#264: 21 Common English Words & Phrases on Time Management [from Laura Vanderkam’s TED Talk]

Feb 1, 2023 | Advanced Vocabulary, English Conversation

How often do you watch a TED Talk to practice your English and feel frustrated, annoyed, or stuck because the speaker used a word or expression you’d never heard before?

There are, certainly, many ways to boost your English vocabulary. And in this Confident English today, I want to share one of my favorites. And most effective.

When I help students build vocabulary, I ask them to select a TED Talk or podcast on a topic they enjoy. 

Then we explore it in-depth. We highlight all the new vocabulary – idioms, collocations, phrasal verbs, and more. 

We listen carefully to how the speaker uses the words, using context clues to understand. 

From there we work out the meaning and create our own example sentences. I do this so my students can see how to use those words in their own lives and in their own English conversations. 


This is precisely what I want to do with you today. 

Together we’ll explore 21 Common English Words and Phrases from Laura Vanderkam’s TED Talk on time management titled How to Gain Control of Your Free Time. 

Laura Vanderkam is a time-management expert with a podcast titled Before Breakfast, with bite-sized episodes with productivity advice.


With each new vocabulary, we’ll look at how it was used in the TED Talk, what it means, and an alternative example. 

After you watch this lesson, I recommend that you watch this specific TED Talk so you can hear how these common English phrases are used in context. To make it easy for you to do so, I’ll leave a direct link in the notes below the video.

Doing so will significantly increase your ability to remember what you learn so you can easily use this new vocabulary in your English conversations. 

Moreover, you’ll gain insight into how to effectively manage your time and accomplish what you want.


21 Common English Words and Phrases on Time Management | from Laura Vanderkam’s TED Talk 

To get started, let me give you some background on this particular TED Talk. And I want to ask you this: How often do you feel that there aren’t enough hours in a day, or days in a week, to get things done? 

Like me, you may have wondered how some people seem to have time to do everything, despite juggling a busy career, family, and active social life. 

In this TedTalk, Laura Vanderkam explains how busy people manage their time and how you can do it too. 

To demystify time management, she:

  • shares her personal experience and perception of time;
  • dispels the illusion that there isn’t enough time;
  • and, offers practical strategies to help us “build the lives we want with the time we’ve got.” 

To make this lesson easy to navigate, I’ve organized it into 3 parts. 

Part 1: Savor the Irony (0:00)

To begin, Laura gives us a look into her daily, and normal, life. She describes her relatable and rocky relationship with time management.

While sharing these thoughts, Laura uses the following words and phrases:

  • To be on time (phrase)
    • Def: to arrive, happen, or do something at an appropriate time; to be punctual
    • Context: “One is that I’m always on time, and I’m not.”
    • Alternative Example “The plane wasn’t on time, so our layover was 5 hours long.”
  • Tardiness (noun)
    • Def: the quality of being late or slow
    • Context: “I have four small children, and I would like to blame them for my occasional tardiness.”
    • Alternative Example “I apologize for my tardiness; there was a lot of traffic!”
  • Irony (noun)
    • Def: the use of words to express something opposite of the literal meaning; a situation that produces an opposite or different result than the one intended or expected
    • Context: “We all had to just take a moment together and savor that irony.”
    • Alternative Example “The irony is that the situation will actually improve the situation.”
  • To shave off [sth] (phrasal verb)
    • Def: to cut a very thin piece from an object or surface; to deduct or reduce
    • Context: “And the idea is that we’ll shave bits of time off everyday activities, add it up, and we’ll have time for the good stuff.”
    • Alternative Example “Kate looked for ways to shave off some expenses from the event.”
  • To come up with [sth] (phrasal verb) 
    • Def: to suggest or think of an idea or plan
    • Context: “…but I’m always interested in hearing what they’ve come up with before they call me.”
    • Alternative Example “I need some more time to come up with a good solution.”
  • To have [sth] backward (idiom)
    • Def: to understand something in the opposite way; to be lacking in development
    • Context: “But after studying how successful people spend their time and looking at their schedules hour by hour, I think this idea has it completely backward.”
    • Alternative Example “She had the situation backward and thought everyone had forgotten her birthday.”
  • To keep track of [sth] (idiom) 
    • Def: to be aware of something, including all changes; to monitor or follow through
    • Context: “I had them keep track of their time for a week…”
    • Alternative Example “I always keep track of my expenses to make sure I’m staying within my budget.”
  • Aftermath (noun)
    • Def: a situation that is the result of an accident, crime, or another unfortunate event
    • Context: “So she’s dealing with the immediate aftermath that night…”
    • Alternative Example “There are calls for another election in the aftermath of the recent scandal.”
  • To wind up (phrasal verb)
    • Def: to end up doing something; to finally be somewhere
    • Context: “All this is being recorded on her time log. Winds up taking seven hours of her week.”
    • Alternative Example “If she doesn’t get here soon, she’ll wind up missing her appointment.”
  • To accommodate (verb) 
    • Def: to have enough space for something or someone; to compromise and/or do what someone wants 
    • Context: “We cannot make more time, but time will stretch to accommodate what we choose to put into it.”
    • Alternative Example “We cannot accommodate more than 100 people in this theater.”
  • Elastic (adjective)
    • Def: Adaptable to the demands of a particular situation or need.
    • Context: “And what this shows us is that time is highly elastic.”
    • Alternative Example “Several months ago in the Confident Women Community, we discussed the idea that friendships are elastic..”
  • To have it all (idiom)
    • Def: to have or get everything one wants
    • Context: “I was getting in touch with her to set up an interview on how she “had it all” — that phrase.”
    • Alternative Example “It’s easy to assume that someone has it all: money, success, and love.”

