168 Hours

"It turns out that there is a fundamental flaw in the data used to support the claim that we suffer from time poverty and overwork: we lie."

- 168 Hours, page 19

A chronic problem plaguing most working adults is the fact that we never seem to have enough time. There’s never enough time to get our work done, or for personal pursuits, or the relationships that matter most to us. Laura Vanderkam recognized this problem and got curious about what successful, happy people do differently that allows them to lead full, meaningful lives. The results of her research and interviews culminated into the ultimate time management manifesto: 168 Hours.

Using a case study-based approach, Vanderkam outlines for the reader exactly what they need to do to overhaul their schedules and start living the life they desire. The book operates on the principle that

In order to make the most of your time, you must understand your core competencies and goals for your life. With that clarity, you can make better choices about how to allocate your time at work and at home. Vanderkam also points out that in order to make any of these changes, we have to change our thinking about time. We actually have to believe that we do have the time for what’s important, and reject the notion that busyness is a sign of self-worth. When we shift our thinking about this concept, we open ourselves up to making time for our priorities and begin to appreciate every hour to be a precious choice we get to make.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Filter time decisions through your core competencies and dreams

"When you focus on what you do best, on what brings you the most satisfaction, there is plenty of space for everything else."
- 168 Hours, page 12

Vanderkam lays the groundwork for the rest of the book by getting the reader to think about what they are really good at—both at work and in their personal lives. She states that by focusing your time on what you do best and minimizing all other activities, you’ll have a greater sense of satisfaction and have time for other pursuits and hobbies. This concept is not unlike what Timothy Ferriss purports in The 4 Hour Work Week, though I feel Vanderkam presents in a more accessible, less entrepreneurial fashion.

In addition to identifying your core competencies, Vanderkam recommends taking the time to make a List of 100 Dreams. These are the activities that you would like to use your 168 hours for, be it things you want to try or accomplish. This list is subject to change over the course of your lifetime, but Vanderkam notes that it is the compass on your time allocation journey. I found this exercise to be very liberating, as it was not solely about career goals but looking at your life on the whole. I was even surprised to find myself list such things as: achieve fluency in French, complete a 90-day yoga challenge and speak at a TED conference. It’s a reminder that life is made up of more than just a vocation.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Keep a time diary

"The problem isn’t that we’re all over-worked or underrested, it’s that most of us have absolutely no idea how we spend our 168 hours."
- 168 Hours, page 21

Vanderkam is quick to call the reader’s bluff and make them question how they really are using their time. For instance, if you’re working 40 hours a week and sleeping 8 hours a night, you still have 72 hours for other activities. That’s a lot of time! But have you ever thought about what you’re specifically doing during each of those 72 hours?

To tackle this, Vanderkam suggests keeping a detailed time diary for 1 to 2 weeks to get a sense of what you’re doing, even setting a timer for every 30 minutes to log your activities. You can find a copy of the time log here.

I went through this exercise and was very surprised to find out how much time I was actually working. As a freelance writer and consultant, it can seem that I’m working all the time, especially since I work from home. But upon closer examination, I found that I worked 31.5 hours and spent approximately 9.5 hours travelling to and from meetings. That second number seemed especially high, and so I’m now making an active effort to have one day a week dedicated to off-site meeting day to reduce my travel time to 3.5 hours per week. Since I usually take transit, I take advantage of that time by doing a lot of reading. The upside, of course, is that I now have an additional 4 hours that I can spend on billable client work.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Evenings and weekends

"When you give structure and purpose to your leisure time, though - the equivalent of treating your weekend wardrobe with the respect you’d assign to your weekday suit and tie - you can have the kind of full life that few of us think is possible."
- 168 Hours, page 182

As someone who has long struggled with how to use leisure time, I appreciated Vanderkam’s candid approach to making the most of our leisure time. It boils down to the fact that “we don’t use the time we have well”. I certainly noticed this as I kept my own time logs. There are studies that suggest that Americans watch as much as 30 hours per week of TV. I was happy to find that I only spent about 7 hours watching my favourite programs. But in light of reading Vanderkam’s book, I had to wonder if this was really the best use of my time. Especially on weekends which are ripe for spending quality time with family and friends.

Vanderkam suggests a 5-step process to improving leisure time use:

  • Choose a small number of activities that bring you the most happiness (one of these has to be exercise).
  • Create blocks in your schedule for these activities.
  • Commit enough time, energy and resources to make them meaningful.
  • Use the principle of alignment to build in more time with family and friends, or for leisure generally.
  • Use bits of time for bits of joy. There will always be the odd 10 or 20-minute block of time available. Make a list of compact activities that you can do that will bring you joy.

I’ve read a number of books and articles on time management, but I have to say that this is by far my favourite resource. It’s written in an engaging fashion and gives the reader tasks to do along the way. Best of all, 168 Hours is not just about providing you with the well-known tips like stop checking email so often or don’t attend meetings. It empowers you with a proactive mindset to approach your 168 hours to live a meaningful life.

How do you use your 168 hours and what would you like to make time for?

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Vanessa Chase

ABOUT Vanessa Chase

I am a fundraising strategist and copywriter, and run the non-profit resource website, Philanthropy For All. Through my work, my goal is to help passionate non-profit folks better articulate their non-profit’s impact and work is a way that translates to engaged philanthropic communities...
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