Lesley Alderman – The NY Times and A Smarter Approach To Time
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Jonathan: Hey, everyone. Jonathan Bailor back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast. I’m very, very excited about today’s show. This is going to be a unique and insightful one. We have a very, very cool writer and editor with us. She is the co-author of the Patient Money column for the New York Times for three years and is the former deputy editor of Real Simple as well as a staff writer for Money. She has contributed to all sorts of national publications like Everyday Health and Parenting and she edited First Impressions: What You Don’t Know About How Others See You, which has been translated into over 24 languages. On top of all of that, she lives with her family in Brooklyn. She is a certified yoga instructor and she has become an expert on time – how we spend it, how we perceive it. Her new book is called The Book of Times. Lesley Alderman, welcome to the show!
Lesley: My pleasure to be with you.
Jonathan: Well, Lesley, let’s just start a few steps back, let’s go back in time. Your book is called The Book of Times. Tell us a little bit about the book itself and what inspired you to write a book about time?
Lesley: Sure. I have always been kind of obsessed with time, I have to admit. I mean, I was the child who wrote my schedule on the black board for the evening. I seemed to just enjoy parsing time and then became very involved in things like yoga and meditation and realized that maybe I should fight against that a little bit because it was making me not always in the moment. This book sprang out of that kind of push and pull between being very interested in how the time passes and also not wanting it to ruin the day-to-day of my life. My obsession morphed into something much larger, though; rather than just the tick-tock of my hours and my day into some of the tick-tock of the world at large.
So I began to think, “Well, gosh, I know it takes me 4.5 minutes to walk from my house in Brooklyn to the subway around the corner,” but if I’m so interested in that, other people must measure things as scrupulously as well and you find you know exactly how long people have measured, how long it took to build a building, or build a bridge, or how much time we spend as a society watching television – a frightening amount, by the way; how much time we spend eating, sleeping, drinking, how long it takes for us to fall in love, how long we stay in love before it marks into something that isn’t as tortured as romantic love. So this sort of a little myopic obsession of mine really morphed into something larger.
I’d done all this writing for Real Simple and Money magazine, so I was very involved in statistics and sort of looking at how we parse time and how long do we hold investments; and at Real Simple, how long does it take to fry an egg. So my professional work also made me quite focused on time and in the passing of time. That’s it. In a long winded way.
Jonathan: No, it’s awesome! The book is a very fascinating one. I’ve actually been very much enjoying it. It seems like – and I’m sure you intended this – that the book is insightful on two levels. One, listeners, as you can tell by what Lesley just mentioned, there’s all kinds of very interesting, just let’s call them, sound bites in the book. Like, how long does it take to wash your clothes or drink a bottle…? I mean, just random interesting things. But then there’s this level on top of it, Lesley, of a much deeper analysis of our perception of time and how we might be able to change or optimize that to live our lives better. Could you tell us what your conclusions were in that space?
Lesley: Sure. I do think that once you start paying attention to time, you can go in a couple of ways. You can be kind of obsessed with being efficient and getting things done because it’s very satisfying to be efficient and get things done; but it can really take away from that sort of lovely random in-the-moment feeling. So there were certain things that I found very interesting – just about what makes our life more valuable – and one of the things is the way we spend it and the way we spend our time and it’s one of the things we really do have quite a bit of control over unless you’re a prisoner or something or you’re in the army and you’re completely bossed around and your time is not really your own.
Your discretionary time really is yours to spend as you see fit and a lot of people get bound up in obligations and uncomfortable obligations and tend not to really evaluate them. But one of the things that scientists and social scientists, psychologists, have studied is that connections are extremely important – who we spend time with, what we do during that time. So the most gratifying thing to people, really, when they think about it, is their connections to other people, but they often complain that they don’t get to spend enough time with the people that are most important. I’d say, one of the first things you can do to make your life more satisfying is to think about the people that really do make you happy and find ways to spend more time with them.
