Publishing Date: October 11, 2022
In our culture, presenting a public face of overwhelmed busyness is a status symbol. We greet each other with exchanges like “how are you?” “I’m so busy!” or a recitation of the long to-do list that is stressing us out. For many of us, the overwhelm is more than a facade, and to juggle our busy lives, we turn to tips and tricks to try to calm the frenetic pace. Websites like Lifehacker offer us more efficient ways to do things, while celebrities like Oprah suggest there are ways to “get 7 more hours in your day.”1 The hacks never pay off though, because our shortcuts don’t address the fundamental problem that got us into trouble in the first place: we’re trying to do too much of the wrong things. While it might then be tempting to solve the problem by swinging the other way and dropping all activities, that path comes with its own challenges, as we learned during the 2020 COVID lockdowns. For most of us, a rich life serving God and others requires being in community, which in turn requires us to do things (but maybe not all the things) which may make us busy. The more important questions are what things will we do and why will we do them.
If we’re serious about trying to address the root of the feeling of crazy in our lives, we need healthy habits that help us focus our time on what’s important. This is the goal of Laura Vanderkam’s newest book, Tranquility by Tuesday. A career author and student of time management, she and her husband both work full time and have five children, so she is aware of the time pinch often felt by people “deep into the busy years of building careers and raising families as well.”2 The title itself speaks to this, as Tranquility by Tuesday comes from the idea that Tuesday is a “typical” day for most people, so if you can achieve some feeling of calm amidst the chaos of the average Tuesday, that can lead to a richer life. As she says, “you do not need to wait for some less-hectic future time to become the person you want to be. With a different perspective, and a focus on doing what you can, you can be that person now.”3
“…you do not need to wait for some less-hectic future time to become the person you want to be.”Laura Vanderkam
Vanderkam does not promise ways to make the chaos go away. She doesn’t tell you to do less stuff, or to wake up at 4am to exercise. Instead, Tranquility by Tuesday provides a framework of nine practical “rules” to help you do more of the things that are most important to you, with the understanding that when you know what is important to you some of the other stuff will probably fall away. The first three of these rules are foundational: (1) Give yourself a bedtime, (2) Plan on Fridays, and (3) Move by 3pm. The next four are habits to help you get more of the right stuff done: (4) Three times a week is a habit, (5) Create a back-up slot, (6) One big adventure, one little adventure, and (7) Take one night for you. The last two rules are intended to help you waste less time: (8) Batch the little things, and (9) Effortful before effortless.
The rules emerged from Vanderkam’s years of studying people’s time, and while Vanderkam certainly finds the nine rules personally helpful, she is concerned that they fit more than her personal anecdotal experience. In preparation for writing the book, she piloted the rules with a group of 150 people, focusing on one rule per week. Each chapter begins by explaining a rule, then moves into participant perspectives (and objections), before concluding with results and anecdotes from participants. Finally, a follow up section provides a set of planning and implementation questions, along with a suggestion for a “next step.”
Vanderkam is realistic about the challenges facing people as they implement these rules. For example, with Give yourself a bedtime she noted, “the most poignant problem (with going to bed), though, had nothing to do with work or housework, or family members; rather it had to do with their absence…As one respondent put it ‘That’s the only truly free time I have.’ Who wants to cut that short?”4 Similarly, her avocation for back-up slots comes directly from her observations of people’s schedules and goals which lead to the realization “that we need a lot more rain dates in life…Anyone can make a perfect schedule. True time-management masters make resilient schedules. They harbor no illusions that life will be easy, and so they shape their hours to foster progress even when things don’t go as planned.”5
These small mindful changes can make a big difference. Participants in the 150 person pilot group filled out questionnaires and time diaries as part of the Tranquility by Tuesday study and they generally reported higher satisfaction scores on related items following each week’s implementation. They also reported 15% higher satisfaction (relative to initial scores) when Vanderkam followed up with them six months after the 9 week program concluded. One participant spoke of “changing the story that I tell myself. I do have time for the things that are important to me and time for fun too.”6 Another said “I don’t feel like I’m failing when I don’t make daily progress. Weekly progress matters!”7 Vanderkam herself observes in the conclusion “these habits take effort to build into our lives. But once they become part of the background narrative, they can calm the chaos and help us make time for what matters – even as life’s circus continues. It is folly to hope the circus will slow down anytime soon. These habits can help us enjoy life as it is now.”8 After all, “We don’t ask “where did the time go?” when we remember where the time went,”9 so wouldn’t it be better “to make the memories and let email and chores fill in around them?”10
“…small mindful changes can make a big difference.”
One of the things I appreciate about this book compared to other books about time management or productivity is that it’s not a bunch of hacks that promise success, nor is it an extensive system that requires a major investment to set up. You can implement a single one of the practical rules in Tranquility by Tuesday in a small way this week and start to see a difference. For me, “Move by 3pm” inspired me to start doing a light weights routine in my office during the first half of my lunch hour. “Three times a week is a habit” helped me set a realistic benchmark for incorporating kids’ violin practice into our family life this spring. “One Big Adventure, One Little Adventure” has inspired me to do things I might normally say no to, like taking my elementary kids to my college student’s finals-week tie-dye party. And “Give yourself a bedtime” made me notice that my bedtime slides backwards 5-10 minutes per night as the week moves from Monday to Friday.
At my most overwhelmed, I feel like my life is juggling a set of plates that are about to spin out of control. In those moments I usually feel like I am keeping the plates going through sheer willpower. The principles in Tranquility by Tuesday provide structure that can help us calm the chaos and live more fully in community with others.