023: Use Time Tracking to Live Your Best Life With Laura Vanderkam | Tanya Dalton
Laura Vanderkam podcast interview on The Intentional Advantage
June 20, 2017   |   Episode #:

023: Use Time Tracking to Live Your Best Life With Laura Vanderkam

In This Episode:

Today we have time management expert Laura Vanderkam on the show. Laura will be sharing strategies and actionable advice from her research on how career women can make time for both work and family. We’re discussing the value of time tracking and how managing your time is the key to living the best, healthiest and most fulfilling life possible.

Show Transcript:

The Big Idea

We all have the same 24 hours, it’s how we choose to use that time that matters.

Questions I Answer

  • question

Actions to Take

  • Start time tracking: calculate exactly how many hours you really work each day and how many hours of sleep you get each night. Subtract that from 168 (the number of hours we all have in a week) and you’ll get a better picture of the time you have to spend with family or for yourself.
  • Make yourself a short priority to-do list for these categories for the week ahead: Career, Relationships and Self.

Key Topics in the Show

  • Laura discusses why her Mosaic Project is so important to understanding how time is spent for busy women.

  • We pull back the curtain on how many women allocate their time for both career and family.

  • Discover how time tracking can revolutionize how you view your time and allow you to live the best life possible.

  • Understand the importance of why looking at your week at a whole can help with your work life harmony

  • Creating sustainable patterns toward small wins (and how these wins add up to make big results!)

Resources and Links

  • Connect with Laura on her website & blog
  • Pick up Laura’s Book: I Know How She Does It
  • Habits of people who use time management well:
    • Difficult actionable strategy: Track your time for a week to discover interesting things about your schedule and where to start devoting your time.
    • Easy Actionable Strategy: Thinking through your weeks before they start. Being mindful about where you want your time to go will help you make better choices. She suggests doing this on Friday afternoon before the weekend when things are slowing down.
Show Transcript

Tanya Dalton : Well, hello, everyone. Welcome to Productivity Paradox. I’m your  host, Tanya Dalton, and this is Episode 23. Today, I have a treat for  you. I am so excited, because I am being joined by Laura  

Vanderkam. Laura is the author of several time management and  productivity books, including I Know How She Does It, What the  

Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, and 168 Hours. Her  

work appears in publications, including Fast Company, Fortune,  

USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal. She lives outside of  

Philadelphia with her husband and four children, and blogs at  

lauravanderkam.com. Today, we are going to be talking about  

tracking your time, changing our mindset, and I am so excited for  you to hear all of Laura’s pearls of wisdom, so let’s dive right in. I  am so pleased to have Laura Vanderkam here with me today.  

Thank you for joining me, Laura.  

Laura Vanderkam: Thank you for having me.  

Tanya Dalton : Absolutely. So, as I mentioned, Laura is a genius when it comes to  time management. Can you tell me a little bit about how you got  interested? What was your story in how you became so interested  in time management and time tracking?  

Laura Vanderkam: Well, that’s fun to hear you call me a genius on time. I wouldn’t  say that it’s because I’m a particular genius in it that I came to the  topic of time management. I have been known to be late and  

such things in my life. But I became interested in this topic, partly  because I find the subject of time itself so interesting. It’s a very  

human construct, other than the idea that the earth takes 24  

hours to turn, or whatever it is.  

 It’s a very human construct, and yet it offers so many insights into  our lives, and we all have the same amount of space in our lives  

between sunrises, and yet we do very different things with it, and  the outcomes of doing those different things have major  

implications for our lives. We all have the same amount of time,  

but we do very different things with it, and I think I’m also drawn  to the topic because it’s one of those areas where I think the  

conventional wisdom is just not true. I think we do have more  

time than we think, that we are not as busy as we think we are,  

that modern life is not as crazy we often talk about, and I try to  

look at those questions and see what we can come up with.  

Tanya Dalton : I love that. For my listeners, they are hearing what you’re saying,  and they’re thinking, “Yep, I see why Tanya likes her a lot,”  

because we talk a lot about the same things. I love what you said  there about we all have that same amount of time, but we’re  

getting different things done, and I do think a lot of that is how  

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we look at things, our mindset. So, I’d love to talk to you a little  

bit about the Mosaic Project, which the subject for your book I  

Know How She Does It. So, could you explain to my listeners  

about what the project was, and what you found with that?  