Also the kinds of activities that you do in your discretionary time. Shopping is lots of fun. I love to shop online, in particular. But if that is edging out things like spending meaningful time with your girlfriends, boyfriends, whomever, or reading something that will be very enriching to you, then you’re shortchanging yourself. One of the other interesting things is we’re human – we’re not always at our optimum – and so we tend to do things with our free time that are kind of expedient like watch TV – again, not slamming TV; I have to get my Mad Men fix just like many people have got their other fix – but those tend to be very expedient and they tend to be passive – and if you’re doing a lot more of passive activities rather than active activities, you could be short-changing yourself. For instance, you come home from work, you’re tired, you’d like to just sit down and have a glass of wine, watch TV or listen to music – all of those things are fine; but lacing up your shoes, maybe going out for a walk, taking your dog out for a walk, taking your partner out for walks, seeing things, interacting with people on the street – those sorts of active pursuits are the things that people report being more satisfying.
So it’s not just some psychologist saying, “You need to do this. This is going to make you happier.” It’s what people actually report. They say active activities – active leisure pursuits, I should say – are things that bring them more satisfaction. So it’s just sort of looking at the balance. How much TV do you watch? How much time do you just sort of hang around the house chilling in comparison to maybe going out and hearing music or seeing a concert or mixing it up with your friends or exercising? Doing things that are just more active and where you’re more in control and you’re less passive. So those are the ways you can spend your time that should bring you more satisfaction.
Jonathan: Lesley, I want to get a little metaphysical here, if you don’t mind, and I haven’t completely wrapped my head around the question I’m about to ask you so if it’s confusing, assume I’m not phrasing it well, not that you’re not understanding it. In your exploration of time, it seems so often we tend to think we – and we do, in one sense – have a fixed amount of time. It’s a limited resource. Only 24 hours in a day. But at the same time, there seems to be research suggesting – and even common sense says – for example, if you need to cut your lawn and you do that using scissors.
Like, let’s say I have to cut my lawn today and all I know of to cut things with is scissors. So it takes me five hours to cut my lawn because I’m cutting it with scissors. Then all of a sudden, I discover powered lawn mowers and I’m like, “Wow! I can still cut my lawn. I can cut it in thirty minutes.” This idea that with either the proper tools, or the proper insight, or the proper technology, or the proper mindset, we can actually make more time. In the lawn cutting example, what used to take five hours only now takes five minutes and we have essentially made four hours and fifty-five minutes because we have to cut our lawn, but once it’s done, we get that time back. Have you found ways or paradigms around making more time by discovering new technologies or approaches to multiply time?
Lesley: Such a great question. How can you multiply time? Well, one thing that those that study these sorts of things – so it’s not just off the top of my head – find that when you’re paying attention, you’re really paying attention to what’s going on, meaning you’re not walking down the street texting, you feel time as being more expansive. So, it’s like all senses are on alert. When you’re seeing, you’re hearing, maybe you’re tasting something, you’re smelling what’s around you, time seems larger and your life seems larger. We’ve heard it a million times that multi-tasking is not good. Well, this is another reason. Because you’re sort of only half in the moment – in both moments, with the text you’re sending or the walk you’re taking. You’re sort of getting each one short [indiscernible 10:22].
The other interesting thing is that – this is a very specific example – but if you’re looking back on your year, let’s say you’re doing your New Year’s thing and it’s December 31, 2012 and you’re thinking about the year that passed, if you focused on what you accomplished – we did this, we moved into a new house, we adopted a dog, a child, whatever. Focus on that positive stuff and really think about it, you’re going to be much happier and satisfied and you’re going to feel like your time, the year, was good and a big, full, long year.
But if you focus on ‘I didn’t lose those 10 pounds I wanted to lose’, ‘I didn’t get a new job’, ‘I didn’t do this or that’. So if you really focus without being so Polly Anna on what you’ve done to fill your time well, you’re going to feel like that year was a big, rich year and it didn’t just whiz by. So there’s something about a positive attitude, too – again, let’s not go overboard here – that makes time and the time you’ve spent seem richer, fuller, and not something that’s flying by and out of your control.
