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Great Organizations | Great Leaders

Coffee on the GO with Laura Vanderkam

The author of a book on time management contends that we’re not as busy as we think.
Coffee on the GO with Laura Vanderkam

Time. It’s the one thing nobody seems to have in abundance. We lack the time to get it all done at the office. We don’t have the time we’d like for family and friends. We struggle to find time for ourselves.

But would you believe that our perceived paucity of time is just that—a perception—and that we really do have time for everyone and everything we find important? That’s the thesis of Laura Vanderkam’s book, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.

In 168 Hours, Vanderkam, a busy journalist and mother, debunks the time-crunch myth and profiles multiple busy and fulfilled people who are successful at, and ruthless about, managing their time. Most important, she offers strategies and tools to help readers make better use of the 168 hours that make up each week.

GO: The research you highlight in your book seems to explode the myth that we have a lot less time than we would like.

Vanderkam: Yes. There’s a fascinating data set called the American Time Use Survey. It’s a time-diary study for which people are asked to track how they spend their hours in a given day. The results are averaged over thousands of Americans, some of whom have been asked about workdays and some of whom have been asked about weekends. What this survey has found is that we either don’t know how we spend our time, or we have certain perceptions that are not entirely accurate. This and other studies done by different universities using the same methodology have determined that the average American sleeps more than eight hours in a 24-hour period, and the average workweek is really not that taxing either.

GO: About that workweek, you cite research that shows those who claim to work 60 hours or more don’t work anywhere near that much.

Vanderkam: That finding comes from a fascinating study done by John Robinson, who’s now at the University of Maryland. Robinson compared estimated workweeks with time diaries and found that the average person claiming to work 70, 80, 90 hours a week is in fact working less than 60. And that kind of goes down the line until you get to people who are thinking that they’re working part-time, and actually some of those people are working a few more hours than they think they are. But generally, those of us working full-time jobs pretty much overestimate our tallies.

GO: Why is it that we tend to overestimate the amount of time we’re working?

Vanderkam: First, most people don’t know there are 168 hours in a week, so they haven’t really thought about the proportion of time we spend on work, sleep, household activities, family activities, and the like. We hear 80-hour workweek, which sounds like a lot, and we feel as if we’re working a lot, so we assume that we’re working 80-hour weeks as well. And we live in a competitive world. I was joking with someone the other day that if you’re in your boss’s office and somebody says, “I’m working 60 hours a week,” you’re not going to say you’re working less. That’s just not the way it is.

GO: You offer a curious piece of advice: Don’t mistake things that look like work with actual work. What do you mean by that?

Vanderkam: Probably the biggest white-collar work sin is that there are a lot of things we do that can be helpful to our jobs but that are not, in and of themselves, our jobs. Meetings and e-mail and writing reports may be important and enable you to do your job, but if you think about your yearend performance review, or think about what might be said at your retirement dinner, the fact that you answered all of your e-mails within three minutes probably isn’t going to come up.

GO: How can leaders help their people devote time to those tasks that matter?

Vanderkam: Leaders should focus on things that are moving the company forward, on things that are producing a good work environment, and on serving clients or otherwise advancing the organization’s goals. They also need to be setting a low tolerance for things that are not work. And there are many ways to do this, from having more effective meetings, or even just being seen leaving at a reasonable hour and saying, “Listen, I’ve done my work. I have some good ideas. I’ve set us up for a good place for tomorrow. We all need to take a break.”

GO: You recommend keeping a time diary for an entire 168-hour week, breaking it down half-hour by half-hour. What are some of the things that you hear from people when they do this exercise?

Vanderkam: People are amazed to find that they turn on the television at, say, 8:30 after their kids have gone to bed and it’s still on at 11. That’s 2½ hours every night that’s just gone. And that’s fine if it’s a show you want to be watching, but often people discover that it really wasn’t something that they wanted to do, and so they were losing vast hours in front of the television. That’s a big one.

People also notice that at work they get distracted all the time. I certainly found this when I was keeping time logs. I’d get started on a project and 20 minutes later I’d be like, oh, let me go check my e-mail because I’d have it on in the background and I’d see that the number in my inbox had gone up and I’d be curious about what was in there. And so I’d dive into my e-mail and then it would be another 30 minutes before I actually got back into the project I was doing. So, I wasn’t really spending a whole lot of time on long, focused stretches of work.

The other thing is that people forget about weekends. There’s a lot of time between 6 on Friday night and 8 on Monday morning, and we tend to not think about that time when we’re looking at our weeks.

GO: For the book you interviewed several super-busy people, like the woman with six kids who runs a seven-figure business and somehow finds time for everything she wants to do. What can we learn from those people?

Vanderkam: Many of the people I talked to for 168 Hours were very ruthless about getting rid of the things in their life that were not important to them. And largely they focused on what I call their three main core competencies, the things that they do best that others can’t do nearly as well. And for most people those core competencies are nurturing your career, nurturing your family, and nurturing yourself, meaning getting enough sleep, exercising, volunteering, and participating in a hobby that you particularly love. I also saw that the people I talked to really try to focus on the highest-value activities within those three core competencies. They seemed to understand that if you’re only choosing, say, the three most important work priorities for a day, you won’t have to be there for 12 hours.

Probably more than anything else, I learned that if you’re only focused on the things that matter most to you, you’ll actually find that you’re really not that busy.

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, is available at bookstores and through major online booksellers.

Talk to an Expert: Coffee on the GO with Laura Vanderkam

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