How Charting My Time for 2 Weeks Transformed My Life from Stressful to Happy

I applied Laura Vanderkam’s theories to my own life, and here’s what I discovered.
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I applied Laura Vanderkam’s theories to my own life, and here’s what I discovered.

Busy. Stressed. Overwhelmed. It seemed like I was working all the time, and there wasn’t time for anything else. I was going crazy. Something had to change.

When I read Laura Vanderkam’s first article for Verily, I realized what that “something” was: a change of perspective.

The article was an excerpt of Vanderkam’s latest book, I Know How She Does It—a book about high-earning mothers managing to have full, balanced lives. I’m not in the high-earning category (I’m a high school teacher), and I’m not a mother yet. But the article spoke to me. Regardless of salary or family size, we could all use more balance. One part in particular stood out: “There are 168 hours in a week. If you work fifty and sleep eight per night (fifty-six hours per week in total), that leaves sixty-two hours for other things.”

I had never thought of it that way. It was so simple, yet—wow. I had to learn more, so I picked up the book. In I Know How She Does It, Vanderkam shares her findings from charts that women kept to document how they spent their time. Each chart is divided into thirty-minute blocks, and each block is a “tile” on what she calls a “mosaic” of time. The mosaic gives a picture of how we spend our time and what matters.

The charts tell a different story than the one we typically hear. Despite all the press to suggest otherwise, having a balanced life is not impossible. There is chaos. But there is also beauty.

Inspired by the book, I decided to chart my time. Through crafting my mosaic for two weeks, I learned some valuable lessons, and I gained a fresh perspective.

I Learned to Think About Value

Vanderkam shares a profound phrase she found at a berry farm: “Remember, the berry season is short.” It stuck with me. Life is short. It’s up to me how I fill it.

One evening, I was sitting on the couch with my husband. We weren’t watching anything, reading anything, or talking about anything. We were just being together. My mind drifted, and I wondered, “How will things like this look on my chart? Is this a good use of time?”

I could have been working, cleaning, or accomplishing something. But I came to an important conclusion: Time spent sitting with my husband, doing nothing in particular, is not time wasted. It is valuable—especially because his top love languages are quality time and physical touch.

Later, we both got out our phones. I scrolled through social media, not even paying attention to what I was looking at. We were in the same room, but there was zero bonding. This was not a valuable use of time.

As I sat down to fill out my chart each day, I started thinking of my actions in terms of value. “Putzed around on the Internet” didn’t add anything to my day. But “read good articles” did. “Cleaned out my inbox” didn’t really do much, whereas cleaning up my desk area helped me be more productive later.

I Changed My Habits

It’s no surprise that charting my time helped me break some bad habits—and develop some good ones. It kept me accountable. This is in part because when I started charting my time, it became easier to stick to my goal of writing every day. The act of putting “writing” on the chart felt like a victory. I had done something good for myself.

My morning and evening routines also improved. After a few days, I realized how often I hit the snooze button. Instead of trying to force an earlier wake-up call, I started setting my alarm for a little later. At night, putting “reading” on the chart before bedtime felt a lot better than “looked at Twitter.”

I also found ways to use extra time—those few free minutes before I head out the door, for example. If I’m at home, I can squeeze the tidying up into ten minutes rather than letting it stretch into twenty minutes later. And when I went out, I bought a bigger purse—one that I could fit a book or journal in so that I could do those things in my downtime throughout the day.

I still have habits that need changing. For instance, I spend way too much time looking at my phone, especially when I’m tired or stressed. But I’m more aware of it now, and I’m making improvements. Changing my time habits, little by little, has made a big difference in my motivation and mood.

I Started Focusing More

At first, I worried that I would feel constrained by looking at my life in thirty-minute blocks. But I’ve found it to be liberating. There is freedom in knowing that if there’s a task I don’t enjoy, I only have to endure it for ten more minutes.

When grading homework on weekends, I used to get distracted really easily. I changed my Pandora station, read emails, and played Words with Friends. The grading took twice as long as it should have.

Having a thirty-minute time slot helped me stick to the task at hand. I challenged myself to see how much I could get done in thirty minutes. If I reached a goal, I could move ahead or reward myself with a break until the next thirty-minute block started.

I’ve not only started focusing more on individual tasks but on categories as well. Work is work, and leisure is leisure. In order to have a complete mosaic, I need both of those, along with self-care. Seeing my time as tiles has helped me get out of the constant work mindset and enjoy my personal time.

I Narrowed My Hobbies

There are a lot of hobbies I’d like to pursue: writing, reading, scrapbooking, baking, embroidery, knitting, learning to crochet, doing puzzles, playing the guitar and ukulele . . . the list goes on. There’s so much that it feels overwhelming. And instead of enjoying the ones I am doing, I feel guilty about the ones I’m neglecting.

Even though I’ve made leisure time more of a priority, there are still only so many leisure tiles in a week. When it’s time for that beautiful space, I’ve started playing a game of “Would you rather?” with myself. Would I rather write or attempt to teach myself to crochet? Would I rather read or knit?

Within a few days of time charting, it became clear what the winning hobbies were. And I realized that I’d rather spend a lot of time on a few things than a little time on all of them.

The narrowing of hobbies also has a side benefit. I’m reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and getting ready to start the KonMari method of tidying my home. The act of charting has helped me see more clearly which activities give me the “thrill of joy.” Sorry, crochet hooks—it’s time for you to go.

I Loosened My Expectations

One of my favorite quotes from Vanderkam’s book is, “There are no typical weeks.” There’s a great sense of freedom and peace that comes with this fact.

Before I started charting, I caught myself falling into the trap of seeking normalcy. My internal dialogue went something like this: “Maybe this won’t be a good week to start. Work is going to be CRAZY. Maybe next week—but that’s the week I’m chaperoning a weekend trip. The week after—no, that’s a strange week, too.

I soon realized that every week had a quirk. I was longing for something that didn’t exist.

I shared this with a friend, and she said maybe one of the reasons we get so frustrated is that we have false expectations of how our weeks will go. We set ourselves up for disappointment, thinking, “After this, things will be normal.” While it’s true that some seasons are busier than others, there is always going to be something a little out of the ordinary.

Instead of waiting for the “crazy” weeks to be over, I’ve learned to accept them. I’ve also tried to make the most of them. Looking back over the past few weeks, there have been some long work days. But there have also been great nights of sleep, dates with my husband, and much-enjoyed episodes of Downton Abbey.

Looking at the big picture, I can see how all those little time tiles fit together. The mosaic isn’t perfect, but it’s mine. And it reminds me that life is beautiful.

Photo Credit: Olivia Leigh Photography