BOOK REVIEW: Make time a blank slate

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, by Laura Vanderkam

THE beginning of a new working year is a suitable point for reflection. You undoubtedly want to do, achieve or become something, but doing anything worthwhile has to be done well, and to do that takes time.

“Being busy has become the explanation of choice for all sorts of things,” says the author, Laura Vanderkam. We are too busy to read, spend quality time with our families, attend to our devotions, keep fit, and have a vibrant social life. Is all this only possible if you can find a part-time career paying full-time rates? Or as many work-life balance protagonists tell us, do we need to lower our expectations to get it all in?

Amazon lists 35 000 books on time management, so why bother with reviewing this one? Because I think Vanderkam has insights worth considering.

A Harvard Business Review article entitled ‘The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek’ suggests that the 60-hour workweek is no longer the route to the top, it “is now considered practically part-time”. But the Federal Bureau of Labour Statistics study in which work is actually recorded, shows this to be wrong.

Americans sleep about 8 hours a night, just as we did 40 years ago, and we work a lot less than we think we do – on average ‘full-time’ logs 35 to 43 hours per week. Another study of those who really do work over 60-hour workweeks reports finding no more than 1.7 million Americans, just over 1% of the workforce.

“I’m more interested in the woman down the street,” writes Vanderkam, “who - without benefit of fame, outsized fortune, or a slew of personal assistants - is running a successful small business, marathons, and a large and happy household.”

We all have exactly the same amount of time. When we do meet the “woman down the street” we can only marvel at why and how she is able to fill her time with so many meaningful things, while others just dream of 15 minutes to take a bubble bath. That is the central question this book answers.

The book reports on the lives of many women (and a few men) who seem to do it all. Vanderkam explains that “the point of these stories is not to make anyone feel bad or lazy. Rather, I view these stories as liberating, particularly as a young(ish) person trying to build my career and family - as well as nurture my personal passions for running, singing, and other things - in a world that continually laments how hard it is to do it all.”

Here are some facts. There are 168 hours in a week (24 hours a day times the 7 days in the week.) Planned well these 168 hours are sufficient to accommodate full-time work, intense involvement with your family, rejuvenating leisure time, adequate sleep, and everything else that you wish to accomplish.

Do the maths: even if you actually put in 8 hours of real, focused work each day (see the facts above!) that leaves you 128 hours each week. If you sleep 8 hours a day so you are always fresh and well rested, that leaves you 88 hours each week. Put in an hour of exercise a day and you have 81 hours left. Spend 3 hours a day on housework and you have 60 hours each week… You get the point.

We work less than we think we do, and we have more time than we think we have. The hard, but hopeful truth is that you can have all that time to allocate as you choose, but not without effort.

Why do we think we are so time-starved? We lie. We are, in so many ways, extraordinarily inefficient. 

One of Vanderkam’s hyper-successful women down the street, Theresa Daytner, put it this way: “Here’s what I think is the difference, I know I’m in charge of me. Everything that I do, every minute I spend is my choice. If I’m not spending my time wisely, I fix it, even if it’s just quiet time.”

A different approach to time

What if we approached time differently: started with the unfilled 168 hours and viewed every minute as our own choice? Instead of asserting firmly that we cannot do everything, we tell ourselves that we won’t be doing these things, because they are just not a priority in our life.

When you say “I don’t have time”, you are making someone else responsible for your time: a manager, a client, your family. When something is not a priority, it turns those 168 hours back into a blank slate to be filled as you choose it to be - with the things that you have decided matter to you.

Recording how you spend your time as a time-diary study is a valuable tool, because it forces you to face the reality that a day has 24 hours and a week has 168. Everything we do must be accommodated within these limits. It will also force us to face another reality: we overestimate work and housework, and underestimate how much we sleep and how much leisure or discretionary time we actually have.

Consider this: the problem may not be that you are overworked or under-rested, it may well be that you have absolutely no idea how you spend your 168 hours. Perhaps you can be in better shape than you have ever been, because you’re sleeping enough and exercising enough. Perhaps you don’t have to choose between working to climb the career ladder and building a ladder for your kid’s tree-house, because there is plenty of time for both.

To do this you will need to clarify two issues: what are your most important priorities, and how do you really allocate your time? Only then can you take time out to plan how you will use your 168 hours.

While 168 hours is a lot of time, time is a non-renewable resource to be used very carefully.

Readability:  Light -+--- Serious
Insights:      High --+-- Low
Practical:      High -+--- Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works. Views expressed are his own.

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