Updated on 12.30.07

Review: Take Back Your Time

Trent Hamm

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance or personal development book.

Over and over again, I’ve come to realize that most of the stress and money management problems that people have come down to one thing: a lack of time. It’s because of that realization that I’ve come to write somewhat regularly about time management and figuring out the cash value of your time.

Take Back Your Time is a collection of essays on the topic of battling overwork and time poverty in America. I picked it up mostly on the strength of some of the writers that have written things I’ve loved in the past: Vicki Robin contributes an essay (she co-wrote Your Money or Your Life, which I utterly loved) and Juliet Schor (who wrote two books I’ve loved and reviewed here on The Simple Dollar, Born to Buy and The Overspent American), and those two alone were enough to convince me to pick up the book and give it a read-through.

I’m glad I did. This was a really thought-provoking collection of writings on time poverty, from various angles on how strong of a force it is to ways to battle it in our own lives – and in society in general. Often, I’m annoyed by a collection of essays on the same topic when people just parrot the same material, but the writers here tackle the topic from enough different angles that the varying perspectives made it quite enjoyable. Let’s dig in and see what’s inside.

Browsing Through Take Back Your Time

This book contains thirty essays, broken up into ten separate groups.

Part One: Overwork in America
The book opens by making the case that overwork actually exists, starting off with a scathing fact-based piece from Juliet Schor, the author of The Overworked American. Statistically, it’s pretty obvious that on average, Americans work more today than they did thirty years ago, and it’s continually growing. The other essays in this section tackle specific aspects of this: Barbara Brandt argues that opportunities are reduced for the underemployed and unemployed and also examines the places where this time comes from (families and sleep); Joe Robinson looks at the lack of paid vacation time, especially compared to the rest of the world; and Lonnie Golden addresses forced overtime in its various forms, from requiring hourly workers to work extra hours or piling requirements on salaried workers and forcing them to expand their hours. The end conclusion? The workplace is eating up more and more of our time.

Part Two: Time is a Family Value
Time poverty affects children and pets, too. When parents and pet owners have more and more of their time drawn away to work, less and less time is spent at home caring for children and caring for pets – this time has to come from somewhere. Less time spent means a less healthy relationship with children and with pets. Even more, children themselves often feel the pinch of needing time management: overscheduled children, with school and a ton of after-school activities, often lack the time to explore new things for themselves, develop a sense of self, have relaxing free time, and simply be children. In a nutshell, time poverty is detrimental to children and pets as well as adults.

Part Three: The Cost to Civil Society
Civil society loses out as well. One of the things most of us cut out of our lives when we start to feel the pinch is volunteer work. If we’re working more hours and we still want to maintain some semblance of a normal life, it’s easy to toss out volunteering for charities. This trend has shown up in contributed volunteer hours to charity over the last few decades, which has gone down. Similarly, we don’t do as many civil things for others that we used to do, like helping out a neighbor in need. Even worse, our elevated stress levels have caused us to be less civil to others, evidenced through trends like road rage. Basically, time poverty has made us less civil to each other.

Part Four: Health Hazards
Time pressure also causes health concerns. We minimize or compress exercise, don’t eat well (fast food is quick, after all), don’t visit the doctor, and are often subjected to stress-related illnesses. The end result is that we wear down after living a time-compressed lifestyle, with negative personal health consequences.

Part Five: Environmental Consequences
There are also negative environmental consequences to time poverty. Quite often, it requires many of us to increase our environmental footprint. We buy more prepackaged items, increasing our waste output. We have to commute alone because of our intense hours, thus burning more fossil fuels. We speed, burning even more fossil fuels. Most of these actions add more stress to our lives, compounding the other problems discussed earlier. In the end, overwork damages the environment.

Part Six: Historical and Cultural Perspectives
Why do other societies outside of the United States – and even in the United States in the past – have fewer challenges with time poverty? There’s a lot of interesting discussion here, from differences in culture and religion to a desire to continually improve production in the United States. Most interesting: in the 1930s, Congress nearly passed the Black-Perkins bill, which would have mandated a thirty hour workweek. Can you even concieve of Congress passing such a bill today? The point is that the current standard of time poverty in the United States is the exception rather than the rule from a historical and global perspective.

