Book Reviews Books for Adults Non-fiction

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam

Wondering how you can fit in all the things you want in your life? This book is super practical and inspiring.

I first read 168 Hours almost exactly two years ago (apparently something about having a new baby makes me think a lot about time or lackthereof) and mentioned it briefly in this post about dream jobs.

Somehow I never got around to writing about it, but when I read All the Money in the World by her earlier this year, I decided to re-read 168 Hours.

My mom was reading it when she came out after Star’s birth and we spent a considerable amount of time talking about it over the week. (If I were still in a book club, I would totally pick this because there is just so much to discuss).

The book starts out with a discussion of the common modern narrative about how nobody has enough time. She strongly disagrees with this, arguing that 168 hours a week is enough time to fit in a robust career, a strong family life, exercise, hobbies, and enough sleep per night. If you’re one of those people who feels like that’s impossible, you probably are raising an eyebrow at her assertion.

A few of her main points:

  • Keep track of your time, hour by hour, for a week or two so you can see how you’re actually spending your time. One woman called it “one mortifying experience” when she realized how much time she was actually spending checking Facebook while at work and how often it derailed her from getting actual things done. 
  • Figure out what your core competencies are and spend your time doing those. What are you best at? Writing? Cooking? Nurturing relationships with our significant others and children (hopefully no one is better at that than you are . . . ). Maximize your time doing those things and minimize how much time you spend doing other things. 
  • Stop doing pretend work. Lots of us spend a lot of time being busy but doing things that aren’t actually that valuable. Are you spending a lot of time doing meaningless housework, or setting up elaborate organizational systems or having long conference calls that could be finished in ten minutes if you got right on task? Whether this is in your home life or your work life, you could probably get the “have to” things done a lot faster and more efficiently than you do. I basically always spend the entire two hours of nap and quiet time at my desk, but I often end up wasting so much time trying to multi-task between screens, doing fairly unimportant busy work (spending the last $15 on a gift card or trying to clear my inbox) that I end up having to work in the evenings too and then I feel like I spend all my time “working.” Since I finished this book, I’ve made a list each day of what I needed to get done and then I just put my head down and work, not getting distracted by the other maybe-should be things that don’t matter nearly so much or could get done later at a less focused time. 
  • Decide what you can off-load. She’s an enormous fan of outsourcing as much as possible, whether it’s laundry, grocery shopping, house cleaning, lawn care, etc. She argues that
  • Pick 2-4 hobbies or activities you want in your life. You may be saying you want to sew more or read more books or volunteer with an organization you care about or run a marathon, but then you end up squandering your free time doing really low-investment things like watching TV (which is draining and not nearly as fun as you think it is). Figure out what you want to do and then when you can fit them in and make the happen. You’ll be rejuvenated by doing the things you’ve always meant to do and the lure of the Internet and TV will be reduced. She also says one of your hobbies really should/must be exercise. When you consider doing 30 minutes, 5 days a week, that’s only 3 hours out of your entire 168 a week. You can probably (almost certainly) fit it in. 

I love that she doesn’t argue that it’s easy to make it happen. It takes a lot of planning and discipline to make your life look like you want it to, instead of just piddling your life away running errands, checking email, and watching TV.

And she has such an engaging writing style – I think she’s somewhat similar to Gretchen Rubin, with a lot of anecdotes, discussions about what she does well herself and also where she falls short, and an ability to make all sorts of data and statistics really engaging.

There are certainly things I don’t agree with her on. I’m not willing to let my housekeeping slip to barely passable to get back a small chunk of time; I’m not the world’s best housekeeper by any means and the time I spend cleaning is fairly minimal, but I don’t keep things tidy because I care what other people think – I keep the clutter to a minimum because it makes ME crazy when there are piles of things on every surface.

And she doesn’t seem to enjoy cooking like I do – yes, I could probably reduce the time I spend cooking by making easier meals or doing grocery delivery, but I’m not looking to outsource those things and I like to cook.

And having been in schools, I totally disagree with her hypothesis that school lunches are way improved from days of old and that it’s well-worth having your kids just buy a lunch for a few bucks (also, having just read Slim by Design, I know that people who pack their lunches tend to eat more healthily than those who buy because you pack your lunch when you’re usually not terribly hungry (after dinner or breakfast) and so you make fairly good choices, whereas if you buy lunch when you’re starving, guess what you buy? Not salad).