Laura Vanderkam: So, I’ve long been fascinated by how women, in particular,  combine work and family. I think it’s interesting to see how men  

do too, but a lot of the more hair-grabbing stories are about how  women do it or don’t do it well. If you think about the novel that  

my book title’s teeing off, the I Don’t Know How She Does It, the  Allison Pearson novel where we have this executive who’s  

distressing pies for the bake sale to make them look homemade,  trying to fill this image of what a supermom and a super career  

woman should be. So, we have this idea that it’s just crazy,  

undoable life will be nuts if you attempt to combine work and  

family, most people can’t do it. So, I’m like, well, is that actually  

true? Is that true? Are women having to make harsh trade offs at  home if they succeed at work, or do they have to let go of their  

career ambitions if they want to succeed at home?  

 So, I recruited well over 100 women who met two criteria to keep  track of their time for me. First, they earned six figures a year,  

which is a very arguable definition of success, but at least it is  

objective, and I can say, well, they clearly had demanding jobs if  

they’re earning six figures a year. Second, they had kids at home.  Many ways one can have a full personal life as well, but this is,  

again, an objective way that is pretty clear that probably have a  

lot going on in your personal life. So, women who had big jobs,  

families at home, asked them to keep track of their time for a  

week, and then I added everything up and looked at the numbers  and saw how much they were working and sleeping, and this was  what became the Mosaic Project, this project of tracking time for  successful women who also had families, and seeing where the  

time really goes.  

Tanya Dalton : I love that, yeah, and I love the background the title of the Mosaic  Project. Can you tell our listeners why you decided to title it that?  

Laura Vanderkam: Well, because I do know how she does it now. We always say,  well, I don’t know how she does it, but many women are doing it,  that is, building successful careers and raising happy families at  

the same time, and so let’s look at how they do it instead of  

talking about the crazy stories, the dark moments that we all hear  of in these “I just can’t have it all” literature. Let’s talk about the  

women who are doing it. What do their lives look like? How are  

they allocating their time? What can we learn from that?  

 The good news is that women with big jobs and families have far  more balanced lives than most people think. The average woman  in my study was working 44 hours a week, which is more than 40,  

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but it’s not a lot more than 40. They were not working 80 hours a  week, their work hours were fairly reasonable. Remember, this is  

six-figure jobs here. They were sleeping, on average, just a little  

bit under eight hours a day. Most people do not believe me when  I say that, but I’ve got the numbers, I’ve got the spreadsheets, I  

can tally it up for you. We tend to remember our worst nights as  typical, which is why we tend to think we sleep less than we  

actually do. When you average it out over a week, it tends to  

come out much better. A bad night can be taken in context.  

 So, if they were working 44 hours a week, and they’re sleeping 54  hours a week out of … There’s 168 hours in a week, so you  

subtract those two and you get 70, so they had 70 hours that  

were waking, non-working hours, and so it’s not surprising that  

women were able to spend quality time with their children and  

their spouses, and they could exercise and see friends, and read,  and do other things, because 70 hours is a lot of time. That  

doesn’t mean that it was all easy or very straightforward. I mean,  people had to be creative with scheduling and things like that,  

but when I interviewed women about their strategies, I got to see  what many of those were.  

 Again, what it came out is that most people can make it work.  The horror stories you read are because they’re interesting.  

Horror stories are always interesting, right, whereas woman  

combines work and family just fine, footage at 6:00 p.m., that’s  

never something you’re going to see.  

Tanya Dalton : That’s so true. I think you’re right. We do look at the worst case  scenario, the things that really attract our attention. So, I have a  

question for you, because back in Episode 20 of our podcast, we  talked about Elon Musk’s advice of working 100 hours a week. He  says he works 80 to 100 hours a week. Do you really think people  spend that much time working?  

Laura Vanderkam: Generally, no. There have been interesting studies comparing  people’s estimated work weeks with time diaries, and found that  people claiming 75 plus hour weeks are off by about 25 hours,  

because what happens, and I’ve seen this with people telling me  that, for instance, they work, let’s say, 65 hours a week. I get a  

time log from them, and I add it up, and then number is  

something like 44, okay. Well, maybe it was an improbably light  

week, or maybe there are some weeks where they work 65, but  

those are the weeks they’ve chosen to remember as typical,  

because that’s the kind of person they want to see themselves as.  