Jonathan: I love that. I want to dig more into this idea of non-linear time or just changing our perception of time. One thing, Lesley, is that oftentimes – no pun intended – we hear people say things like “I don’t have time to do X” where X is this thing that makes them healthier. Whether it’s spend more time with their family or go for a walk or spend more time outside or read or exercise or eat more healthfully, they say, “I don’t have time to do that.” But if we look at time non-linearly, saying that it’s not just about going to work, for example, it’s about doing good work when you’re at work.
Like, if you’re at work and it takes you one hour to make a million dollars’ worth of sales and it takes your friend twenty hours to make a million dollars’ worth of sales, well, you can go home, maybe. So it seems like oftentimes when people do these lifestyles that enable them to be healthier, that actually enables them to have more time in certain ways. Like, if you ask someone who eats very healthfully, “How do you have time to eat healthfully?” I think they’ll often say, “I don’t have time to not eat healthfully because if I got sick for two weeks, my life would fall apart.” So what are your thoughts on this? How do you do this in spite of having to spend your time on these life-bettering activities versus perceiving these life-bettering activities as you can do all these things because you do them?
Lesley: Yeah, that’s a very enlightened way of thinking – that it’s very hard if you’re not in that groove. If you’re sort of time-pressed, can’t get to the gym, eating out of the vending machine, it’s very hard to get out of that rut. But I think that once you do, you do realize that ‘Guess what?’ If you sleep seven hours, if you drink a lot of water every day, if you eat well, you’re going to feel better and more productive and have less lost days than if you don’t do those sorts of things. So, there is something about taking care of your health that does seem to expand time. It just makes your time better, doesn’t it?
I am just now on this new kick of drinking water because – I always did – but I took an overseas flight, which just makes you feel sort of horrible the next day. Even if you wake up and you’re in Kathmandu or Paris, you’re still dehydrated and you’ve been sitting crumpled in some uncomfortable seat. So the day that I arrived at my destination, I drank three liters of water throughout the day and I felt pretty good. And the next day, I thought, “That was kind of great. I think I’ll keep doing that.” So now I’m on this huge kick of drinking a ton of water and I really do feel better. I just don’t feel as tired and headachy.
Where I am right now, it’s like raining cats and dogs. So it’s kind of strange, because it’s so humid out, to be drinking all this water, but I do feel better and I think it just makes me more productive. I work at home, literally. Before I got on this kick, I would find in the afternoon I had to take a 20-minute nap. I just had to. And of course, I could because I was at home. Since I’ve been drinking all this water, I don’t take naps. I really am ready to do a commercial for Evian. I’m such a zealot. So there is something about all that that you do make better use of your time.
You have to be the person who says, “I can’t do this. I can’t do that.” You just have to sit down and think, “Okay, really. What can I do?” Can I ride my bike to work? Can I stand up and pace at my desk when I’m on the phone? There are a million ways to get things and to make your life a little healthier. It’s just forming a habit and sticking with it long enough so that it becomes a true habit.
Jonathan: I think a lot of this stuff is certainly emotional and we’ve got to have a deeper motivation to do it. We all know we have 24 hours in a day. So you’re not going to get more than 24 hours in a day, but you can certainly be a version of you who can do better and more in 24 hours. In one sense, life is just a series of problems we need to solve and if you can solve those problems in half the time because your mind is operating at 100% rather than 50%, you now have twice as much time in effect.
Lesley: That’s true. A more efficient mind certainly helps you gain more free time. I think people who all of a sudden have children or all of a sudden have a new pet or something happens to really contract their time, often find themselves becoming more efficient. So sometimes it’s just kind of imposing that structure on yourself so that you have to do things, you have to find ways to solve problems more quickly. Do you know what I mean? So that might mean, “I’ve got to be healthier because I have to leave work at 7 p.m. every day to get home and take care of my infant or whatever.” All of a sudden, you just find yourself being more efficient and cutting out things that are a drag on your time.