This book gets slammed in some reviews for being aimed at middle-class or upper-middle class, and I suppose there is some truth to that – if you are barely paying your rent, you’ll probably not be thrilled by a suggestion to get a lawn service so you don’t have to spend your weekends mowing.

But I think no matter your situation, you can benefit from looking critically at how you spend your time, both work and leisure, figuring out what you want from your life and what you’re really good at doing, and organizing your life more efficiently to fit those things in.

I love that reading this book makes me feel like I have plenty of time to do what I want with my days and weeks, that I’m not too busy to exercise or get enough sleep or spend time with my family or run my blog and freelance write.

Whether or not you’ve read the book, I’d love to hear what things you want to fit into your life (right now I’m focusing on exercise and reading) and what things you’d be thrilled to off-load (actual cleaning – bathrooms, floors, etc – would be top of my list).

Copy checked out from the library

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  • Reply diana April 22, 2015 at 11:58 am

    I was just thinking last night that I need to use my time more efficiently, while I constantly feel busy it's mostly busy work. Added this to my "to read" list!

  • Reply Abby April 22, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    I thought the ideas in this book were fascinating but I thought the writing was very dull. I couldn't finish it.

    But I loved the part about what people said they would do if they had an extra 15 minutes everyday. Anyone can make time for something they love.

    Also working on running and reading right now. And my husband and I basically gave up TV so we'd have more time for things that count. Time is an interesting thing!

  • Reply Pienkel April 22, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    Thanks for the post, I hadn't heard of the book but will see if our local library can provide a copy. Agree with the procrastination on FB and generally online, though I try to do my most important tasks early in the day, I just simply do not try hard enough to stay away from social media. It has helped a bit that I removed most of them from my phone, but still… Thanks for passing on the tips, I guess it's mainly a matter of focus on what you want and what you actually do. Sounds simple, but I can definitely gain something there 😉

  • Reply missris April 22, 2015 at 1:43 pm

    I haven't read this book but I totally agree that people have as much time as anyone else (esp middle- and upper-middle class folks). It drives me nuts when people say "I don't have time to exercise" or "I don't have time to read." Oh you don't? How much TV do you watch? How much time do you waste on the internet? Did you know that the President exercises almost every day? Do you really think you're busier than him? Anyway, ahem, I'll step off my soapbox now. Sounds like this book would be right up my alley!

  • Reply MommySizedHeart April 22, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    Stewardship is everything. The author seems to have a good theme going about the things most people are terrible stewards over! Money and time. I think I'll check out the book and look into her othee books!

  • Reply Saskia April 22, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    Right now I'm still a grad student, but the end of my PhD is looming. One of the things I think about when I consider post-PhD employment (especially if I go the non-academic route) is fitting things in when I no longer have the luxury of setting my own hours. So it sounds like a good book for me to read as I start navigating hobbies, housecleaning, groceries, friends, family and a 40-hour workweek away from home. Thanks for the review!

  • Reply Ashley April 22, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    Need to get this book asap. Putting it on my library list right now.

  • Reply Ashley April 22, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    It's not available at our libraries…ahhh!

  • Reply Feisty Harriet April 22, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    A while ago my boss had us all write down everything we did for every minute of one day while at work, you know, in 15 minute increments….it was very enlightening. The first time she had us do it she told us to keep it to ourselves and learn from it, and then a week later she asked us to do it again with the intent to share. It was a FASCINATING exercise in time management. I really need to read this book, it's on my shelf, just waiting for me!


  • Reply Meg ~ Chasing Pink Fireflies April 22, 2015 at 4:54 pm

    I haven't heard of her books but now can't wait to check them out of the library! I absolutely feel like I waste time (especially during quiet time) and then get frustrated later that I still have tasks to be done (like laundry!) at night. I purposely did away with Facebook because it wasted too much time yet I can't seem to make that leap from Instagram!

  • Reply Kristin @ Going Country April 22, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    I'm working right now on prioritizing the cleaning and decluttering, which always slides big-time during pregnancy and newborn care. Forget nesting pre-partum; I do way more nesting post-partum.

    I sometimes wish I watched TV, because then it would be so easy to reclaim a large chunk of time by giving it up. But I don't watch any TV, which sometimes leaves me puzzled as to where my time goes (other than my three kids, I mean). Perhaps I should keep the time log . . .

