On a recent episode of Man Up, Aymann Ismail tried to break his worst habit: being late all the time. To learn how to manage his time better, he spoke to Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab (and host of its podcast) and author of a bestselling book about time pressure. She told him about a researcher who explained women have 30 hours a week of leisure time and men have 40 hours a week—something she didn’t believe until she kept a time diary. This edited transcript of their conversation contains bonus material you won’t hear on the podcast.
Aymann Ismail: So we were supposed to start this interview at 9:30. When we were planning it, all of my producers were just glaring at me in the meeting. They were like, “Aymann, are you going to get here on time?” That should just give you a little bit of insight into the disarray that my life is currently in.
Brigid Schulte: Well, I have to be perfectly honest, I wrote a book about time because I guess you write books about the things that you most need to learn about. And I’m delighted that I was here on time this morning, so I struggle with that myself.
I’m not really a detail-type person, and I never wanted to plan. I wanted to be open to life and spontaneous. Part of why I resisted [keeping a time diary] is here was this guy, this time use expert, telling me that I had 30 hours of leisure a week, and if I didn’t feel like I had it, I was really afraid that he would be right. He did find 27 hours of what he called leisure, and I literally burst into tears because it was 10 minutes here and five minutes here and little bits of garbage-y time.
My work life and my home life clash often, and one of the ways that I try and extend my home life is I’ll just stay up later. I don’t want to go to sleep because I know that when I wake up, I’ll have to go to work. So a lot of the time, I’ll just stay up until 1 a.m., sometimes 2 a.m., just watching TV or just sitting on the couch, maybe in silence or writing notes or whatever.
So what you’re describing is what people would call work-to-family conflict: when work gets in the way of time at home and family. It’s unfortunate. It’s very common. It’s common for men and for women. I think it goes back to the culture that we’re living in and what we get rewarded for. We haven’t figured out how to measure good knowledge work. Is it five podcasts, or is it a certain number of audience clicks? It’s very hard to measure good work, and so oftentimes we default to the old factory method of hours, hours worked, and hours of presence in the office. So you’ve got this internal clash between what you think you should be doing to be excellent at work and what it might really take.
What it might really take is pushing against the status quo, and that’s very scary to do, and it’s hard to do on your own.
So what are some things that I can do here? I feel like I’m finally in a place where I want to have a radical change to my lifestyle. Can you give me some actionable tips on how I can do that?
A couple of things. What behavioral science would say is that we have a present bias. The present moment is so real and salient for us that even though we may want to be well-rested the next day, even though we know that that’s a good goal, in the present moment it’s so much more powerful to sit there at 1 in the morning watching TV, feeling exhausted and stressed out, and dreading going back to work. It’s like we’ve got this clash between our present and future selves, and so to first be aware of it and then second to set defaults that help us make the right choice in the moment will really help us in the long run.
I hate to say this because I’m so not a planner, but planning is an incredible ally at this point, so be clear about your priorities and then put them in your calendar. Actually schedule them. We start on Monday and we’ll think, “I’ve got this big project to do,” and then if you don’t actually create the space for it in your calendar, we’re going on a wing and a prayer that we’re actually going to do it. So if you begin to more intentionally schedule, it actually brings so much of the stress levels down.
Earlier you mentioned that men see that they have 40 hours a week of free time, and women have 30. Do you know why that happens?
I think a lot of it goes back to very traditional gendered norms and expectations. Men have always had much more pressure to be in that kind of breadwinner or provider role. Women have typically been in much more of a caregiving role, although I do want to make clear that this has really only been exacerbated by the Industrial Revolution. Prior to that, when families lived on the family farm, everybody worked. Home was work, and everybody worked together.
So it was really only in the Industrial Revolution that work became someplace you went to, and it was usually men who went out to that. For women, if you had a certain wage, or were of a certain class, you were expected to stay home and do the housework and provide a warm and loving environment and raise the family, and I think there’s such nostalgia for that breadwinner, homemaker kind of life. Most of our political leaders, our business leaders, that’s the kind of life that they had or that they can afford to have now, and then the policies that we have reinforce that.
Women are still expected to do most of the child care and housework. They’re spending about twice the amount of time on it, even when they’re working full-time and even when they’re making more money. So a lot of our experience of time and our views of time are still very influenced by some of these very traditional gender roles.
Do you think that your life has changed since you’ve started to think about this kind of stuff more critically?
Yeah, it has. That’s the most important thing to say—that I’m still a work in progress. I spent most of my life in daily newspapers, and I’ve learned a lot of really bad workaholic habits, so I recognize that about myself, but I have changed. I’m certainly not perfect. My work still spills into the evenings and weekends. Some of the best advice that I ever got is you can’t manage time. Don’t even try to manage time—that’s a misnomer. But you can manage your priorities and your expectations, and honestly, that’s what I struggle with the most. I know what my priorities are, but man, do I have outsize expectations of what I can really do and what I want to do.
So the last thing that I would leave you with, and probably the most important thing that I’ve learned, is compassion. Somebody asked me, “What’s your best time management tip?” and that’s compassion, because this is hard and we live in a country that doesn’t make it easy. And so we’re going to fail over and over and over again. The most important thing is to forgive yourself and get back up and try again.
I’m going to print that out and hang it above my cubicle.
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