Jonathan: Lesley, did you see things in your studies of time of how much time – let’s just focus on the family for a second – certainly when we have an interpersonal rift, that takes a lot of time. Like, if you get in an argument with a person, the baggage and strained conversations that will ensue take a lot of time. So even if we’re not talking about a professional circumstance from an interpersonal relationship, if we are in a good place, do you have any insights on how much time we might save simply because we will avoid interpersonal conflict?
Lesley: Yeah. That’s such a good question. I think some people like interpersonal conflict. Seriously. I won’t name names but people in my family – certainly, there is one person in particular – seemed to love that. That person is no longer with us but, loved that. That was like every day, we’d get a call about some neighbor or someone who was interfering with this relative’s life and it was just a source of great excitement. Some people want to live like that. If you don’t want to live like that, it’s certainly better if you get some skills under your belt of getting along with people, of settling arguments, dealing with conflict right away instead of festering.
How many times have you gotten a call and spent half an hour or 45 minutes on the phone with a friend who’s really, really annoyed with someone else and its yak, yak, yak to try to figure out what happened? I think probably – not to stereotype – but I think women tend to do this more than men because they’re just engaged more at a different level than men do. I’ve certainly spent hours of my life on the phone talking to friends who are completely upset and mad at some other person or colleague. I’m not saying that’s not the right thing to do, because sometimes it really helps, but it can be a huge drag on your time.
It’s funny. I have a teenage stepson who is away at college and he came back after his first semester and he was kind of just nicer and easier to get along with. I said, “Hey, college seemed to just have a good effect on you. You just seem nicer.” Not that he was terrible before, but he could be a cranky teenager. He said, “You know what I realized it’s just easier to be nice because there’s less friction and there’s less wasted time.” I thought, “Oh gosh! Could you just send a note out or put this on Facebook so that all your friends will see this and all the other parents can benefit.”
He was absolutely right! Like, if he’s cranky, then I’d say, “Why are you being cranky?” And that would be a whole discussion. And then maybe he wouldn’t get what he wanted because I was mad at him. So it was a huge time-waster. And he realized, “Gosh, if I’m just nice, I think I’ll just get my way and there won’t be as much conflict and how much more efficient.” So, huge change in all of our lives! I suppose it’s a life stage thing. You have to go through what you have to go through to have this realization. But yes, this is a very long answer to a very smart question, which is if your life is less conflict ridden, you have a lot more time to just enjoy yourself.
Jonathan: Lesley, I love the point you made there about being nice or, let’s just say, being well is the most efficient and then, likely, the most effective way to do things. Just a quick personal story. We all have situations in our life interpersonally where someone comes to us and they need help or they just need to be heard. I remember I had this stage in my life where it seems like everyone – and I think men do this a lot, I think women do it, too – but you come to a man and you’ll say, “XYZ happened.” And the man says, “Well, here’s the solution. Let me tell you what to do about that.” And that’s actually not what the person whose speaking wants to hear.
They just want to express themselves. They just want to get it off their chest. They just want to feel heard and ‘verbally hugged’, for lack of better terms. The only way I could wrap my brain around ‘stop trying to solve other people’s problems when they don’t ask you, when they just come to you to vent’ – for lack of better terms – is they essentially need to tell their story and if you interrupt them, it’s going to take longer. I mean, it’s a really bad way to think about it but just sitting there and listening and hearing the person, it is the most efficient and effective way let’s resolve that situation. When we look at life as just a series of situations that need to be resolved – which in some ways, that is what life is – it seems like, what your research says is being there, being in the moment, being free from distractions, being fully present and doing whatever it takes to make yourself that way is the way to have the most time. What do you think?