Part Seven: Taking Back Your Time
Here, the book turns direction and begins to look at solutions, starting with your individual life. Vicki Robin starts it off, reiterating the concept of calculating the value of your time and the fulfillment curve as expressed in Your Money or Your Life – basically, a five page nutshell of the whole book. What’s the first step you can begin to take, though? Cecile Andrews offers it – cancel something. Find something in your life and just cancel it. Free up some time to breathe.

Part Eight: Workplace Solutions
Obviously, the biggest place to find solutions is in the workplace, and this section offers a bunch of different perspectives on it. Individually, one can simply put aside material needs and begin to look for lower paying and less time-demanding jobs, or perhaps investigate the idea of a sabbatical. Alternately, one can work to begin to facilitate greater changes in the workplace by demonstrating that jobs with less time pressure get done better, with higher quality for the time invested – in many cases, this would actually be better for business than trying to squeeze more and more hours out of a person.

Part Nine: Rethinking Patterns of Culture
My favorite essay in the entire book came in this section, where Anna Lappe argues quite well that our changing relationship with food is directly connected to time poverty. The rise of fast food is the result of people needing more time – they can get edible foods prepared for them very quickly at a relatively cheap price, and that’s good enough. But what’s lost in the process is the nutritional diversity and spiritual effects of food – a truly great meal offers nutritional value and spiritual value that can’t be recaptured at Mickey D’s, and time pressure is the cause. The solution? Try taking the time to make a quality homemade meal – a message that hits home with me. Another interesting argument appears here, one that argues that “super sizing” is the real opponent – large houses, large televisions, and large meals are large wastes of money when they leave us without the time to enjoy them.

Part Ten: Changing Public Policies
The book ends with discussion on how to change public policies in relation to time poverty and what individuals can do. There are a lot of potential options, but most of them require broad awareness and support, something which doesn’t exist right now. Thus, the book proposes that we engage in a “Take Back Your Time” Day each October 24, where we spend the day making others aware of the problem in any way we can, just to increase awareness of the problem itself and the potential solutions.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

I found Take Back Your Time, as a whole, to be very interesting. It offered a lot of food for thought, different perspectives, and some solutions. It occasionally veered into the area of “we need big societal changes to fix this,” which is a rather dangerous road to follow, but when it sticks to identifying the problems themselves and providing individual solutions to the problem, Take Back Your Time really shines.

This is a great book to share with others, but it’s not one that I plan on returning to as a reference source. That’s true with most books of essays – you read them once and, if the essays are good, you share it – otherwise, why bother?

Thus, if you are interested in the topics presented here and know of some people you’d like to share it with, buy this book and pass it around. Otherwise, I recommend checking it out from your local library, but either way, it’s well worth reading for almost anyone engaged in Western society, particularly in the United States.

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  1. Joel Quile says:

    This is probably just an overreaction on my part, but I can’t believe that this book uses children and pets in the same breath. I’m not for animal cruelty, yet I would never put my kids any where near the same level of priority of my kids. If I’m over working or mismanaging my time and it is hurting my kids or family, I need to make a drastic change. If it is affecting my pet, I need to find a good home for my pet. In fact, when we got serious about getting out of debt, the first thing we did was find a great home for our beautiful yellow lab, Mr. Jones. We found this retired couple who lived on the Sacramento River in CA. that just lost their dog and it was a great fit.

    Anyway, I might be the only one who was truly disturbed by the author lumping children and pets together but I just thought I’d express my feelings nonetheless.

  2. Gayle says:

    I have lots of concerns with this phenomenon. For starters I work in a health care organization that actually AS WRITTEN POLICY institutes disciplinary action for being sick and using your sick time. You literally must be hospitalized for an illness to be recognized as legitimate. I actually had a supervisor ask me why I couldn’t finish my shift as I lay curled up in pain. Hours later I was admitted for emergency surgery on that acute appendix. Had to jump through lots of hoops for the insurance company too.

    This same organization expects all my time to be productive in patient care. I am expected to do patient education…..in the middle of the night. So I have a catch 22. Either I am harassing patients with unreasonable demands that they participate in the hospital’s agenda of items that must be done prior to discharge or I am remiss in my duties.

    So much for the healing effects of time.

  3. m says:

    One thing I love about the contents of this book (based on your post–I haven’t read it) is the final point about working on changing public policy.