 So, I have no doubt that Elon Musk sometimes works 80 hours a  week. Do I think he works 80 hours every week? Probably not. I  

know he has young children that he’s actually talked about  

seeing, at points.  

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Tanya Dalton : At some point, yes.  

Laura Vanderkam: At some point, so I’m guessing that possibly while the kids are  with him he’s not working 80 hours a week, and other times  

maybe he is. I also think that what happens is that even within a  

week … So, let’s say that 65 number, compared to the 44 hours in  reality. What happened is that the person was at work 12 hours on  Wednesday, so 12 hours times 5, in their brains, well, that’s 60,  

and I feel like I was on email a lot on the weekend, so I’ll that’s 5.  

Okay, let’s say 65, right? So, that’s if somebody actually bothered  to think about it. Often, they just pull a number out of the air.  

 But if they actually bother to think about it, that’s what’s often  going on, but they don’t stop and think, oh, well, yeah, I worked 12  hours on Wednesday, but I was only at the office for 8 hours on  

Friday, so right there we’re lower. If I actually added up my email  checks on the weekend, it only was an hour, not 5 hours, it just  

felt like a long time. So, all these things start getting it down, that  we just have it built into the model. The model is about making  

your number look high. Honestly, that’s what it is.  

Tanya Dalton : That makes sense. It’s kind of that worst case scenario thing that  you talked about, right?  

Laura Vanderkam: It is, and I mean, it’s kind of … The opposite thing is going on with  sleep, that we overestimate work, because we don’t want to do it,  and we underestimate sleep, because we do want to do it. So, we  underestimate leisure time too for the same reason. We’d like to  

have more, so in our minds, it’s easy to say, oh, I have no time,  

which is probably not true. I mean, often people are …  

 One of the more hilarious things to me, I was on  workingmother.com a couple years ago, and they had a poll on  

when did you last have me time. And I clicked through, to see  

what the answers were, and 50% of people said they could not  

remember when they’ve last had me time, which is really funny to  me, because I don’t think that taking online polls is required for  

anyone’s job. It’s like, you’re taking a break, you’re having your  

leisure time. It may be stupid leisure time, but it’s still still leisure  

time, so let’s be honest about it.  

Tanya Dalton : That’s so true. I think that’s exactly right. Taking an online poll,  that’s a little bit of me time right there.  

Laura Vanderkam: Yeah. I would recommend other things, if you wanted to have me  time, like getting outside and taking a little break, a walk around  

the block, going and talking to a friend, whatever it is. But let’s  

not fool ourselves about what’s going on.  

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Tanya Dalton : So true, so true. Now, speaking of me time, I know that you  believe that you cannot ever eliminate all the guilt; that there’s  

always going to be guilty feelings about how you spend your  

time. So, how do you think time tracking really helps you live the  best life that you can?  

Laura Vanderkam: I think that it makes sure … Keeping track of our time helps us be  sure that we’re not telling ourselves stories about our lives that  

aren’t true, and we have all kinds of stories we tell about our lives.  I mean, one might be that we’re overworked, for instance, and  

maybe we are sometimes. Sometimes we’re not, and maybe we  

are in different seasons of our life and less so at other times. But  

probably overall, it’s a more reasonable picture than it is.  

 Sometimes there’s more problematic stories too, that have to do  with these issues of guilt. So, for instance, I’ve had working  

parents say, “Well, I never see my kids. I have a big job, lot of  

responsibilities, therefore I never see my family,” and they actually  keep track of their time and see that they’re seeing their family  

quite a bit, which, again, makes sense. 168 hours in a week. If you  are working 50 hours a week and sleeping 8 hours a night, there  

are 62 hours for other things. Probably some of those 62 hours  

overlap with time that your family is around and you are seeing  

them, but because they’ve got this story that if you have a big job  you must be making harsh trade offs at home, they’re telling  

themselves they’re not seeing their kids, or they’re not giving  

themselves credit for time because it’s not occurring at 10:00  

a.m. on Tuesday, or whatever is prime mommy time. I don’t know.  