Lesley: I think that’s pretty good. Does it necessarily make more time or is it just that the time you have…? You will feel like you have more time because you are really engaged in the moment. I think that’s key. I would add one thing about your story when people are venting, which is really true. It’s very healthy in some ways to vent because you’re not pretending that there’s not a problem. Is that sometimes people vent for too long. So, what you can do is you can interrupt, if it feels like the venting is taking up too much of your precious time, and you can say, “I think what you’re saying is this.”
And you can kind of tell them, read back to them – it’s called mirroring or something like that in psychological jargon – what’s going on and that can often stop them. It’s as if they need someone to encapsulate their emotion. “It sounds like you’re really mad at your boss because he was really unfair to you.” They’ll go, “Yeah, that’s it.” And then maybe you can then move on. I do think listening is great and not always trying to problem-solve, but I do think some of the reasons people try to problem-solve is because they can’t handle listening to a very long complaint session. That’s just my little two cents on that. But yes, I do think the healthier you are, the less conflicts you have, the less time you waste on being ill – whether it’s of body or mind. It’s reinforcing because then you’ll have more time to do things that are healthy, which then makes you healthier, which makes you less likely to waste your time being unhealthy. Does that make sense?
Jonathan: Absolutely! Maybe a silly analogy. Tell me what you think about this, Lesley. Again, didn’t formulate it completely, just wrote down some notes, so forgive me if it’s not perfect. Let’s use the analogy of ‘life is like trying to drive from whatever, from Brooklyn to Seattle, and if you have a car which is really run-down and is not at peak performance, you could say, “I’m going to save some time, just get in my car and start driving from Brooklyn to Seattle.”
The car will never go above 40 mph and it keeps breaking down along the way. You have to stop at repair shops but you sure got started on that trip efficiently, right? Well, no, not really. Would it maybe have been a more effective use of time to ensure that that car can go at top speed; that it doesn’t need to go to the repair shop. At the end of the day, in that latter scenario, you’d probably get to Seattle a heck of a lot faster.
Lesley: I agree.
Jonathan: Well, there we go.
Lesley: I agree. So you’re talking about preparedness?
Lesley: Preparedness. Yes. I also think sometimes it’s not always… I agree with what you’re saying totally, but I also think sometimes it’s nice to just think the goal should not always be faster. Just say that a couple of times during the day on non-essential tasks, maybe. The goal is not always faster.
There’s a whole slow food movement and a lot of people doing meditation and yoga. It’s the opposite of fast. You go in there and there is really no…. I mean, in most yoga practices, there’s really no benefit to doing something faster. I think that’s why people like it. It is like, “Hey! Actually, slow is kind of nice.” We live in a world that’s all about the more you can pack into your day and your life, the better. Sometimes just taking something and thinking, “You know, I’m just going to do this slowly” is kind of nice. It’s kind of a relief.
Jonathan: Lesley, I love that nuance. Actually, it’s not a nuance, it’s another dimension. Tell me one thing. Just going back to the car analogy – if you had that car that was able to travel efficiently and effectively, while your focus may not be getting to Seattle faster, if it’s a beautiful drive and if you’re able to look out the window and you’re able to have the wind in your hair and you’re able to enjoy the scenery – one, the drive might not seem to take as long; and two, you’ll enjoy the drive and that’s pretty darn important, too.
Lesley: Yeah, I absolutely agree with that. Who wants to have anything breaking down? I mean, there’s really nothing that fun about it. I suppose that you could turn it into an adventure but…. No, no. I mean, it’s the analogy of yourself and taking care and being prepared and you’re going to have a much nicer ride if you’re not at the doctor’s office or at the hospital where whatever, than if you are.
Jonathan: Well, Lesley, to bring it down back from the metaphysical to the practical and tactical and day-to-day; to wrap up, what were the three or so things you found in your research that – for example, we all know people watch a lot of television – but are there things that you were just shocked? Three things you were just shocked at the amount of time that are non-obvious, people spent on them?