Part 2: It’s Not a Priority (4:00)

In the second part of her talk, Laura redefines what we really mean when we say we don’t have time for something or someone.

To reframe our thoughts on time, Laura uses the following words and phrases:

  • To catch up with someone (idiom)
    • Def: to learn/discuss the most recent news; to meet with someone
    • Context: “So of course this makes me even more intrigued, and when I finally do catch up with her, she explains it like this.”
    • Alternative Example “I can’t wait to catch up with my friends and family during my vacation.”
  • Priority (noun)
    • Def: something that is highly important and takes precedence over others; something that is assigned the most attention
    • Context: “…I don’t do x, y or z because it’s not a priority.”
    • Alternative Example “At the moment, my priority is to spend more time with my family.”
  • To figure out (phrasal verb)
    • Def: to solve or completely understand something/someone
    • Context: “Well, first we need to figure out what they are.”
    • Alternative Example “These cookies are delicious; I need to figure out how you made these!”
  • To look back over (idiom)
    • Def: to think about a past event or review something 
    • Context: “You look back over your successes over the year, your opportunities for growth.”
    • Alternative Example “When you’re learning a new skill, it’s important to document what you learn and look back over what you’ve learned.”

Part 3: Break It Down (7:00)

Finally, in Part 3, Laura shares practical tips to help us effectively manage our time and actively build our ideal lives.

In sharing her tips and strategies, Laura uses the following words and phrases:

  • To break down [sth] (phrasal verb)
    • Def: to deconstruct or divide into parts/categories
    • Context: “And now we need to break these down into doable steps.”
    • Alternative Example “Would you mind breaking down how to write this report?”
  • To think through [sth] (phrasal verb)
    • Def: to carefully consider all outcomes or aspects of something 
    • Context: “We do this by thinking through our weeks before we are in them.”
    • Alternative Example “Let’s take a few days to think through the different options.”
  • Low opportunity cost (noun)
    • Def: the minimal amount of resources or energy that is required to take advantage of an opportunity  
    • Context: “Friday afternoon is what an economist might call a ‘low opportunity cost’ time.”
    • Alternative Example “Recreational reading has a low opportunity cost for improved well-being.”
  • To minimize (verb)
    • Def: to lessen or reduce; to underestimate something or someone intentionally 
    • Context: “And, I don’t want to minimize anyone’s struggle.”
    • Alternative Example “Perhaps, we should minimize the time we spend on social media.”
  • To putter around (idiom)
    • Def: to spend time in a relaxed way doing small jobs and other things that are not very important 
    • Context: “Otherwise, we’re puttering around the house or watching TV.”
    • Alternative Example “I didn’t do much this weekend; I mostly puttered around.”

As I recommended at the start of this lesson, listen to this TED Talk. You can use the link I’ve provided: How to gain control of your free time by Laura Vanderkam.

While you do, listen for the specific phrases you learned today. Note how they are used. 

Then, after you listen, follow these steps:

  • Choose 2-3 new phrases from today’s lesson.
  • Study the examples and determine whether the phrases have a negative or positive context. 
  • Create your own example sentence for each of the chosen phrases. You can share them with me in the comments below.
  • Practice using the phrases in your daily English conversations. 

You can share your answers — as well as your questions — with me in the comments below.

~ Annemarie


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