Work

How Do You Use Your 168 Hours Each Week?

An interview with the work-life expert who doesn’t think you’re as busy as you think.

A collage with the main focus being a clock.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Laura Vanderkam is a work-life-balance expert who believes we have time to do it all—at least, all that is important to us. For the past three years, she’s meticulously logged and analyzed how she spends her hours, and has also researched how other people spend the 168 hours we all have each week. Her conclusion: We have enough time to do most things—we just need to prioritize and be realistic about our expectations.

Off the Clock, Vanderkam’s seventh book, offers advice for releasing ourselves from the shackles of busyness. She works full time, is raising four young kids, and runs at least a mile each day (even during a bout of stomach flu). By her logic, if she has time, so do we. It starts by changing our mindset about just how busy we are. By viewing our weeks in terms of hours available, even a 15-minute increment can open up opportunities for relationships, hobbies, and workouts.

I spoke to Vanderkam about the new book and whether this method can really work for most people.

Off the Clock cover

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Rebecca Gale: You’re well known for your time-log technique, where people, including those in high-powered positions, can track their hours and discover that they have more time available for things they prioritize. But doesn’t this include some assumptions that people can control a number of aspects of their life? How does time logging speak to someone who has less control over their day-to-day time?

Laura Vanderkam: Different people have different amounts of control over their time. Even people who don’t have control over some aspects of their time often have control over other bits of time. I was recently talking to people from a company known for extreme work hours and travel: “When I show up at the client site at 8 a.m. until the end of the day, I don’t control what I do.” But if you don’t control what happens from 8 a.m.–8 p.m., you might control from 6 a.m.–8 a.m. People who did wish to do things would get up and run, or swim in the hotel. Some people elected not to use that, and they would be more prone to think, “I don’t have time available.” It’s very seldom that someone would have all 168 hours dictated.

That includes people with young children. People staying at home with young children may feel like they don’t have space for anything. There are strategies you can still use to find time, such as during naptime, after bedtime, trading with a partner or friends.

It’s about changing our story from “no time” to “some time.” The latter story is far more useful. You can do something with that. If you spend 15 minutes a day reading, you can read whole novels in a month.

One of my favorite lines is this: “The most common reaction other people will have to your shedding an obligation is nothing.” I’m curious if this is something you’ve found to always be true, or if there are notable exceptions?

Of course there are some exceptions. If it were easy to get rid of all obligations, more people would do it. We often build up things in our mind and think someone is noticing them more than they are. “Oh, I can’t take a real break at my office.” Well, people go to the bathroom. Probably, no one is actually tracking you. Women in particular have stories of things they absolutely have to do on the homefront, but might realize that other people don’t care as much. “I have to pick up the toys before I can relax.” No, you actually don’t.

There are other evidence-based conversations about busyness and policies that would help alleviate some of the busy-related stress: paid family leave, investments in transportation that would lower commute times, and livable wages, which would allow a breadwinner to support a family by working 40 hours a week. What role do such legislative priorities play in allowing more people to feel less busy while getting more done?

Well, there needs to be a conversation about paid family leave. From conversations that I’ve had with plenty of women looking at where the tough times are, needing to go back [to work] earlier is often a trigger for people winding up saying they can’t do it. When you get longer maternity leaves, they are coming back at a time when they feel they can do it.

I think that the issue with a lot of policies is that you can see it going different ways. Among the policies mandating a certain livable wage, there isn’t as much of an opportunity for flextime, or work at home for more low-skilled people, which maybe more women are interested in. If you’re requiring a family-supporting wage, that may be more suited to people working 40 hours a week. You always have to be careful of unintended consequences. If wages have to be a certain way, it can discourage people from hiring those with spottier employment histories. People who have been out of the workforce may find it harder to get back in. Employers might be able to take a risk on those without straightforward employment histories.

We can work for various changes, but what we do in our own life matters as well. I don’t think these are in opposition. I think we can do both.

The tag lines and blurbs on your book talk about “doing more,” but much of the book actually advocates doing less: lingering awhile and making open-ended plans to chat with friends. How do the less-is-more tactics jive with getting more done?

It’s about spending less time on the things you don’t want to do so you can spend more time on the things you do want to do. If you’re focused on a really important project at work that you’re passionate about achieving, it’s a better use of time than sitting in four meetings that are not advancing. Time is time, but it’s a trade-off too. Time spent on one thing is time not spent on something else. Doing less and doing more are related in that way.

So is productivity overrated?

I think productivity is getting to do what matters to you. I don’t think there is anything wrong with getting what matters to you done. The fact that you got your inbox down from 150 unread messages to 50 unread messages does not mean that anything got done. You want to make sure you are using the right metrics.

I think I’m at 200 unread messages.

[Laughs] I probably have more than that. Getting what matters to you done is awesome. I think that is entirely compatible with having open space in your life where you don’t have to be on your phone every minute. It’s about filling your time with what matters and leaving open space for opportunity. If that is productivity, that’s great. If it’s about emails you delete or how many meetings you can cram into one day, that is a different matter.

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