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Maybe We’re Not That Busy: Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours

7-11Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Penguin) has two genuine insights to offer. The first is right there in the subtitle: Many of us—especially those of us who claim to be insanely busy—probably aren’t quite as overworked as we claim, and that it is in fact possible to fit in most of what you actually want to do during the typical week. The second follows more or less directly from the first: Become more self-conscious about how you use your time, and you will both accomplish more and be happier about it.

168 hours is, of course, the number of hours in a week. To show that we have more time than we think, Vanderkam relies on the American Time Use Survey and related time diaries, which peg our typical workweek at closer to 40 hours (or less!), rather than the 70+ workweeks that one hears so much of in the media. Time-diary surveys in particular suggest that we report ourselves as sleeping less than we in fact do. That’s probably good for our health, but not good for our sense that we are in control of our lives. We also overestimate how much time we spend on hated routine tasks, such as chores. By opening 168 Hours with this research, Vanderkam offers both hope and a way out: you can probably wring more out of your life than you currently are, and that the best way to do this is with a time diary.

The rest of the book is basically a series of ways to operationalize this insight. Vanderkam provides time diaries, with instructions for how to complete them. Once you have a sense of where your time is being spent now, she has strategies for how to use a calendar to get to your preferred life—whether that’s more work success, more time with your kids, volunteering, or whatever. Although she applies these strategies over these different dimensions of “the good life,” she’s quick to point out that the basic insight is always the same: Become more mindful about what you take on. Figure out what you’re good at, or what you enjoy, and devote the most possible time to that. Figure out what you can dump on other people, and be sure to do that as often as possible. As I said in my review of Kathleen Norris’s Acedia, I’m not at all sure that this is an ethical way to inhabit a community, and I probably have enough Carlyle in me to be skeptical of the idea that one’s own happiness should be the lodestar of one’s life.

If Vanderkam’s major point is that we should be mindful about our time, her smaller suggestion is to stop wishing you could do X, Y, or Z and just, you know, do it. Even in small doses, a habit does make a difference over time, in two different ways. First, it gives you the feeling that you are actually doing something for yourself, rather than others, and second, it’s like interest—over the long run it accumulates more than you think. That sounds like good advice.

It is worth saying that, at some point during reading 168 Hours, you will want to drive to New York to throw it at Vanderkam, just from the book’s genuine cluelessness about the privilege oozing from every sentence. The author’s descriptions of her own life don’t help: I had a difficult time making it past the first page, inasmuch as it posits a 2-yr-old who sleeps, unassisted, until 7am before cruising off to an all-day preschool. (My kid just turned 7 and I can still count on my fingers the number of times he’s slept until 7.) Nor does her casual mixing of every single trendy business author of the past two decades. (I’ll just mention that it was probably bad luck to suggest “act like a business and dump everything except your core competencies” during the worst period of sustained American unemployment in 60 years. The reliance on business bestsellers also hurts Vanderkam’s prose—it’s clearly written to be read on an elliptical machine.) Finally, the relentless focus on the lives of the very successful proves too much. Those people are already able to make choices about their time that many people just can’t. There’s an old Doonesbury cartoon that I couldn’t stop thinking about: Jane Fonda complains to her cleaning lady that she (the housekeeper) should be more interested in Fonda’s exercise videos. The housekeeper says she’s too busy, and Jane responds, a la Vanderkam, “Nonsense—look how busy I am, and I have plenty of time to exercise.” The housekeeper’s answer is quietly devastating, and entirely appropriate throughout this book: “Yes, but you’re as busy as you want to be, and I’m as busy as I have to be. There’s a difference.” Academics will also enjoy the mention of the programmer who teaches 2 classes per semester on the side, and only spends 6 hours per week on them—including the actual class time!

I can’t unequivocally recommend any book that irritated me so often, but I can say that 168 Hours has some good, practical strategies for reinventing your schedule and for making minor improvements.

[Image by Flickr user Reinis Traidas / Creative Commons licensed.]

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