount. And the first step to managing that better and having realistic expectations is to embrace the truth and work within our capacity instead of trying to work against reality.

SARAH GREEN: Now, as you point out also in the book, staying late at work and trying to sort of create more hours in the day can be very seductive. And it's easy to think that you're going to get so much done. But that does come at a cost. So how do you know if you are, in fact, burning the midnight oil sometimes might be OK, and how do you know if it's actually becoming a problem for you?

ELIZABETH GRACE SAUNDERS: I think one of the key things to keep in mind is that there's a reason why many people only work 40 hours a week, so 40 to 50 hours. And the reason is that we have a capacity of productivity. Our brains and our bodies are meant to work at a certain level for a certain amount of time and be successful and be productive.

And past that time, we're just not effective. So that's an important first step to keep in mind. Secondly, I think a very key red flag that you can notice is that if you have insufficient funds to do other things, you're probably working too much.

So for instance, if you can never find time to exercise, or you're getting in fights with your significant other because they want to see you more. Or you just never have a chance get enough sleep, those are signs that you're over-allocating time to your work. And you need to step back and make more time for the other parts of your life.

SARAH GREEN: Well, and that points to actually a question I wanted to ask you specifically. I wanted to hone in on a couple things I think all modern office workers struggle with. And one of those is definitely making time for exercise. Because there's been so much published about how sitting all day is really bad for you, and exercise is not just important for your health, but it's important for your productivity and your level of focus throughout the day.

But still, I don't know anyone who says, oh, I just got too much exercise last week. So how can you really take some time back from working, and actually get yourself to the gym?

ELIZABETH GRACE SAUNDERS: Great question. You know what happens is that it's about 11:30 and it's about time to leave for an exercise class or to go to the gym and just work out or go on a walk. And what's facing us is this pile of work and this mountain of email. And we think, oh, it's not really that important. I can do it later.

And so the very first thing you need to address are the emotional and mental parts. And what I find with exercise-- I was actually speaking with a coaching client about this yesterday-- is that in terms of the mental attitude, you need to start seeing it as a regular investment you need to make on a daily basis. Kind of like non-optional, just like sleep is not really optional. And so when you stop thinking of it as a nice thing to do and start thinking of it as an essential thing, that shifts you.

And once you have that change in your mental pattern, then you can change your emotional state, which is to say that you can take that time to exercise even when you have work to do without feeling guilty. Because you've validated that no, this is a legitimate need for self-care. And it's not optional. And so then emotionally, I can say, yes. I'm going to spend less time on answering email right now so I can take care of myself in the long term.

So that's kind of the emotional and mental part. For a practical point of view, there's a couple of things to keep in mind. One is you want to put yourself first. So if you struggle with exercise, I highly recommend that you do it as early as you can in the day. For some people, that may be before work, others lunch, others right after work. But in my experience, if you say, oh, I'll do that tonight, it's the thing that doesn't happen before you fall into bed.

Secondly, you want to have routines in place. So I'm a huge advocate of strengthening simple routines. Because on a day to day basis, we're stressed, we're overwhelmed. We can't think about, what's our priority, or what's the best thing to do? I need to have a routine in place.

Like every morning I get up at 6:00 and I go to the gym. Or every lunch I get together with my coworker and go on a walk. And when you make it as frictionless as possible to invest your time in what you want to do, you're much more likely to do it.

SARAH GREEN: So that raises an interesting point. Because I think it was after reading one of your HBR blog posts, I did try to do a sort of calendar makeover of my own. I set up a series of appointments with myself in my Outlook calendar-- time for editing, time for planning IdeaCasts, time for dealing with email. And I felt really proud of myself. And I actually even had time to go to the gym on there, too.

ELIZABETH GRACE SAUNDERS: Woo hoo!

SARAH GREEN: But here's the problem, is that I almost completely ignore those meetings with myself. If I'm running late on something, immediately the meeting with myself to go to the gym totally falls by the wayside. If I have to schedule another meeting at the time I was supposed to catch up on my email, I throw that out the window. So how do you really implement some of these techniques that sound so helpful, and then when the rubber meets the road, immediately they all fall apart?

