Episode 86 – Interview with Laura Vanderkam, Bestselling Author of “What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast”


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EPISODE 86 — Interview with Laura Vanderkam, Bestselling Author of “What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast”


Hi, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 86. I’m speaking with Laura Vanderkam. Let’s dive in!



I. [-35:45] For anyone who hasn’t signed up for the Fireball Training, it’s available right now: Ten videos, over 15 hours of high-end visual effects training! You can get that at allanmckay.com/fireball. We go through:

– digital pyrotechnics;

– dynamics;

– disintegration effects;

– shader;

– lighting;

– rendering;

– compositing.


We cover:

– After Effects;

– Digital Fusion;

– Nuke;

– FumeFX;

– Thinking Particles;

– 3Ds Max.

It is only available until July 14th! If you want to check it out, go to allanmckay.com/fireball


[-[35:10] I’m also launching my FXTD Mentorship. This is the first time, I’ve opened the door for registration in 1.5 years. It’s your only chance to get in, for the next year. In the Mentorship, you will find over 750 hours of training, as well as being personally mentored by me throughout the year, along with a community of other artists.

I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished in this Mentorship. I’m friends and family with everyone in there. I’m excited to be opening it again! We’re kicking it off in mid-July.

If you want to find out about that, go to: allanmckay.com/inside. That will get you on the email list. 

I will also be mentioning it through the Fireball Training: allanmckay.com/fireball


In this Podcast, Allan McKay interviews Laura Vanderkam, the bestselling author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, I Know How She Does It, 168 Hours and several others. A graduate of Princeton University, she worked as a journalist before becoming interested in the subject of productivity. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune and many other publications.

Allan and Laura discuss the subjects of time management, productivity, working from home; and tools for making your lifestyle more fulfilling — and your work more efficient.

Laura Vanderkam’s Website: www.lauravanderkam.com

Laura Vanderkam on Twitter: @lvanderkam

Laura Vanderkam’s TED Talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/laura_vanderkam_how_to_gain_control_of_your_free_time

Laura Vanderkam on Fast Company: https://www.fastcompany.com/user/laura-vanderkam


[-[34:17] Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast and 168 Hours.  Her work appeared in publications like Fast Company, Fortune, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal.

I thought it would be really cool to talk with Laura. I’ve had so many people reach out to me, including this past week, with the number one issue being time management. I’ve put out so many Episodes related to this before (allanmckay.com/9/), as well as written about it: https://magazine.artstation.com/2015/03/10-killer-time-management-tips-artists/. I want to do a mini course on this later this year. I feel that if you aren’t managing your time well enough, then everything else you’re doing is not going to be as effective. The minute you get the productivity running, you start checking thing off the list. Until then, the more we waste our time, the more ineffective we’re going to be.

[-[31:39] Allan: Thank you for doing this! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Laura: Sure! I’m Laura Vanderkam. I’m the author of several time management and productivity books, including:

– I Know How She Does It;

– What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast;

– 168 Hours.

[-[31:19] Allan: Do you want to give a bit of an insight into your background? You obviously have a big background in time management. I’d love to know how you got on that path; if there are any nightmare stories about obsessing [about time].

Laura: Unfortunately, it would be a better story if I had some rock bottom moment that made me change anything. That’s not the case. I worked on my own as a journalist. I’ve written a lot of profiles and became obsessed with people’s schedules for some reason. I was fascinated to see that people who were doing amazing things professionally, and yet don’t seem to be making the harsh tradeoffs on the personal front. Well, what are they doing? Of course, I realized that all of those successful people don’t have any hours left in the day and that they are relocating those hours in interesting ways; and the rest of us could learn from them. So I began to write more about time management.

[-[30:02] Allan: That’s awesome! I don’t know why but lately I’ve been quoting Arnold Schwarzenegger a lot. He was doing at talk at Princeton, which is you actually went [to school]. He was talking about people complaining about not having enough time. He said, “Look, I have the same amount of time you do. If I can get through this, this and this; surely you can manage your part-time job while you study.” Some people are able to stay on top of their hours and see where their hours are being wasted; whereas other people are oblivious to not accomplishing anything by noon. My audience are artists who work crazy hours. We can all benefit from where time goes. What do think are some of the big time traps? 

Laura: The certain things that come to mind immediately are:

– Surfing the web randomly;

– Social media.

While that is part of the problem, I don’t think it’s the bulk of it. People waste incredible amount of time on things that look like work but aren’t necessarily work. Going to meetings that didn’t need to happen, or didn’t need to take as long as they did. Going through the process on something several times. 

There’s a lot of things like that that happen at work; yet we do them because they’re right in front of us. Those are the more insidious ways to waste time. If you’re on Facebook for an hour, you know you’ve been on Facebook for an hour. But that meeting you went to — that didn’t have to happen — looks like work, but it has wasted one hour out of 10 people’s schedules. That’s much worse!

[-[27:34] Allan: I wanted to talk to you about that. The inside joke at ILM [when I worked there] was that it stood for “I Love Meetings” because we went to meetings all the time. The more I started to break away from meetings, the more I’d end up getting an hour back, everyday. Do you have any scripts to say when you want to get out of meetings like that?

