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How I’m Reforming My 168 Hours


Credit: Jaime Fearer via Flickr Creative Commons

One of the things that started to bug me in 2014 was my contribution to the “cult of busy” or “the busy trap” – the way people have of lamenting how busy they are in such a way that it becomes a kind of humblebrag, a complaint disguised as a boast to show how important they are to those around them (thanks, Puritan founders). I’ve come to embrace the idea that being busy isn’t inherently a good thing, and neither is thinking that we need to pretend we are more busy than we are because relaxation is thought of as laziness.

This became apparent to me over the last few months as I thought more about how I talk to people. I noticed that instead of engaging people in a conversation after being asked “How are you?” I was constantly defaulting to “Good! Busy. You?” And while sometimes that was true, often it was just a hedge, a way of deflecting conversation away from anything substantial like talking about what I’m actually working on… or admitting that my life was not as “busy” as I wanted to make it seem.

All things considered, I live a remarkably un-busy life. I don’t have kids. I live in a small town where my home is less than 1.5 miles from my job. I don’t keep an especially pristine house, and I don’t spend a lot of time cooking. Yet for most of this year I felt constantly harried and well, busy, like I was constantly behind on the things that I wanted to accomplish. It was frustrating.

How Do You Use Your 168 Hours?

168 hours by laura vanderkamEnter 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam, a look at time management that doesn’t rely on time-saving tricks, but instead asks the reader to think carefully about priorities and how to make them stick. As Vanderkam notes in her preface, “Once we see how much time we truly have, we start realizing that time management isn’t just about saving five minutes on the margins … true time management is about filling our lives with things that deserve to be there.”

For me, 168 Hours served as both a manifesto for how to use time better and an outline for how to get there myself. Vanderkam opens the book with an argument that thinking about time over a course of a week – 168 hours – rather than a traditional 24 hour day opens up more possibilities to see time for what matters. After, she looks at different ways to manage and prioritize time at work and at home to fit the things that matter into every week (focusing on the things you are best at – your core competencies).

I won’t go into all those tips here – if you’re interested, read the book – but I do want to say that one important caveat is that much of the work-related advice in 168 Hours is targeted towards a certain demographic, I’d say mid- and upper-level professionals with moderately flexible work schedules or who supervise other people. Her suggestions about optimizing time at work don’t make a lot of sense if you’re, say, an hourly worker in retail or run a home daycare. I don’t think any of it is bad advice, just not entirely applicable depending on your work situation.

Instead, I’m going to talk about the two initial activities Vanderkam suggests for readers looking to better use their time, since they were both very helpful for me.

Keeping a Time Log

The first thing Vanderkam suggests doing is keeping a time log. For an entire week, check in about every 30 minutes and write down what you’re doing. This assessment is important because it gives you actual data about how you’re using your time. As Vanderkam notes, most people over- and under-estimate the time they spend on tasks, depending on how they want to be spending time. And more importantly, we don’t often think very hard about how we spend time until we are forced to do so. My favorite paragraph from the entire book gets at this:

“We don’t think about how we want to spend our time, and so we spend massive amounts of time on things – television, web surfing, housework, errands – that give a slight amount of pleasure or feeling of accomplishment, but do little for our careers, our families or our personal lives. We spend very little time on things that require more thought or initiative, like nurturing our kids, exercising, or engaging the limited hours we do work in deliberate practice of our professional crafts. We try to squeeze these high-impact activities around the edges of things that are easy, or that seem inevitable merely because we always do them or because we think other expect us to. And consequently, we feel overworked and under-rested, and tend to believe stories that confirm this view.”

Keeping a time log for two weeks was an instructive exercise for me. It forced me to be honest with myself and realize that I do have time for things that matter. The problem, it appears, is that I’m not using some open blocks of my time productively and, as a result, I’m pushing high-energy or high-impact projects (and self-care like exercise) into times of the day when I’m inevitably exhausted. These two factors meant that I ended each day feeling like I wasted a bunch of time and feeling too exhausted to use the time I did have for things that matter.