Lesley: I’m just going to tweak that question and tell you something that I found kind of fascinating, which is people always say, “How long does love last?” Like, romantic love – maybe people don’t always say, but I was kind of curious – and actually, it’s a real chemical reaction in your brain. Like when you fall in love, like fall, fall, fall and it goes on for more than three days, it lasts like a year or two when those chemicals are just making you elated and crazy all at the same time. After that, if you’re still with the person and you’re seeing them clearly and you still are interested, it’s a different kind of infatuation and love.
But there are really chemicals in your brain that are making you whacked out and happy. Those chemicals really do dissipate after a year or two. It’s not to say you’re not in love or you’re not romantic, it’s just a very different experience. So I thought that was really fascinating that they actually were able to check in on people’s brain chemicals and find out that there is something real going on there and that it has a beginning and an end. I mean, who could live in that state of being in love for very long? You’d just never get anything done. You’d be out of your mind. So that was one thing I found really fascinating.
I also thought it was really interesting that people read more than you think they do. We think, “Oh my gosh. People, all they do is send tweets and texts.” But I think people actually do. The older people get, the more they sit down and really read books – and that was very heartening. I guess we’re so steeped in all the negative about how much time, especially teenagers – we like to pick on them because they’ve had all of this amazing technology thrown at them, so they can’t bear to just watch TV, they want to text and tweet and Facebook and whatever at the same time, it’s not really their fault. But people do still really read books, so I found that really nice. If you go on the bestseller list, if you go on sites like Goodreads, you see there’s people very actively involved, but I was beginning to think no one had any attention span at all anymore.
Jonathan: As one author speaking to another, that is certainly a heartening finding.
Lesley: Isn’t it heartening? Yeah. I’m trying to think of one other really juicy tidbit from the book. I guess how quickly things can be done when they need to be done. For instance, the Empire State Building was built in record time. Like, a year or so. Other buildings – other skyscrapers – take years and years to complete. They were also in a competition to be the tallest building in the world. The quicker something is built, the more quickly they can make money doing it. So I thought that was interesting. It was like, “You know what? We really got to get this done. Let’s get it done.” So that was kind of fascinating, especially because it was many years ago and we didn’t have all the advances that we have now in building and in the kind of engineering feats that we’ve been able to accomplish. So I thought that was really interesting.
Jonathan: Absolutely! Well, folks, Lesley is just a treasure trove of information and insight and her book is called The Book of Times. Again, very highly recommended. Just like we talk about eating smarter and exercising smarter, how we perceive and use our time in doing that smarter – that’s really a multiplier. I think we could all leverage to live better. You can learn more about Lesley, just as a journalist and author and woman at lesleyalderman.com. The book is called The Book of Times. It’s very fun just to browse and also fun to read cover-to-cover. Lesley, what’s next for you?
Lesley: Oh! I have another book idea. It starts with The Book of…. and I won’t tell you the next word.
Jonathan: Well, okay, it’s a book! Okay, that’s good. We’ve got that.
Lesley: That’s a secret. Another book; more yoga, continue to do yoga; and I’m also going to go back to school and take some classes. It’s such a great thing to do after you grow up. You write, you go to school, you do it all sort of automatically – or I did – graduate from college, move on, work…. So I’m going to go back and take some classes, actually in psychology. We’ll see where that goes. That was what I majored in as an undergrad. So, a little work, a little academics, and a little play in the form of yoga. How’s that sound?
Jonathan: I think it’s…. The Book of Busy maybe, if you write an autobiography. How about that?
Lesley: No, it won’t be The Book of Busy. But I will put you on my first-to-know list.
Jonathan: Excellent, excellent!
Lesley: You’ll find out.
Jonathan: Lesley, certainly appreciate your ‘time’ today! Just kidding.
Lesley: It was a pleasure. It was really fun to talk to you.
Jonathan: Folks, her name is Lesley Alderman. The book is The Book of Times. Learn more about her at lesleyalderman.com. Grab her book wherever books can be sold and remember – this week and every week after, eat smarter, exercise smarter, and per today’s conversations, think of time smarter, and live better. Chat with you soon.