ELIZABETH GRACE SAUNDERS: Well, two things that I'll share with you to help with that. And first of all, I'm very proud of you. You should be proud of yourself, that you scheduled it out. So go you. And then in terms of the implementation, that's the kicker. And that's why I'm a time coach. Because I know that it goes beyond knowing what you should do and when to the actual implementation.

And it takes time. So first off, I never expect someone to get this in a week or even a month. It's usually about a two to three month process of switching your habits. But two quick tips to address what you just spoke about. One is I think it's really important to recognize, at least from my perspective as a time coach, that we need to see planning more as a canoe tramp than as a train schedule.

And I'll explain what I mean by that. So sometimes, people can get really discouraged when, like you, they put together their perfect schedule. And they expect that then they'll be able to go through their day as if it was a train schedule, where at 2:55, arrives at this stop, and then the next stop is at 3:20, you know?

SARAH GREEN: Exactly.

ELIZABETH GRACE SAUNDERS: And the only problem is life happens. And there's different detours, or people finding things. And so it's really important to recognize in your schedule that it's like a canoe trip. So here's how you can think of your weekly schedule like a canoe trip, and be a lot less stressed.

There are certain parts of your trip throughout your week that actually do need to be fairly precise. So for instance, you need to make it to your campsite by nightfall. And by the end of the week, you need to be at the place where they'll pick you up so that you can get back home. However, throughout the day, exactly where you stop for lunch or how fast you canoe is actually not that important.

So in the same way, when you're looking at your schedule, there's going to be some definite times you need to make. So let's say you have a presentation that's on Wednesday at 2:00 you need to be prepared for. Or by Friday at 5:00, you need to turn in an article. Those are like your hard stops.

But if you treat the weekly planning like a canoe trip, what you would do is you would say, OK. By Wednesday this presentation needs to be ready. I'm going to front load my days and front load my weeks to reduce stress and deal with reality. So what that means is that Monday afternoon, I'll schedule in some time to work on the presentation for Wednesday.

If something comes up, that can still flow over onto Tuesday morning, and I'll be fine. I'll have it done a day in advance. What that then allows you to do is it allows you to keep your commitments to yourself. Because even if you still didn't finish your presentation by 6:00 on Monday, you could still stop and go exercise. Because you knew that Tuesday morning, you still have time to get things done.

And so I think that that approach towards scheduling allows people to still be intentional. Like, planning is about thinking through what's important and reducing stress by being proactive. It's not about everything being perfect. And when you have that level of control and insight about what's going on, then you have the freedom to stop and take time for the things that are important to you, like exercise, without stressing out.

SARAH GREEN: OK. Now, so far, you've been very good at answering all these questions. But I'm convinced that the next one is going to stump you, and you're going to say there's no answer. This is about vacation. Now, I read something in the paper the other day, said something like 50% of Americans actually expect to work on their vacations. And that we leave an average of almost a week's worth of our vacation days unused every single year.

I think we've all said sometimes when we're about to go on vacation, this isn't worth it. It's too stressful to even try to get ready to leave. And when I come back, I'm going to have a pile of stuff that came in while I was out. Is there a way that you can see to sort of break through that and actually take a week or two weeks off? And plan for it in a way that doesn't drive you crazy before you leave, and doesn't give you a feeling like you want to run away when you come back.

ELIZABETH GRACE SAUNDERS: Absolutely, absolutely. And I'm afraid you haven't stumped me. I've seen it all, believe me. I've worked with clients on six continents. So there's nothing I haven't seen. But two things. One is, I know in my book I actually talked about some companies that really structure good vacation time into their corporate culture.

And I just wanted to highlight Adobe in particular. And I know there's other companies such as car manufacturers that do this, where they have shut down for employees. And I think that's actually one of the best ways that you can encourage people to take time off. Because if everyone is out of the office between Christmas and New Years, or the week of July 4, there's no pressure.