Making a List of Dreams

The second task of 168 Hours, after keeping at time log, is to make a list of 100 dreams. This list can be just about anything, it should just include things that you wish that you could do someday. Then, go back to the list and figure out why you haven’t done it yet. If there are things that are easy, find time to just get them done. And then start making plans for how to try the things you haven’t. The point of the exercise of two-fold – do things that make you happy, and figure out which of the dreams on the list you aren’t passionate about by giving them a try.

I haven’t gotten very far with this part yet, I think because it intimidates me. Setting down dreams in writing means you have to start thinking about how to make them happen, and I’m weirdly scared of that. But I’m going to do it because the only way to make your 168 hours feel more valuable is to fill them with things that matter.

Thinking Ahead to 2015

what the most successful people do before breakfast by laura vanderkamTrying to think about how to work through these issues – particularly how to revamp my morning routine to be more effective – also led me to another one of Vanderkam’s books, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (which I mentioned in my post on my One Little Word for 2015). This paperback is a combination of three short ebooks that addresses some more practical examples of what “successful” people do to make the most out of their time in the morning, their time at work, and their time on the weekends.

I liked this as a companion, since the book went deeper into examples of how other people use their time better. They’re more immediately practical than 168 Hours, but didn’t help me ask some of the big questions that I need to work through first – I wouldn’t recommend it over 168 Hours, but definitely as a companion if Vanderkam’s style works for you.

Anyway, this is an awfully long way of getting around to saying that I got a lot out of reading 168 Hours, and I think it’s a great start for looking at how to manage and use time better. While I haven’t quite found answers to the many existential questions the book raised for me – what are the things that matter to me? What are my core competencies? How am I supporting those skills, and how am I addressing my weaknesses? – but I at least feel like I have a start.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Bryan G. Robinson January 8, 2015, 10:15 am

    I want to read this book. I think at least one other book blogger has mentioned it. I’m glad, though, you mentioned the important caveat, because I basically am an hourly retail worker (work at a library, but still hourly). I think it’s why I didn’t relate to all of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. That said, I’ll still check out this book because I know there probably will be some things I can take away from it that are applicable to me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it. It definitely makes me want to look for a copy of this book.

    • Kim January 14, 2015, 8:36 pm

      I think the work section can still help in some ways, not in working less, but in using your work time for more valuable or intentional things, depending on your situation with your supervisor, etc. And the rest will, I think, offer some interesting insights about time and priorities.

  • Jennifer @ The Relentless Reader January 8, 2015, 11:05 am

    Oh my gosh, I love this so much. That whole cult of busy thing is so weird and makes me feel pressured to express just how busy *I* am. It goes hand in hand with people always saying, “READING? I don’t have TIME for reading!” 😉

    A time log is probably such a great idea. I’m going to look into this, thanks so much!

    • Kim January 14, 2015, 8:37 pm

      Even if you don’t read the book, look into the time log. It was so eye-opening for me (and good for making me admit things I knew already but didn’t want to face).

  • Trish January 8, 2015, 12:37 pm

    I’m pretty sure I know where my extra time is going…twitter. Bah. Mostly just mindless browsing on my phone. I finally deleted the FB app off my phone and haven’t missed it for a second but twitter is still such a giant time suck and I’m not really sure why I allow it to be.

    But yes, it’s all about priorities and doing what you want to be doing. And I love that bit about JUST GETTING IT DONE. Sometimes the idea takes more time than the actual process of doing. I love the idea about making a dream list as well. Though holy overwhelming!

    • Heather January 8, 2015, 1:14 pm

      Deleting the app from your phone is a great idea! I never thought of that but I’m going to take your advice. I find myself more often than not using any downtime I have on my phone or procrastinating things I need to do because I’m distracted by my phone. Not making it an option would be an ideal way to focus on what I’m doing!

      • Trish January 8, 2015, 1:16 pm

        If only I could do that with Twitter. LOL! And even Instagram sometimes. So easy to just mindlessly scroll…

      • Kim January 14, 2015, 8:42 pm

        One of my One Little Word projects for this year is going to be deleting social media (except maybe Instagram) off my phone for a month to see what it does for my mental health. It’s so easy to get sucked into nonsense — that time could almost always be better spent doing something else.

  • Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf January 8, 2015, 1:11 pm

    Like Trish, most of my extra time seems to be mindless browsing on my phone. :/ And yeah, I agree that the cult of busy adds pressure. Not only because of how we want to be perceived, but in some cases, out of (sometimes legitimate) fear that people will try to dump extra tasks/responsibilities on you as soon as you seem to “have the time.” Like every bit of time must be filled. 🙁

    • Kim January 14, 2015, 8:44 pm

      I’ve been trying to put my phone away about an hour before I go to bed, like, not even having it near me while I’m reading or doing whatever. That seems to help with mindless browsing a bit, but it’s hard too!

  • Meghan January 8, 2015, 1:21 pm

    I suffer from the time wasting problem – I’ve just lost half an hour to the internet myself, and I often feel like I have too little time for things I love. 🙁 I’m fine at work, but my free time seems to get lost. I think I should get this book – it sounds like I’d learn a lot that could help me make better use of my actual life.

  • Aarti January 8, 2015, 1:50 pm

    I completely understand what you mean about the cult of busyness. I realized yesterday that I spend a lot of time playing this one game on my phone, even interrupting my reading to go play the game for a few minutes. This post has motivated me to delete the game 🙂

    I too am single without kids, so am not really that busy all the time. I do spend a lot of time commuting, and I do prioritize exercise and try to cook meals more often on weekends, and of course I like to read once a day. I think I am good at prioritizing the things I like to do – it’s just that now so many of my friends are married and having kids, it’s hard for me to find people to do all my fun things with now!

    • Kim January 14, 2015, 8:46 pm

      I still don’t know how people with kids manage to find time. I mean, I suppose when you are a parent you just have to manage time better… but it seems overwhelming to me!

  • Trisha January 8, 2015, 3:39 pm

    Time management is so important. I adore the process of getting organized – if not so much the hard work of staying organized – so I may have to get my hands on these.

  • Belle Wong January 8, 2015, 6:36 pm

    This is such a great post. I’m so glad I decided to get it when you first mentioned it, in one of your Currently posts, I think. It was my first book read of the year, which I’m hoping will be symbolic of what this year will be like for me. I still have not done the time log – I think I’m a bit scared what it will tell me. But the one immediate and persistent effect of reading the book for me has been changing how I see and use my time. When I spend my time on things that really aren’t on my priority list, I find I’m very aware of it – and more often then not, this awareness prompts me to choose differently.

    • Kim January 14, 2015, 8:47 pm

      That’s, I think, what the time log did for me. When I started doing a thing that I didn’t want to admit to in the log, I often just quit doing it for something else. Not always, but more often than I would have without doing the log. And that’s stayed with me, to an extent.

  • Teresa January 8, 2015, 7:17 pm

    I was just telling a friend the other day that the only real new year’s resolution I have is to not do stuff I only sort of enjoy when I could be doing something I really enjoy. That sounds really in line with the ideas in this book.

    I also really like the idea of thinking in terms of a week instead of each day. I get myself aggravated when I try to pack in all the stuff I want to do (exercise, reading, Internet, TV, chores, etc.) in a single day because it’s too much and I don’t spend a satisfying block of time on any of it. It might be better to think in terms of this night I’ll use a big chunk of my leisure time on Internetting, tomorrow on a book, another night on a TV binge.

    It’s funny to see people comment on taking FB and Twitter off their phones being helpful. For me, it’s the opposite. Having them on my phone causes me to spend less time because it’s too annoying to do more than skim what’s there–I don’t follow many links to articles or try to comment. And I can find snatches of time for scrolling while I’m in line somewhere or in between tasks. And I end up using less of my dedicated leisure time on those sites because I feel “in touch” with what’s happening there. It’s interesting how that works differently for different people.

    • Kim January 14, 2015, 8:48 pm

      That’s so interesting about how you use your phone! I think I’m a person who needs the apps gone, but I’m resisting deleting them. I do want to keep reading apps like Pocket, to see if I can make catching up with those saved articles in spare moments a priority rather than checking Twitter again.