  • Reply Caitlin April 22, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    I loved her book about money, so I'll have to check this one out! Reading that one made us really want a cleaning lady and a yard guy. I imagine this book will have the same effect. Hopefully we can make the leap if/when baby number three arrives!

  • Reply April 23, 2015 at 1:57 am

    As far as outsourcing some of the time-consuming tasks that aren't your core competencies, we hired a helper halfway through my pregnancy to come twice a week (which is super cheap to do here in China). I can't believe what a difference it's made. She's probably here only five hours a week but in that time she does most of our laundry, all of our dishes, sweeps and vacuums and mops, cleans the bathroom, picks up our produce and cuts up whatever needs prepping for dinner, and (now that we have a baby!) watches the baby when I want to run out for a quick errand. It's … basically incredible.

    And I can't believe how much of my time it freed up and how much less stressful it makes things. I suddenly don't care if the sink is full of dishes because I know I'm not going to be the one doing them. Before the baby I had plenty of time to focus on writing my book and now that the baby's here the adjustment to parenthood hasn't been as stressful as I'd thought it would be, largely because I don't have to worry at all about keeping the house under control. I spend my time focusing on the baby (and hopefully soon I can add writing back in) and things can still run smoothly at home.

    I realize I'm extremely lucky to have this luxury (one I would never be able to afford in the US) and I'm trying to make the most of it. It's funny because I remember reading this book a couple years back when my husband was in grad school and we were strapped for cash and being critical of the idea of hiring out household chores – surely that wasn't very realistic. And while my circumstances are unique, I can see she actually has a point. I really do feel like I have enough time to do most of what I want, even at this stage of having a new baby.

    I'm halfway through her book on money and am finding that one to be really interesting too. It makes me feel better about all the money we've spent on travel instead of sticking into a savings account . . . 😉

  • Reply Katie April 23, 2015 at 2:54 am

    I checked out both of her books on your recommendation (and read all my other books first, in case the time management book frowned upon binge reading several books in a row and ignoring all other responsibilities) and while I really liked All the Money in the World, I didn't get all the way through this one. The one thing I did take away was a confirmation of what I always assumed: I do have enough time, I'm wasting a lot of it, but I am also spending a lot of it doing what's most important. So now, I need to find a way to cut out my wasted online time without ruining my ability to connect through it to people I care about.

  • Reply Beth Maybee April 23, 2015 at 4:38 am

    The point of choosing hobbies and making time for them resonated with me. I want to see and read more but make excuses like 2 kids keep me too busy. It's a big cycle though: if I make time for hobbies, I'm more efficient during the day because I'm happier which leads to more time for me after bedtime again.

  • Reply lifeonlakeland April 23, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    My big takeaway from the book was instead of saying "I don't have time for that" you say "That's not a priority" because that's more truthful. I read this book shortly after having my first child (when it first came out) and it really helped my adjustment to motherhood. Because of time logs and the ideas in this book I have basically phased out TV watching, spend less time on housework and more time on scrapbooking and reading.

  • Reply Eli April 23, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    Excellent review! You've thoroughly convinced me that I must read this book to manage my life. Just finishing the Magical Life-Changing Tidiness book and about to start the Vanderkam money one. This one shall be next. Self-help for the win.

  • Reply Jodi April 23, 2015 at 9:53 pm

    I really did like the book and it gave me awareness of lots of things, and in general I just agree with the premise. I was annoyed by the outsourcing ideas, because yeah, a lot of people can't afford to or the pay off just may not be worth the cost. I'm also a fan of being self-sufficient and learning how to take care of my world. And because I'm like you (most of the time), I was a bit aghast at her mealtime suggestions. And the school lunches? I was like psh. Gross. Oh and somedays, I just cannot get ready in under 20 minutes, though I so wish I could.

  • Reply Salmah Shahnawaz April 24, 2015 at 8:39 am

    Let me start by saying that I love your posts on your kids and what you do with them. I'm not a mom (yet) but I'm always interested in how involved people are with their kids, and always looking for ideas!

    I also love your posts on books because it gives me more things to add to my booklist!

    This was a great read. I always feel like I need more hours in the day, but the tips were very helpful. I pretend to do work too, but then came across this post :

    It has post-its and a white board, what's not to love?!

    I just need to organise myself more, and this was a great reminder for that, as well as always wanting more reading time!

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