It's not like, oh, well, you took this week off, or next week off, so you're completely behind. But everyone took the time off. And I think that that's actually one of the best ways as a company that businesses can support a healthy corporate culture in taking vacation. But if that's not possible for whatever reason, what I really recommend for people in this situation is what I call buffering.

So if you are taking two or three weeks off on vacation, I know this sounds crazy, but seriously, the entire week before your vacation, you should block off to wrap things up. Try not to schedule anything new. Don't plan on getting any new work done. Don't look at scheduling meetings or, oh, we'll just do a lot of meetings right before. You block that off to wrap up.

And what's going to happen is that oh, yeah, that time will be completely filled. All those last meetings that someone told you like the Friday before just have to get done in those five days before you go on vacation. But what you're doing is you're creating that overflow time. So if the week before, or at least two or three days before, you are literally planning on getting no new work done, but just answering all those emails, letting people know. If you do end up having a few meetings that get scheduled during that time, you'll be able to handle it.

And it won't be like the first week of your vacation, you're trying to take conference calls and hoping your mobile phone will work from wherever you are. And the same thing is true when you get back from vacation. I've really had to emphasize this with clients. You should block off at least one day, if not two or three, to simply catch up.

And basically, what you want to do is you want to get everything down to ground zero. So those first two or three days, you're in the office or wherever you work, and you are not having meetings. You are answering all your email. You are answering all your voice mail. You're doing your project planning. Reading whatever you need to read. And basically, getting yourself calibrated back to the 0.

So then if you take those days, you're coming from a place of strength, and you're able to then maintain. So really, it is possible. It's just you need to buffer on either side with the expectation that there will be an overflow that's going to happen. And instead of trying to perfectly plan, just plan for that overflow at the beginning. And then when you get back, give yourself time for recovery so then you can just be on a maintain level within a few days.

SARAH GREEN: So my question now to you is if you want to use some of these strategies you talk about in the book, does that mean you have to become a kind of super planner? And that you never can do anything spontaneous anymore?

ELIZABETH GRACE SAUNDERS: Not at all. I actually think planning allows you to be more spontaneous. So let me explain. Because I know that sometimes spontaneous people, especially if they are to the point of crying over there, overwhelmed, can chafe against what I'm saying. They're like, well, I'm spontaneous. Why are you trying to get me to plan, anyway? This is who I am.

And here's the deal. There is nothing wrong with being spontaneous. That is a great quality. And people who are spontaneous bring a lot to the table that sometimes planners don't. Natural planners can have trouble with change. It can be a little hard for them to shift gears, to respond well to things. And spontaneous people are great at this.

So we need the spontaneous of the world. But the thing is that, again, planning is about intention and about making sure that you're aligned with your highest priorities, and you're setting realistic expectations. So if you're a spontaneous person, having some routine and some planning frees you to be spontaneous.

Like for instance, I worked with a client who was a developer. So he did this computer work. And when we first started working together, he had no structure. And even though he was only supposed to be working 30 hours a week on this contract, he ended up feeling like he was working 60 hours a week. And never quite sure when he was working or not working, and he loved to surf, and wasn't having time to surf.

And he just felt totally frustrated. And by his nature, he was definitely more of a spontaneous person. But what he found through working with me is that when he basically established a container for his work, like this is when I start working and this is when I stop working, Monday through Friday, it freed him to be super focused while he was working, get his work done effectively. And then do whatever he wanted in the evenings or on the weekends. So he would surf or take photographs or do whatever it is he wanted to do.

SARAH GREEN: Elizabeth, this has been really helpful and interesting. Thank you so much for talking with us, and giving us some of these great tips today.

ELIZABETH GRACE SAUNDERS: My pleasure.

SARAH GREEN: That was Elizabeth Grace Saunders. The book is The Three Secrets to Effective Time Investment. For more, visit HBR.org.

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