Home » News » Making the Most of Your TFAS Experience: A Q&A with Laura Vanderkam

Making the Most of Your TFAS Experience: A Q&A with Laura Vanderkam

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Laura Vanderkam ’99, Novak ’06, is the author of several time management and productivity books including “Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done,” “What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast,” “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think” and most recently a time management fable titled, “Juliet’s School of Possibilities.”

Vanderkam’s work has appeared in numerous in publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today; appeared on national television programs, including the “Today” show and “CBS This Morning;” guest spotted on hundreds of radio segments, and speaks regularly to audiences of all sizes. Her TED talk, “How to gain control of your free time,” has been viewed more than 8 million times.

Below, Vanderkam gives time management and productivity tips for TFAS students getting ready to embark on their TFAS Journey.


What time management and productivity advice would you give to students in preparation for their summer in Washington, D.C.?

LV: Juggling work and classes is a lot. Most people probably have some experience juggling these things, but your internship program is going to be a full-time job. One of the key things I think would help is to map out a schedule of your tasks and priorities. This way you can get a sense of what time is available to you. What are your goals? How can you put those goals into the time that you have? This way, you can map out your week and accomplish everything you set out to do.

I track my time on weekly spreadsheets, so I’m always recording what I have done, but you can use the same format to plan out what you want to do. In this weekly plan, I’m going to include my internship, my classes and any study time that I need based on the course load. I’d put down that I’m going to study on Thursday night and Saturday morning, and then I can see that not only do I have time to study but I still have time to see my friends and exercise and explore D.C. I think that knowing what you have on your plate and knowing when you’ll do it is actually the key to being able to have fun.

It’s when you have this long list of things that you know you need to do but you don’t know when you’re going to do it that people get anxious. When you have a plan and know when you’re going to accomplish something, life feels pretty good.

One of the key things I think would help is to map out a schedule of your tasks and priorities. This way you can get a sense of what time is available to you. What are your goals? How can you put those goals into the time that you have? This way, you can map out your week and accomplish everything you set out to do.”

– Laura Vanderkam ’99, Novak ’06

You’ve said before, ‘people should plan because life doesn’t go as planned.’ How do you plan for the unexpected?

LV: Surely, your boss or your manager at your internship will have you stay late some night because something big is happening and by knowing what’s on your plate, you can just relax and do it. Even if that was the night you were going to study, you can look at your schedule and move your priorities around. When you write down your priorities and know what they are, you can redirect the time when something comes up.

Don’t be afraid of the unexpected! Unexpected plans can be a good thing too. It could be that a group is going to have a big picnic on the National Mall on Saturday afternoon and you know that you can go because you’ve already blocked out time on Saturday morning to do your project. You can go to the picnic and play frisbee in the afternoon and not worry about being behind.

Three friends stand together at a TFAS event.
Vanderkam meets with fellow TFAS alumni and friends at the 2015 Novak Awards Dinner.

Certainly, students should plan to accomplish professional priorities, but how do you suggest they plan for moments to better themselves?

LV: I break down my list each week into three categories – career, relationships and self. I think about what are my big things I need to get done in both. On the professional side for students, that’s your internship and your course work. It may be a goal you identify of asking somebody at your internship for their advice. Maybe you want to start on a research project for your internship that isn’t absolutely required, but you think it would be good for you to try.

In relationships, you might want to call a friend from home who you’ve been missing. It could also be reaching out to another student at your internship.

The personal front, well, there’s so many great museums in D.C., you want to make sure you get to all the Smithsonians! When you have all these things written down, you can then look at your week and see where they can all go. Then whatever else happens, you know you’re doing awesome things because you know that your priorities are going to happen.

What pockets of time do you think people overlook the most?

LV: I think people forget that weekends are real days. When I ask people to tell me about a typical day, nobody ever tells me about Friday, Saturday or Sunday, even though that’s almost half the week. We just think of life as Monday through Thursday, but it’s not. Thursday, in general, sounds like the end of the week. Really, it’s only the halfway point of the week. When I realized that, life just changed because now there’s still all this other time. Even if you are devoting the majority of your time from 5 a.m. Monday to 5 p.m. Thursday to do work-related things and to do course work and site briefings, there’s still half the week for other things.

Your TFAS experience is an opportunity for you to absorb a lot, so take advantage of it! Ask yourself what little adventure do I want to put into my life this week. And really pause and reflect on it. Because that will make the summer seem more rich and full when you really take time to notice these things.”

– Laura Vanderkam ’99, Novak ’06

Everyone is busy with lots of things to accomplish in a week. How do you get over feeling like there’s too much to do?

LV: Time is really all about the stories we tell ourselves about it. If you’re walking around with this story that, “I’m so busy, I have no time for anything,” well, you can certainly find evidence to support this. Most of us have moments in our lives where we’re rushed and stressed – you’re late for the bus or you’ve got three people calling you at the same time.

But if you’re walking around with a different story, which is, “I have time for everything that matters to me,” I am guessing you could also find evidence to support that. Whether it’s you having a really great conversation with your supervisor at work, having fun with your friends, learning something really cool and getting to see something in D.C. that you never would have otherwise. When you go around with that story, it’s much more helpful because then you see the good things. Personally, I’d rather focus on that than the stressed and harried moments. It’s okay to be busy.

Your TFAS experience is an opportunity for you to absorb a lot, so take advantage of it! Ask yourself what little adventure do I want to put into my life this week. And really pause and reflect on it. Because that will make the summer seem more rich and full when you really take time to notice these things.

Laura Vanderkam speaks to students behind a podium at a TFAS event.
Vanderkam delivers a keynote address to TFAS D.C. Summer Programs students about the beauty of priorities.

With so much going on in Washington, D.C., what kinds of activities should student prioritize during the summer with TFAS?

LV: Being in Washington, D.C., for the summer is just such a great opportunity to learn and to meet people who can then, for the rest of your professional career, be people that you follow and they follow you. I’m always still looking for people that I want to follow their career and then they’ll follow mine, but it’s even more helpful in the beginning of your career to have that available.

Life has opportunities that come to us in very random ways. You don’t know exactly what it will be, but it could certainly be something. Maybe it’s just a random idea that you hear somewhere, but that becomes a paper you write in college two years from now. Or maybe it’s somebody you meet, who introduces you to someone who is a great professional contact. Or even a romantic partner, you never know! There’re all kinds of wonderful things that happen when people come together.

You just don’t know which of these it’s going to come from, but the more people you meet, the more ideas you’re exposed to, the more interesting place your brain becomes and, certainly at the beginning of your career, you want to have a lot of interesting stuff going on in your brain.

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