    I find that the larger, societal issues that affect our individual personal finance experiences are often as equally important as, sometimes even more important than, the personal factors that affect our financial lives.

    Often, there is only so much any of person can do to bring about needed change in their own lives, and working on personal as well as socio-political aspects of an issue simultaneously can help bring about so much more effective change than working on just personal issues alone (or just societal issues alone, though I think societal change can have much larger impact than just personal change).

    One problem, however, is that with time poverty (great term) being such a prevalent problem for so many–as well as other problems that keep us all busy and often stressed or overwhelmed–a lot of us don’t pursue social change as much as we ought or could because of the effects of those very issues we’d benefit from changing. A catch 22, but one that I think is important to address and try to change.

    I definitely hope to address both personal and societal factors in my blog and though many personal finance blogs already do that as well, I wish even more personal finance discussions included the societal aspect of personal finance and focused on both personal and social change as a means of addressing personal finance issues.

    Just because we are talking about *personal* finance in no way means that our financial lives aren’t heavily affected by much larger *societal* issues as well, ones that we may benefit from changing along with our own personal issues. Anyhow, loved this post as it was not only well organized and thorough but the topic is one that is so important in American society these days, and one that so many are not happy with and are eager to change.

  4. guinness416 says:

    Gayle, that sounds really bizarre to me. Personally I detest it when co-workers drag themselves into the office coughing and spluttering or exhausted, and the workplaces that encourage this nonsense. Sick people have no productivity, are a distraction, and make everyone else ill. As an aside, the equally crazy American concept of a finite number of sick days per annum is always a source of enormous amusement to my (Irish) family.

    I just finished reading the excellent “Downshifting” per Trent’s recommendation and found some of the low-risk downshifting ideas in that book really good (taking all lunches outside the office/not eating at your desk, scheduling personal activities on outlook calendars and with admin staff, making it known you won’t be working weekends, etc). I will be implementing all of them in 2008 and think everyone else should too!

  5. KellyKelly says:


    Why did getting out of debt mean you had to give your dog away?

    How much does it cost to feed and otherwise care for a dog?

  6. Andrew Stevens says:

    Whether Americans are working harder than 30 years ago is actually a very contentious issue. It is true that surveys seem to show this (though it’s really only women who are working longer hours according to CPS studies, men have stayed pretty much the same), but time diary studies seem to show the opposite. (See this discussion, sadly a bit of a puff piece on the issue, for details. I don’t actually know who’s right and it doesn’t really matter in the context of this book. The main thrust of the book seems to be that to the extent that we are overworked, it’s due to our own choices and we can make different choices, which we can all probably agree with.

    The point of the 30 hour work week, by the by, was to reduce the unemployment rate during the Great Depression, and had very little to do with any sense that people were spending too much time at work.

    From a truly global and historical perspective, actually, time poverty was (and is) far, far more common than in 21st century America. You’re focusing almost exclusively on 20th and 21st century industrialized countries, rather than the actual bulk of people in the world or in history: subsistence farmers, housewives with enormous domestic responsibilities (and no labor-saving devices), etc. (See the PBS special The 1900 House, for example, in which the modern family who had to live like a 1900 family was reduced to tears by the amount of work it required.) In the 1800s, the average work week in America was between sixty and seventy hours a week. There were certain occupations which worked less than this (e.g. coal miners), but only because you couldn’t physically push a man to work more hours doing such an arduous job. The average hours slowly declined until the 1930s and has not changed substantially since then, regardless of whether you agree with the surveys or the time diary studies. Each one is only showing a difference of a few hours per week, maximum.

    There never was a Golden Age; it’s just an illusion.

  7. Ryan S. says:

    This is the first time I’ve heard the term “time poverty” but I can understand it fully. Working a couple of jobs, training for a marathon and a century bike ride, and having a family life, in addition to trying to get a blog ramped up has caused some time poverty here. I’ll go look this one up!


  8. Sylvia says:

    I think about time poverty a great deal. Especially as I watch the life of my oldest daughter who is a CPA. Yes, people have always had to work hard in other eras of time but they did it as a family. Today, families are often very dissected. It is a horrible situation. So I think doing some serious thinking about slowing our lives down in this 21st century is very important. I’m very glad you did a blog on this issue.

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