Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance or other book of interest. Also available is a complete list of the hundreds of book reviews that have appeared on The Simple Dollar over the years.
That’s the number of hours in seven days – a typical week. The premise behind this book by Laura Vanderkam is that we misuse a lot of the time during that week, either through excuses or sacrifices or misplaced priorities. Because of that, we find ourselves not having time for the stuff that’s genuinely important to us, leaving us feeling as though our lives are out of whack.
Vanderkam’s approach is to simply wipe the slate entirely clean. Assume that all 168 hours of your week are free. From there, you start filling in stuff according to their true priority for you – and when that week is full, find ways to dump things that really aren’t a priority for you.
It’s an interesting process, one that I’ve attempted to do over the last few weeks.
The Myth of the Time Crunch
Vanderkam’s main argument is spelled out here. The idea that we’re under a “time crunch” is a myth. The real crisis all of us are under is more along the lines of misuse of time. We spend our time doing things that aren’t very high on our real personal priority list. It’s not just the time we waste doing unimportant stuff. It’s also the time we spend being productive towards ends that really don’t mean very much in our life.
I’ll use myself for an example. Quite often, when I hit a temporary roadblock in my writing, I’ll spend some time doing something else fairly idle at my desk, like surfing the web or visiting a few messageboards that I like to post on. That time spent is really ineffective. The entire point is to get my wheels turning, so why not do something that’s actually in line with something important in my life? I could go to the gym or take a walk (personal health). I could prepare a meal for later so I have more time this evening to spend with my kids. I could go read something completely unrelated for half an hour. I could go take a nap. I could write a letter to someone I care about.
All of these things are more in line with my core values than the time I spend there idling. If I start looking at my whole life in that way, it’s pretty easy to start identifying things I spend my time on that are less important to me and replacing them with things that are more important to me that I sometimes feel I don’t have time for.
Vanderkam suggests starting this process by keeping a time diary of your week, listing what you’re doing every fifteen minutes throughout the week. It’s actually easier than it seems and it can be really useful if you’re honest with it.
Your Core Competencies
What things do you do that others consider you to be very good at? What things do you recognize that others do better than you do? Spend some time on those questions, because those questions point you towards your core competencies.
Vanderkam argues that one of the best time management tactics you can use is to find ways to maximize the first group of things and offload the second group of things onto others. Let’s say, for example, that you’re really good dealing with groups of children and not so good dealing with laundry, consider offering a Saturday night babysitting service for several families and then use that money to pay for laundry service. You’ve suddenly turned a block of time spent on something you hate (laundry) into a block of time spent on something you find fulfilling (child care).
The Right Job
You spend an awful lot of your 168 hours per week working. Vanderkam offers up these questions to start applying these ideas to your work, on page 79:
Does my job tap into my intrinsic motivations (things I loved as a kid or would do for free)?
Does my job give me a reasonable amount of autonomy?
Am I challenged regularly to the extent of my abilities?
Do my work environment, organization, and coworkers encourage my best work?
If the answer is “no” to any of these four questions, what can I change? In the next week? In the next year?
Can I create the right job within my organization? Another organization? Or will I need to go out on my own?
The key argument behind all of this is in order to do a job well, it needs to match up well with your core competencies and your own interests and it needs to have people involved that encourage you to do well. If these elements are present, it’s easy for anyone to do well, earn raises, earn promotions, and so on. If these elements aren’t present, it quickly becomes much harder to achieve success.
I’ve worked at jobs that have succeeded in some of these areas and utterly failed in others. When more of these things were in line (as my work environment was in about 2002 to 2003 and as it has been for the last few years), I’ve been able to do very well. When fewer of these things were in line, it was harder to succeed in any way.
Controlling Your Calendar
The obvious conclusion from the previous section of the book is that doing work you want to be doing will make you more efficient, while doing work you don’t want to be doing makes you less efficient.