 I’ve had a woman have this conversation with me. She’s a partner  at a law firm, she’s saying, “I never see my kid.” That was one  

conversation we were having, and then we were switching gears,  because we had kids around the same age, and I said, “Oh, my kid  wakes up so early.” She’s like, “Yeah, I know, I hate it. Mine does  

too. He’s up at 5:30 in the morning.” I’m like, “Let’s go back to  

that other conversation. What time do you leave for work?” She  

leaves for work at 8:00 a.m., so he’s up at 5:30, she leaves at  

8:00. That’s two and a half hours; that’s like as if she were coming  home at 5:00 p.m. and he went to bed at 7:30 p.m., she’d have  

that two and half hours, but because it wasn’t happening in the  

evening, which, in her mind, is when kid time should be  

happening, it didn’t count.  

 She wasn’t giving herself credit for any of this time in the  morning, and I think we all have blind spots like that, and it’s  

important to know where those are, because then we often  

change our stories. Maybe life isn’t going the way we want it to. I  mean, maybe there are things we want to change, but it’s  

important to know that we’re changing the right things and we’re  ©Productivity Paradox Page 5 of 10

changing from the point where reality is, as opposed to where we  think it is.  

Tanya Dalton : So, it’s about changing their scripts, right? The scripts that they’re  telling themselves. You talk a lot about this in your book, and as a  matter of fact, in our last episode, we talked about banking time,  and we gave the example from your book of Caroline Polk, who I  really liked what you said about her with how she had to let go of  her script of being a good mother meant being there for dinner  

with her family, and putting her kids to bed every night. So, in  

that same kind of vein, can you tell us a little bit about how you  

can let go of those scripts, and what other scripts we hold on to  

and tell ourselves?  

Laura Vanderkam: Yeah, and I really do think that time tracking is great for this,  because you do see that I am spending time with my family, even  if it’s not at whatever is the normal time. I’m putting normal in air  quotes here. You can’t see me, but normal in air quotes. Even if  

it’s not at the normal time, it’s still time, and it can still be good  

time. So, for instance, she was spending the mornings with her  

kids. There’s really nothing magical about evenings versus  

mornings, so it’s still time you can have with your family.  

 I see this, is some people would consciously choose to work very  late, let’s say two nights a week, that you have a choice. Either  

you’re racing home to get 15 minutes with your kids, if you’re  

leaving the office at, let’s say, 7 o’clock every night, but maybe  

you could consciously choose to work til 10:00 p.m. two nights a  week, bank those six extra hours, as I said, and leave a couple  

hours earlier twice a week, right, so that two nights you’re  

working til 10:00, and two nights you’re working til 4:30 or 5:00,  

and then those nights you have much longer to enjoy your family  instead of racing out of work, only to get a couple minutes at  

home.  

 So, I think that viewing the week as a whole, as opposed to any  one individual day is a great idea. Looking for time like mornings  that you’d have, or maybe one day consciously working less, and  other days working longer. People who travel for work might  

decide to work very long hours while they’re gone so they can  

make the most of the time they’re home and have that more as  

family time.  

Tanya Dalton : That makes sense, and I know you talk about how happiness is a  choice, and it sounds like that’s what you’re talking about here,  

that we can look at the negatives and draw a conclusion, or we  

can look at a day, moment by moment, and look at the week as a  whole to find that harmony. So, do you think that time tracking  

and time management help with making that choice of  

happiness?  

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Laura Vanderkam: I think it does. Some of it’s just a decision about what we decide  will be our narrative. When we study storytelling, you know and  

your listeners know that we often have three points of evidence  

lead to an epiphany, and that’s our story format, right. These  

three things happen, air go this, I’ve reached this conclusion,  

everything is different afterwards. That’s a great story arc. But the  danger of that is that, of course, life itself does not conform to a  

narrative arc, and it becomes very easy to be like, okay, this  

horrible thing happened, this horrible thing happened, this  

horrible thing happened. Therefore, something must change, and  I must X, Y, or Z, right.  