  • Jeff January 9, 2015, 8:15 am

    OK, how do I get my wife to read this without her getting mad at me? You’ve described her perfectly! All she does is complain about how “busy” she is and I’ve been trying to convince her that relaxation isn’t the same as laziness for years, yet all I get is grief. You made my point so much more eloquently than I ever could.

    • Kim January 14, 2015, 8:49 pm

      Lol! I am not sure if that is a battle you can win 🙂 Maybe read the book and encourage her to pick it up after you?

  • Jancee @ Jancee Reads January 9, 2015, 11:27 am

    Over the past few months, I’ve found myself with more free time than usual, and I’ve had to revamp my thinking on how to spend that time. I’ve had to learn to let myself off the hook if I don’t always get the dishes done or the apartment vacuumed. Instead, I’ve been spending a lot of time just hanging out with my roommates – precious time, as one of them will probably be moving sometime this year.

    Both of these books sound amazing and I think I’ll read them!

    • Kim January 14, 2015, 8:51 pm

      Spending actual, quality time with friends and family is so important, but yeah, I think we neglect that when we feel like we need to be busy. I know that is one of the things I need to make more time for.

  • Jeanne January 9, 2015, 2:23 pm

    Like Jeff, I have a close friend who “needs” to read this book. Everyone where I work is prone to this kind of bragging about how busy and essential they are. Perhaps as part of the process of tearing myself away, I should read it and make my list of 100 dreams. Otherwise it’s so easy to get sucked in to working more.

    • Kim January 14, 2015, 8:53 pm

      I really need to do the 100 dreams activity. I feel a little rudderless, and I think it’s because I don’t have a goal I’m working towards in the free time that I do have. I’m glad that I don’t have to worry about feeling essential at my job — if I’m not there, I’m not sure who writes all the news stories — but I know many others who feel differently.

  • Jennine G. January 9, 2015, 5:09 pm

    This is kinda like The Best Yes I read a couple months ago. It’s premise was to say no to things that aren’t a priority, so you have time for the best things without ending up feeling too busy.

    • Kim January 14, 2015, 8:54 pm

      Sounds similar! Vanderkam suggests saying “this is not a priority” over “I don’t have time,” which is a really big switch in my head.

  • Jess - A Book Hoarder January 9, 2015, 5:43 pm

    I’ve cut back a ton on my TV lately but the past week the husband and I have been on a Sons of Anarchy marathon and not only is it sucking my time away but I am really seeing how it puts strain on other things. I feel like just that one quote alone is reaching me at the perfect time. Now I want to read the book but I’m scared of making a dream list too.

    • Kim January 14, 2015, 8:55 pm

      Right? It shouldn’t be scary… but it is! Because once they’re written down you have to face the fact that you’re not doing anything to make them happen or start doing things to make them a reality. Challenging!

      I’ve been cutting down on my tv on weekends, and boy, does that make a difference in how smoothly the rest of my life goes.

  • Christy January 9, 2015, 6:28 pm

    I should really do the time log because half the battle is awareness. I just recently read Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project book so this kind of hopeful reprioritization has been on my mind lately.

  • Sandy January 10, 2015, 11:44 am

    I am ALWAYS talking about how busy I am, and honestly I do run around a lot. But I think I must thrive on it because I have a very hard time relaxing, even when I have the time. Guilt, maybe, for being stay-at-home? Feeling like I have to prove my worth? I’m not sure. Stuff for me to think about, and I love this post. I need to restructure myself I think.

    • Yvonne@FictionBooks January 11, 2015, 10:48 am


      Wow! you said all that so much better than I ever could. Our situations, attitudes – just about everything- sound as though they are a mirror image and the idea of restructuring not only myself, but my life, is definitely one worth serious consideration 🙂


      • Kim January 14, 2015, 8:59 pm

        I think I would feel similarly if I didn’t work outside the home, like I needed to justify my time in some way. But honestly? No one who works in an office for 40 hours a week works that entire time — there’s always some wiggle room 🙂

  • Leah @ Books Speak Volumes January 10, 2015, 9:30 pm

    This sounds fantastic. I am incredibly *not* busy right now — no job, no kids — and I still manage to not do some of the things I need to get done. I’m putting a library hold on this right now 🙂

  • Michelle January 10, 2015, 9:57 pm

    The cult of busyness – ugh. People always ask me how I get everything done. I can never tell them because I just do it. Everything I do is important to me, and so I find a way to make it work. I’m sure I am losing time somehow, and I would be curious to see what a time log would show. You have definitely piqued my interest in this book, so I will definitely be checking it out!