Laura: It’s probably not wise to say that meeting with them is a waste of time. But if your manager has you scheduled for a lot of meetings you could say, “Listen, I have these hours and I really want to dedicate them to the projects you’ve assigned to me. Would you help me protect those hours, so that I can do my best for you?” People like being appealed to this way.

But the other thing is: A lot of this is self inflicted too. We need to get over this idea that being invited to a meeting means that you’re special. It may mean that you have nothing better to do. That’s what happens at a lot of companies: Only the cool kids go to the meetings. It’s the Middle School Cafeteria all over again! We need to get over this idea. If one person from your department goes to the meeting, that’s enough.

[-[25:24] Allan: In general, most of the time, people take notes of meetings. You can grab those. One of the things we have in film is dailies. Attending those sessions is critical, but it ends up being a hang-out. I found that saying: “If you need me, or if my shot is coming up, come grab me or text me — and I’ll be there.” That way you can spend 10 minutes, instead of 2 hours. By the time you’re done, it’s lunch hour. Then you have to work late to catch up, because you weren’t in control of your hours.

Laura: The other issue with that is that the afternoon hours are less productive. People have a better ability to focus in the mornings. So it’s a big problem with morning meetings. Meetings don’t have to happen in the morning. It’s something for organizations to consider. In the afternoon, people have lower energy levels. The intense, productive, focused stuff should be happening in the morning.

[-[23:09] Allan: I completely agree! One of the subjects you’ve written about is taking advantage of mornings. I’m going to keep going back to our industry. Everyone loves to work late nights. We see it as a badge of honor. But it’s so unproductive and damaging in the long run. Working hours often turns into a huge slumber party, with people hanging out at each other’s desks getting less work done. I’m a big believer of coming in early. Do you want to talk about some of the major benefits of working in the mornings, or getting up early to get stuff done?

Laura: For most people, it’s the most productive time of the day. Many people will tell themselves they are not morning people; but it’s because they’ve stayed up too late and are tired. What they were doing during late hours was not efficient. The thing about it being “the badge of honor”, people love to talk about how busy they are. You can’t say, “I’m so important”. Instead you say, “I’m so busy. I’m so in demand.” Coming in at 10:00 a.m. because you’ve worked late isn’t much different if you came in at 7:00 a.m. and worked until 7:00 p.m.

Mornings are a great time to get stuff done:

– It’s the time you have for yourself before anyone else starts wanting stuff for you.

– If you want to exercise, it’s a great time to do that.

– You can spend time with family, especially if you have young kids (who go to bed early).

– It’s a great time for career stuff or side projects. If you wait until the end of the day, you’ll have no energy to tackle that side project. You can devote your best hours to what matters to you.

[-[19:57] Allan: Yeah, Netflix is a lot more appealing at nighttime than working on that book you’re writing. So many times the solution has been to get up early. One of my students in the Mentorship works in the industry and works crazy hours. His rebuttal has been that he gets up an hour early every day. That means that he has seven more hours [a week] to study or work on bettering himself. 

Laura: Exactly! And I’m not saying that people should be sleep deprived. I’m not a fan of that! Again, if you look at what people are doing at later hours of the night, it is nothing that’s advancing them or their careers. Better to put a stop to [that activity] and go to bed an hour earlier. Turn those unproductive evenings into productive morning hours.

[-[18:49] Allan: Do you have any advice for people who have barriers like, “I’m not a morning person”? Do you have any hacks or rituals for those who want to make that shift?

Laura: You can try having a child. That’ll change your perspective.

Allan: I thought you said you weren’t a fan of being sleep deprived!

Laura: Well, there are trade-offs, of course. It ends up shifting you into a morning person’s schedule. There are some people who are indeed night owls. Are you truly doing your best work at night? Are you writing that great American novel? Or, are you just doing that slumber party thing you’ve talked about. If you’re watching other people’s stuff on Netflix — instead of writing your own tv scripts — you’re not a night person, you’re just staying up late. It’s important to understand that difference.

If you’re doing your best work at night, then you need to deal with that and structure your life around that. But for most people, that’s not the case. If they start going to bed earlier, they can get up earlier — and find that they actually have more time in their day.

[-[17:21] Allan: For me, getting up early in the morning is more about the quality time. One of the negative effects of working crazy hours is that it affects relationships, friendships. If you’re working until midnight to meet the deadline, you not going to be able to see your friends. You can’t maintain a realistic lifestyle. For me, coming in to work at [6:00] or 7:00 a.m. — while everyone else isn’t coming in until [10:00] — is so effective. Those hours are worth twice as much as they do later in the day.

Laura: I hear that so often from people. People are getting more done before breakfast. If you’re at the office, you get interrupted. If you’re alone, you can tend to your top priorities. Once you’ve done that, you’ve scored a major victory. It propels you forward, as long as you can maintain that momentum. Then you can let the day happen as it happens.

[-[15:33] Allan: In terms of productivity, are there any tips you focus on, such as batching your tasks, logging where your time is going, anything like that?