 Whatever, often, it is that the larger cultural forces are telling you  to do anyway, that we decide that that must happen because  

these three things happen. I say, well, in the course of a week,  

sure, you can find three wretched things that happened, but I’m  

guessing you could also find three awesome things that  

happened too. Life is varied, life is complex. So, maybe you could  construct a different story of like, I had this awesome morning at  home with my kids, and I turned in this great project on Tuesday  that my boss loved, and I made it to the gym on Thursday  

afternoon. Therefore, my life rocks. Right?  

Tanya Dalton : Right.  

Laura Vanderkam: But it’s a little bit harder to tell these stories in a positive way.  We’re more inclined to see the three dark moments, and make  

the epiphany come form that.  

Tanya Dalton : That makes sense, definitely. Here at Productivity Paradox, I talk a  lot about how these small wins, these small things that you’re  

looking for that find the happiness in your week, they build to  

bigger growth and give you momentum. Can you talk a little bit  

about the strategies to create sustainable patterns of these small  wins, and tell us a little bit about what those strategies are?  

Laura Vanderkam: Yeah. I’m a big believer that low expectations in the short run lead  to great things in the long run. I mean, seriously, lower your  

expectations to the point where you feel no resistance, where it’s  easy to do, but then just keep going, right. If you’re trying to write  a book, and you write … Oh, gosh, let’s say 500 words a day.  

That’s not a huge amount. You can get through that pretty  

quickly, but if you do that five times a week, that’s 2,500 words a  week. You could, in 25 weeks, have a book length manuscript, and  that’s sort of amazing to think about, that in six months you’d  

have a book length manuscript, but it’s from making these small,  everyday, just keep going sorts of things.  

 I’m currently in the middle of a running streak, which I don’t really  like to talk about too much anymore, because I think that’s like  

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begging to break your ankle or something. Knock on wood here. I  decided I wanted to run at least a mile a day every day, and what  that did for me is it changes the conversation from will I run to  

when am I going to run, all right, and when is a different  

conversation. I can fit it in my life. My life is such that I can always  fit it in my life. By saying it’s only a mile, well, I can get through a  mile in not much time. It doesn’t take much time to run a mile.  

Even if I was doing the slowest possible run, it would take 12  

minutes, okay. I can do anything for 12 minutes.  

 So, there’s no resistance to this idea of running one mile. Usually  by the time I’ve run one mile I’m feeling just fine to keep going. I’ll  run another mile, maybe run another mile too. If I’m outside, it’s a  beautiful day, I’ll run seven miles. But getting that first mile in  

means I’m running a lot more, so again, lower your expectations  

to the point where there’s no resistance, and then just keep doing  it, and then you can achieve amazing things over the long haul.  

Tanya Dalton : I love what you said there about it’s not about am I going to go  running, it’s when am I going running? So, it’s shifting that  

mindset and changing the vocabulary of how you’re talking about  the things that are important to you.  

Laura Vanderkam: Yeah, and if something’s important to you, it can pretty much fit  in almost any day, and I will admit that streaks like that cause you  to do a few OCD things that people would laugh at me. Was in a  hotel with my 9-year-old, and I couldn’t really leave him to go for  a run, and Noah wasn’t good to go outside, necessarily, so I  

wound up running laps in the hotel room.  

Tanya Dalton : That works.  

Laura Vanderkam: It works. It’s silly, but on the other hand, there’s some things you  do just to keep the streak. But changing that conversation. Many  days when I might not have run, there’s really no good reason, it’s  just that I didn’t feel like it. Well, it turns out I can run a mile, even  if I don’t feel like it. If it turns out I can run a mile if I’m busy, it  

turns out I can run a mile if I’m tired; it turns out I can run a mile,  

whatever else is going on. So, I’ve turned more days into exercise  days just by saying, well, every day is going to be an exercise day.  Once I know that, then it’s just a matter of how much I’m going to  do.  

Tanya Dalton : That makes sense. That’s a great way to look at it, I really think.  So, now, I know that you’ve recently collected about 900  

responses to a time perception survey for your new book, Off the  Clock, and I know that’s going to explore how people feel about  

their time. So, can you tell us a little bit about the results you’re  

seeing from that survey, and how they tie into your new book?  

