A Time-Management Book Changed My Life! (Again.)

A review of Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.

I read Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think last month and I have a new outlook on life. I do have more time than I think. 168 hours—the number of hours in a week—is a vast playground of possibility. If I just focus more on what’s important to me (career goals and cooking or reading with my kids) and abandon the nagging stuff (the laundry, the scrapbooking fantasy), I have time for “anything [I] really want to do,” Vanderkam says. I’m sold.

Of course, I’ve been sold before. Under Vanderkam’s book on my desk lies a pile that represents a brief history of time-management: 25 Best Time Management Tools and Techniques. The Not-So-Big-Life. Addicted to Stress. Getting Things Done. Never Be Late Again. Managing Life With Kids. The Four-Hour Workweek. Time Management for the Creative Person.

I’m clearly addicted to something, but I doubt that (as the author of that particular volume would have it) it’s stress. I’m irresistibly drawn in by time management itself: the illusion that somehow, if I can just seize control of my schedule and prioritize and work strategically, I will get everything done and then live happily ever after. And since I can’t be the only person buying all of these books (two were best-sellers), I’m not the only one who ought to be asking the obvious question: Are we getting anything out of all of this reading, or are we just wasting more time?

I spent a week following Vanderkam’s regime, which meant strictly quantifying my life. (Not surprisingly, there’s an app for that—several. I used TimeManager.) I discovered that work absorbed only 22 of the 30 hours I spend at my desk. I didn’t watch much television, but devoted 4 hours to the obtaining, preparation, and consumption of coffee, and only three hours to biking, ostensibly my hobby of choice. I slept for 52 hours and e-mailed for five, and I otherwise wasted, blew, or frittered away some 32 hours—yes, 32—on such all-important miscellany as online shopping, Facebook, and other activities so small they hadn’t even merited recording.

Once it was all laid out before me, it was impossible not to conclude that Vanderkam was right: If I blocked out my time rather than accepting constant interruptions and stopped spending time on small things that I neither cared about nor enjoyed, I’d have more time to do the things I supposedly want to do. Using her prescription, I “found” nearly another hour in every day for both writing and playing with my kids—the two things I figure I’ll wish I’d spent more time on when I’m on my deathbed. I felt good; I felt productive; I earned a time-management gold star. Did I, with Vanderkam’s help, come up with a radical new way of thinking about time?

Not even close. What’s remarkable about my experience with 168 Hours isn’t that I gained an extra two hours—it’s that I gained them by following essentially the same advice I could have found in any of the other dozen books in my stack. Every one starts with measurement: The 25 Best Time-Management Tools and Techniques demands that you “Find Out What Time Means to You!” by tracking what you’re doing every five minutes for a week. Sarah Susanka gently encourages seekers of The Not-So-Big Life to “understand our relationship with time” through the use of a multipage time-usage questionnaire. The advice that follows, too, is the same: Eliminate the waste and cease the frittering. “Get rid of non-core-competency work,” says Vanderkam; “Prioritize the important over the urgent,” Time Management for Creative People tells me. Make a list of the things you should do, and the things you have to do, James T. McCay told the Greatest Generation in The Management of Time, published 50 years ago. Now take the list of things you “should do” and throw it away.

Time management is like an American form of Buddhism: a complete and graceful ability to do everything you want to do in precisely the time you’ve been given is our nirvana. Seekers (like me) are happy to read and apply the same advice again and again, because a systematic approach makes that feeling of having as much time as you need seem within reach. “Numbers,” said Gary Wolf, writing about the urge to track our lives for the New York Times Magazine, “make problems less resonant emotionally but more tractable intellectually.” And that’s the sucker punch of the time-management approach: It turns the question of “not having enough time” into a math problem, and allows the real issue to slip under the radar.

Of course I can take 30 minutes away from getting coffee and apply them toward advancing my career, but unless Vanderkam takes up residence under my desk with a taser, there will still be moments when I want the coffee more than I want the half hour, because some part of me believes that there will always be another half hour to come. “You have more time than you think” is the tagline for 168 Hours. But, in fact, to truly embrace time-management, I need to absorb the opposite principle: I have less time than I think. It’s even more Buddhist than I thought: To make the most of every minute, to fully embrace every second of every day, we have to accept we only have a limited number of minutes and seconds left.

My inability to do that is why even the best time-management book (and 168 Hours is a good one) will never fully work on me. Like most people, I know what I’m doing “wrong.” We know—if not with precision then with certainty—that we waste time. I know there’s a difference between the things I want to do and the things I want to have done. But no matter how many books and magazine articles we pile up about making better use of our time, we will continue our waste and fritter, because we want to pretend that we have all the time in the world. I want to imagine such vast reserves of hours, minutes, and seconds that even The Real Housewives of New York City looks like an appealing way to spend it, and that’s an illusion I can’t live without.

168 Hours did change my life, as most of these books have. Even the goofiest of them gave me a mantra I still use daily. If it takes less than two minutes, I do it now. (A million readers of Getting Things Done, Slate’s John Dickerson included, will recognize that one.)  I never think about what time we need to leave the house, I think about what time we need to load the car (because four small kids don’t do that in an instant). I can already see the Vanderkam takeaway in action: I own my time. So if I’m going to do something, I do it, instead of miring myself in multitasking misery. That alone is worth the hours that went into reading, tracking, and analyzing.

But what I really need is the process itself. Looking at my days and my time is my way of meditating about who I am and what I want to do with my life. The call of 168 Hours is the call of the brief spiritual check-in. “Are we putting enough of ourselves into the stuff that’s most important?” is a question everybody asks once in a while. Some people ask it in church, some in post-yoga Savasana. Millions of Type-A Americans, list-makers and time-trackers all, cloak it in the guise of making the most of our time. But the real issue is the same for everybody: We’re here, and then we’re not. Whatever comes in between those clauses takes more than a little time to figure out.

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