    • Kim January 14, 2015, 9:00 pm

      Doing the time log really did surprise me with how much time I actually have — it’s a lot, when you don’t waste it with mindless stuff (for me, television marathons or all day watching football).

  • Daniela January 11, 2015, 7:40 am

    I enjoyed reading your post! I read 168 hours last year and it made me think of time in a different way. If I want to do something, I probably have the time for it. The key step for me, however, is to learn to prioritize what I wanted to accomplish. I’m still working on that.

    • Kim January 14, 2015, 9:01 pm

      Yes, this is key for me too — deciding what I want to be doing and then deciding how to make it happen.

  • Barbara Bartels January 11, 2015, 8:30 am

    I have a seasonal job so I am not working right now and I still feel busy. Part of that is even if I spend a day doing little I think of all the things I could (should?) be doing — cleaning, projects, exercise, etc. It’s a mindset for me rather than a reality.

  • Joy Weese Moll (@joyweesemoll) January 11, 2015, 8:48 am

    This book was helpful to me, too. What a great way to start the New Year!

    • Yvonne@FictionBooks January 11, 2015, 10:50 am


      Thanks so much for the recommendation to stop by this excellent post. It is good to know that I am not the only ‘busy’ person out there 🙂

      The book has to be a must read for me, I really do need to seriously reorganise my life and priorities!


  • Vasilly January 11, 2015, 10:07 am

    While reading this post, I went and placed 168 hours on hold at the library. While I’m waiting for its arrival, I think I will make a list of dreams. But like you said, it makes you think about what it is you really want. I’m still trying to figure that out.

    • Kim January 14, 2015, 9:01 pm

      I suppose on some level we are all trying to figure that out 🙂

  • Beth F January 11, 2015, 10:39 am

    I always think I’m going to play one little round of two dots (or another game) and then there went 30 minutes. Sigh.

    • Yvonne@FictionBooks January 11, 2015, 10:53 am

      I sit down to answer one comment on the blog and find myself following link after link, until an hour or so has gone by, then I bemoan all those missing minutes!
      Well! that and a sneaky mere 10 minutes or so doing the daily online jigsaw puzzle 🙂

    • Kim January 14, 2015, 9:02 pm

      One thing I don’t waste time on is phone games (most of the time… I had a Trivia Crack addiction for awhile). But I know I get sucked in, so I just don’t start playing.

  • Katie Woodard - Extraordinary Extras January 12, 2015, 9:15 pm

    I recently started a nonprofit because it is my dream to help children in developing countries who don’t get the opportunity to read and get an education. To accomplish that dream, I am on my computer working nonstop doing marketing or writing or something.

    I no longer have that time to step back and just read a book, which is funny since reading is the thing I am promoting. I just need to prioritize things differently so I have time for both because I feel like reading myself is also crucial to my mission because a person should never stop.

  • Jennifer February 7, 2015, 11:51 am

    This topic is fascinating for me and for my students. Time always feels so elusive and yet we really do have a lot of time. But everywhere I look people are complaining about not having enough time. I have a feeling that advice and activities outlined in this book would definitely be helpful to me. I’ve been seeing a lot around the internet about the importance of taking stock of priorities and using that as a baseline to better plan out what you do and how you do it. I completely agree with this premise and I can understand how planning out how you use your time in accordance with what you really want and what really matters to you makes sense. I would love to stop idly replying to people who ask me how I am with the simple word busy. I’m more than busy and I want to put harnessing human connection at the forefront of how I interact with other people. Thanks for such a thoughtful and thought-provoking post!