If you keep drawing out that idea, it begins to make sense that any time and effort you can put into reorienting your work towards the things you’re good at and the things you enjoy will make you a better worker.
I’ll use an example of a person I know who is a manager of a convenience store. She got that job because she’s worked there a long time and has a reputation of being very friendly with the customers and other employees. Instead of following the standard practices of managing there (which seemed to involve a lot of report writing), she basically cut out the vast majority of the reports, trimming them down to the bare minimum, and decided she could do her job most effectively (minimizing turnover, maximizing profits) by spending her time out on the floor, sharpening up the little things, talking to customers, keeping the employees happy and feeling well-liked, and sometimes doing things like stepping in for an employee who needed to leave to take care of a sick child.
That place is now so busy that you can barely find a spot at the pumps or in the parking lot. Why? The interior is sparkling. Everyone in there seems happy and having fun. There is always an extra person around if you need them (often the manager herself).
She’s doing a killer job. Best of all, she’s really happy doing it.
Anatomy of a Breakthrough
Where do you want your career to go next? What do you think of as the “next level” for your career that you actually want?
Spend some time talking to people who have actually done it and achieved what you’re thinking about and ask them how they got there. Then, spend your time following their advice and also polishing your core competencies. Spend a focused hour or two per day doing those things instead of engaging in idle workplace activity.
The New Home Economics
Most of the ideas stated above that pertain to the workplace can also be achieved at home. At home, the biggest, most important blocks are the high-impact times you spend with your spouse, your children, and your closest friends. After that is high-value leisure – things you get a great deal of personal value from doing.
Most of us, though, spend an awful lot of our time at home in low-value activities – channel surfing, flipping through magazines, staring in a daze out the window, surfing the internet for “funny” things, and so on.
Often, we do that because we’re tired. Almost always, the best exchange you can do is to turn an hour of that low-value stuff into a half an hour of additional sleep and a half an hour of high-value stuff. So, instead of watching an hour of a late night television program, go to bed half an hour earlier and spend half an hour with your kid or your spouse each day doing something that you’ll both get a lot of value out of.
Don’t Do Your Own Laundry
If there are household tasks that you loathe that eat up your time, don’t do them. Don’t be afraid to ship out the tasks that you hate so that others can do them, provided you then fill that time with something high-value. You don’t have to replace things you get personal value from – just focus on the things that are less important to you.
Of course, this hinges on having good personal finances. If you’re barely managing to break even with what you have, you won’t have this option on the table. This is yet another valuable reason to get your spending under control. Quite often, rampant spending is the result of trying to take the edge off of stress in your life. If you reduce that spending for a bit and keep your eye on the ball, you can start seeking out ways to directly minimize that stress.
A Full Life
A full life doesn’t mean one that’s packed to the brim with scheduled activities and plans. A full life is one where each moment simply has some sort of actual meaning and purpose. If you feel tired, don’t just do something idle – sleep. If you feel like a relationship in your life isn’t what you want it to be, spend some idle time communicating with that person. If there’s something you’ve always wanted to learn how to do, start learning how to do it.
Time spent in that fashion is always valuable and always leads to a full life. If you fill as many moments as possible with something with genuine meaning (or doing something that prepares for those moments), you’ll always feel like you have a life chock full of meaning.
Is 168 Hours Worth Reading?
168 Hours does a great job of forcing you to think deeply about how you spend your time and whether that choice actually adds value to your overall life. It’s very powerful in terms of thought exercise.
To me, 168 Hours works best if it’s paired with a book that’s strong on the actual mechanics of reorganizing your time, like Getting Things Done. While 168 Hours may be a bit mechanically short, it’s philosophically rich.
While I didn’t come up with any great system for reorganizing my time after reading this book, I did find myself thinking deeply about how I utilize my time and energy and it pushed me into making some interesting and challenging decisions. If a book makes you look at your life in such a fashion, it’s a success.