You’re Not Too Busy

Think you’re too busy to read a good book, have a quiet hour with your spouse or go to the gym five days a week? You’re not, you just choose to spend too much of your time on unimportant and less rewarding activities, argues Laura Vanderkam in her book, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.

Every week, you–and everyone else–get 168 hours in which to work, sleep, exercise, do chores, run errands, spend time with your kids and save the world. Let’s say you work 50 hours a week and then sleep for 8 hours a night, that still leaves 62 hours to do other things. Sure, you’ve got to commute, bathe and do chores, but 62 hours is a lot of time. What exactly are you doing with it?

Odds are, you have no idea. The first part of the problem is that we lie on time-use surveys. We tell researchers we work longer hours and spend more time on chores than we actually do. And then we under-report our sleep and leisure time. It’s not that we mean to fib: It’s human nature to overestimate the hard stuff and underestimate the good stuff. But, Vanderkam argues, these little white lies combine into one big dark secret: “The problem is not that we’re all overworked or under-rested, it’s that most of us have absolutely no idea how we spend our 168 hours.”

You can start a business and raise six kids, as one woman Vanderkam interviews seems to manage to do. You can train for a triathlon and clock in 60-hour weeks at a tech start-up. And, yes, women can have a Career – with a capital “C” – and be mothers, Vanderkam assures readers, as long as they are deliberate about how they spend their time.

While 168 Hours certainly gets up in your business for wasting time, it’s not some dull or preachy book about time-management: It’s a compellingly written, logical argument against the emotional complaint “I’m too busy,” presented alongside practical advice and engaging collection of time-use tricks. Among the key points to maximize the benefits of your 168 hours:

  1. Figure out where your time goes: Visit and print off a PDF time-log to get started. (And be honest!)
  2. Figure out your core competencies: What can be done only by you every week? For example, only you can spend that quality time with your children. Only you can get yourself in shape. And only you can do certain projects at work. If you invest your time on those core-competencies, you’ll be more efficient–and feel more satisfied by your efforts.
  3. Do work that makes you happy. Being happy in your chosen work allows you to get into that great “blissed out” work zone where you are totally absorbed in what your doing, and actually accomplishing a lot more efficiently than if you were dragging your feet.
  4. Watching TV is not the best use of your leisure time. Americans watch, on average, about 30 hours of television each week. But studies show vegging out in front of the TV doesn’t give us as much pleasure as an evening with friends or spending quality (focused) time with a spouse.
  5. Take control of your calendar: As Stephen Covey argues in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, we often spend too much time on the urgent matters of life–the emails that ping in, putting out fires and attending to things that are distracting us–rather than focusing enough attention on the important elements, like spending time with those you love and setting and accomplishing career goals. Look through your time diary and be honest about how much time you are currently devoting to “important” stuff.

In an interview, Vanderkam (who is a friend of mine) said she wrote the book for middle class and upper-middle class Americans–the folks who would be willing to shell out $25.95 on a hardcover. Feeling stressed about our time is a function of affluence, Vanderkam argues. A 2007 study finds that, controlling for market and non-market hours (paid work and housework/childcare), people feel more time stress as their income rises.

Still, let’s not forget that it’s a luxury to worry about how to spend our time in the most useful and rewarding ways. Vanderkam’s solutions for freeing up more time for meaningful activities involve a lot of outsourcing–which costs money–and she acknowledges that this isn’t feasible for everyone.

“We all have 168 hours a week. Time spent doing one thing is time not spent doing another. I would argue that unless you are making a conscious point of involving your kids with an activity such as laundry–a reasonable idea if they’re ten, not so easy if they’re two–doing loads of it is taking time away from them. Freed from unnecessary domestic burdens, we become better parents and people.”

While a schedule-overhaul might not be possible for everyone, everyone could benefit from a little more awareness about where the hours go. And if you are one of those blessed, affluent types constantly complaining about how busy you are, 168 Hours tells you, politely, to stop whining and make better choices. And that message is worth making time to hear.