A fulfilling life starts with being mindful. That is, it starts with paying attention, opening our eyes, and being self-aware. It starts with knowing where the hours actually go. It starts with getting curious about our days and what they genuinely look like.
One way to do this is to track your time, which Laura Vanderkam has been doing for 3 years. Yes, 3 years. Vanderkam is a bestselling author, journalist and mom to four, ages 3 to 11. (I recently interviewed her about parenting and work here.) Her biggest insights about her own time logs—and those of others—are that we often work fewer hours than we think we do and we often have more time than we think to do the things we love.
This is a powerful point. Because so many of us tell ourselves stories. Stories that are untrue, and stories that keep us stuck and sad and unfulfilled. Stories that revolve around what we supposedly don’t have or can’t have. Stories about our supposed, inevitable, awful busyness. Stories that revolve around the many, many hours we’re working.
For instance, in one year, on average, Vanderkam worked 40 hours a week. Some weeks she worked 50 hours, and some weeks she worked 60 hours. But Vanderkam was telling herself the story that these 50- and 60-hour weeks were typical, or all the time. “I dismissed other weeks as atypical even though they were no more atypical than the long ones,” she writes in her newest illuminating, valuable book Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done.
You might be telling yourself similar stories. You might be convinced that you never have time for yourself, which turns out to be false. Because you do have pockets of time in the mornings, evenings and on weekends. And realizing and recognizing that helps you make the most of it: So you start creating and engaging in routines that nourish you, such as reading books that inspire you, taking an online photography class, and participating in physical activities you actually like (like yoga and dance). You start to feel empowered. You start to add activities and actions that fulfill you.
What stories are you telling yourself about your days? Are these stories sincerely true?
Another way is to carve out some time to self-reflect, to journal your responses to different probing questions. For instance, in Off the Clock, Vanderkam suggests reflecting on these four questions at the end of the day:
- “What did I like most about today?
- What would I like to have spent more time doing?
- What would I like to have spent less time doing?
- How can I make that happen?”
These additional questions also might help: What do I need right now? What does fulfillment look like to me? When I look back at the previous week, what do I wish I’d experienced? What do I wish I’d learned? Who do I wish I’d spent time with? What inspired me? What energizes me? What do I yearn to create that I wasn’t able to? How can I change that?
After reviewing her time log, Vanderkam realized that the bulk of her reading was gossip magazines—something she yearned to change. So she did. Instead of picking up a magazine, she picked up books on her bucket list, including lesser-known works from Hemingway and Wharton, and Willa Cather’s “prairie trilogy.”
“This took more effort than spending time on less challenging things, but realizing I had the freedom to read like a graduate student as the working mother of four children was absolutely liberating.”
When you realize that you have the power—and time—to question your stories, to create fulfilling days, you’ll likely feel liberated, too. And naturally that is a wonderful feeling.