Laura: I’m a big fan of tracking time. I’ve been logging my time for two years. It’s been enormously helpful for me. I still learn things about my schedule. Most people discover that if they think they know where their time is going, it’s not actually so. Once you’ve discovered that, you can decide to change that or if there are things you want to celebrate. The truth sets us free.

[-[14:13] Allan: That’s awesome! Are there are any tools or resources you could recommend? Or, are you a pen-and-paper sort of a person, like me?

Laura: I’m a pen and paper person. For tracking purposes, I’m a spreadsheet person. I have a weekly spreadsheets that have half hours, from 5:00 a.m. in one column and days of the week on top. I record my week on that. I check in two or three times a day. That helps me decide if I like where my time goes. Try it for a week.

[-[13:06] Allan: I think it’s awesome! It gives you a bird’s-eye view of the day and helps put everything in perspective. We all get that tunnel syndrome, just trying to get through the day. I’m a big fan of trying to deflect any distractions. Anytime three or four people want to hang out at your desk, you can suggest a Starbucks run at the end of the day. That way you can do it all in 15 minutes.

Laura: That’s a great tip, by the way: Tell the people who want to see you when you can see them. That’s often enough to get them going, until you can actually see them.

[-[11:46] Allan: I use my lunches, instead of hanging out with friends, as one additional hour in the day I can spend doing something more productive for me. Some people respond negatively to that. It’s more about batching: I can go out with all of my friends on Fridays. 

Laura: That could work!

[-[10:58] Allan: Do you tend to build your to-do list the day of or the night before? 

Laura: The daily list, I tend to do the night before. That’s because I want to hit the morning, ready to go. But I don’t just plan my life on daily basis. Functionally, I plan my weeks, and I always plan them on Fridays. Looking to next week, I figure out:

– What are my top priorities professionally?

– What are my top priorities personally?

– Where am I going to do all of those things?

Each day, I make a to-do list [while] looking at those priorities.

[-[09:58] Allan: That’s really cool. For people who decide to break some bad habits and become productive, it takes more than just that decision. Can you give them a checklist or a step-by-step of how to start getting their time back?


The first thing I always recommend is time tracking: If you don’t know how you’re spending your time, how are you going to change it?

Once you’ve done that, you can decide:

– What you like about it;

– What you don’t like about it;

– What things you want to do differently: What you want to do more of and what you want to do less of.

When it comes to the question of “What do I want to do more of?”, people are obsessed with spending less time on something. I don’t think it works like that. You first decide the things that you want to do more of — your priorities — and do whatever you can to protect that time. Then you deal with everything else at a different time. Committing to putting those priorities on your schedule first is really what makes the life you want possible.

[-[08:08] Allan: One of the big topics you’ve written about is multitasking. So many people pride themselves in being great at multitasking. That means they have no attention to devote on anything.

Laura: Oh, god! I really hope that HR people are starting to see through that. That it’s not a plus in your category anymore. For the most part, multitasking doesn’t actually work. Your brain can’t focus on doing two things at once. There are some things that work fine that way: if you’re exercising with a friend, for instance. Trying to answer emails while you’re on the phone, it could be very dangerous. You will be inefficient at both. If you can answer emails while you’re on the phone, then you should be on a phone in the first place. If you’re answering your emails during a meeting, excuse yourself.

[-[05:56] Allan: Working from home, you do a lot of that, right?

Laura: I do.

Allan: Everyone always thinks that working from home is going to be easy because you can work in your pajamas. Do you think that’s accurate?

Laura: I think that working from home is wonderful, but I think you need to have a certain personality to make it work.

You can’t be constantly drawing stimulation from other people. You need to be self-disciplined and focused. You are the person who can’t stick to assignments when someone isn’t watching you, you shouldn’t be working from home.

If you think you’ll spend more time with your kids, you may give them more time because you’re saving commute. If you trying to spend more time with your kids while working from home, somebody is getting the short end of the stick. Either it’s your organization, or it’s your kids. Get childcare or work while the kids are at school.

[-[03:57] Allan: I always treat it as if I were in the office. I need to respect the fact that I’m at my job.

Laura: I really don’t think it needs to be either or. Some days, you can be in the office and have interactions with other people. Sometimes, you need to crank out work from home.

[-[02:35] Allan: It’s been awesome to pick your brain about this! It’s such a valuable subject. For anyone who wants to find out about you, where can they track down your stuff online?

Laura: Come to my website: www.lauravanderkam.com. I blog there every day. I have a great comments section.

Allan: Thanks again for doing this!

Laura: Thank you for having me!


I hope you’ve enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Laura for doing this.

I. If you want to spend a year with me in my Mentorship — making your work better — go to allanmckay.com/inside.

II. Or, join my free Fireball Training at allanmckay.com/fireball. (I will be announcing more information on the Mentorship there as well.)

III. I will be doing my first public Career Intensive. I’m excited about it! I will be reposting the recoding of that Webinar.

I will be back next week, with a new Episode. Have a productive week!

Rock on!


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