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Laura Vanderkam: Yeah. I’m working my statistician right now, and I’m compiling  some of these survey results, but even just the initial stuff we’re  

seeing is pretty cool. One is that there are differences in how  

people who feel like they have enough time for the things they  

want to do spend their time, and people who feel more anxious  

and constrained about time feel about their time and what they  

  1. One small thing is that people who feel more relaxed turn out  to check their phone fewer times per hour than people who feel  

more anxious about time. People who feel relaxed about time are  more likely to read before bed than to check social media. It turns  out that a real book is better than Facebook for having that. You  feel like you actually have enough time for the things that you  

want to do.  

 And so much just the language that came across on time to our  size. People who feel like they have enough time have discovered  that people are a good use of time. Just the language of how  

people describe their days. The people who felt like time was  

abundant. So much of the stuff they were doing involved other  

people, and that’s not to say that they’re all extroverts or  

whatever. I mean, some of it’s just family. Went to the park with  

the kids after dinner, as opposed to just watch TV, or talked with  colleague on train home from work, or called sister at night.  

 Just the entries themselves tended to mention people that were  close to them, and that they were consciously spending time with  these people who were close to them, whereas people who felt  

like they had less time just had fewer mentions of other people,  

which I find fascinating too, because on some level, people  

represent commitments, and commitments can make you feel like  you have less time available. But on some level, having other  

people that you like with you makes time expand, and I guess  

that’s the best way I can put it.  

Tanya Dalton : That’s fascinating, it really is. I’m excited for this new book to  come out, because I’ve really enjoyed your other books, and I  

know you always have such amazing insights. So, before we go, I  would love to know if our listeners could only implement one  

actionable strategy or tactic, what would that be?  

Laura Vanderkam: Well, I’m going to cheat and give you two, because one is hard  and one is easy. So, the hard one is to, in fact, track your time for  a week. I promise you, whatever your life looks like, you will  

discover interesting things about your schedule, you will see, even  if you are very, very busy, that there’s probably time devoted to  

things you care less about that you can devote to things you care  more about. Knowing where the time goes can help you get the  

courage to make that decision. So, try tracking your time for a  

week. That’s the hard thing.  

 Here’s one easy thing you can do if you want to change your life.  Think through your weeks before you are in them. Just having a  

little bit of mindfulness about where you want the time to go can  help you make better choices about where the time will actually  

  1. I find a really good time to do this is Friday afternoon. Friday  afternoon, most of us are just sliding into the weekend, not a  

whole lot going on that’s of importance.  

 So, take a little bit of that time and redirect it towards your future  self. Look at the next week, look at what’s already on the  

calendar, but also then make yourself a short priority list for the  

next week. Three categories: career, relationships, self. Using all  

three categories reminds us to put something in all three  

categories, and right there that will give you a more balanced life  when you are actually thinking about what are my relationship  

priorities, what are my personal priorities, and looking over the  

next week and planning those in.  

Tanya Dalton : Those are great tips. I love both of them, and even though you  cheated and gave us two, I’ll take them both.  

Laura Vanderkam: Excellent. We aim to please.  

Tanya Dalton : Well, thank you so much, Laura, for joining me here, and I will, in  just a few minutes, share with our listeners your social media,  

where they connect with you there, and also on your blog,  

because I’d love for them to take advantage of the advice and  

just what amazing things you think about when it comes to time  tracking and being in charge of what you want to do with your  

time.  

Laura Vanderkam: Wonderful. Thank you so much for having me.  

Tanya Dalton : Didn’t I tell you Laura’s amazing? She is such a fabulous expert on  time management and changing your mindset for how you feel  

about time. If you’d like to connect with her, you can find her at  

lauravanderkam.com, and I’ll also have her social media links on  

my website, inkwellpress.com/podcast, under Episode 23. You’re  going to want to check her out. She has so many great resources  to share with you. If you’d like to connect with me, you can find  

me at inkwellpress.com/podcast, or find me on social media  

under the username @inkwellpress. Next week we’re going to be  piggybacking off of what we learned from Laura, and also what  

we learned in Episode 22 on banking your time, and we will be  

talking about scheduling the things that matter.  

 Until next time, happy planning.  

**This transcript is created by AI, so please excuse any typos, misspellings and grammar mistakes.

Tanya Dalton is a woman who loves speaking on stage as a keynote speaker. She has been called of the best woman keynote speakers by audience members after her her talks on productivity, time management, goal setting and purpose.

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