I read Laura Vanderkam's 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think last month and I have a new outlook on life. I do have more time than I think. 168 hours—the number of hours in a week—is a vast playground of possibility. If I just focus more on what's important to me (career goals and cooking or reading with my kids) and abandon the nagging stuff (the laundry, the scrapbooking fantasy), I have time for "anything [I] really want to do," Vanderkam says. I'm sold.
Of course, I've been sold before. Under Vanderkam's book on my desk lies a pile that represents a brief history of time-management: 25 Best Time Management Tools and Techniques. The Not-So-Big-Life. Addicted to Stress. Getting Things Done. Never Be Late Again. Managing Life With Kids. The Four-Hour Workweek. Time Management for the Creative Person.
I'm clearly addicted to something, but I doubt that (as the author of that particular volume would have it) it's stress. I'm irresistibly drawn in by time management itself: the illusion that somehow, if I can just seize control of my schedule and prioritize and work strategically, I will get everything done and then live happily ever after. And since I can't be the only person buying all of these books (two were best-sellers), I'm not the only one who ought to be asking the obvious question: Are we getting anything out of all of this reading, or are we just wasting more time?
I spent a week following Vanderkam's regime, which meant strictly quantifying my life. (Not surprisingly, there's an app for that—several. I used TimeManager.) I discovered that work absorbed only 22 of the 30 hours I spend at my desk. I didn't watch much television, but devoted 4 hours to the obtaining, preparation, and consumption of coffee, and only three hours to biking, ostensibly my hobby of choice. I slept for 52 hours and e-mailed for five, and I otherwise wasted, blew, or frittered away some 32 hours—yes, 32—on such all-important miscellany as online shopping, Facebook, and other activities so small they hadn't even merited recording.
Once it was all laid out before me, it was impossible not to conclude that Vanderkam was right: If I blocked out my time rather than accepting constant interruptions and stopped spending time on small things that I neither cared about nor enjoyed, I'd have more time to do the things I supposedly want to do. Using her prescription, I "found" nearly another hour in every day for both writing and playing with my kids—the two things I figure I'll wish I'd spent more time on when I'm on my deathbed. I felt good; I felt productive; I earned a time-management gold star. Did I, with Vanderkam's help, come up with a radical new way of thinking about time?
Not even close. What's remarkable about my experience with 168 Hours isn't that I gained an extra two hours—it's that I gained them by following essentially the same advice I could have found in any of the other dozen books in my stack. Every one starts with measurement: The 25 Best Time-Management Tools and Techniques demands that you "Find Out What Time Means to You!" by tracking what you're doing every five minutes for a week. Sarah Susanka gently encourages seekers of The Not-So-Big Life to "understand our relationship with time" through the use of a multipage time-usage questionnaire. The advice that follows, too, is the same: Eliminate the waste and cease the frittering. "Get rid of non-core-competency work," says Vanderkam; "Prioritize the important over the urgent," Time Management for Creative People tells me. Make a list of the things you should do, and the things you have to do, James T. McCay told the Greatest Generation in The Management of Time, published 50 years ago. Now take the list of things you "should do" and throw it away.