Do You Have More Time Than You Think?

Laura Vanderkam thinks you do. She’s convinced me that I am dicking around way too much and that I could be significantly more amazing if I changed that.

Vanderkam roots her argument in the American Time Use Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor. In this study, thousands of people track every minute of how they spend their time. Participants in the study slept an average of 8.39 hours a night on weekdays and 9.33 hours on weekends. In other surveys, however, people estimate they are only getting about six and a half hours of sleep per night. White-collar workers wildly overestimate how much time they are actually working, probably because we tend to count chats with co-workers, Facebook sessions, and other interruptions as work time, or because just a few email sessions over the weekends can give us the feeling we’re always on the clock. Parents overestimate the time they spend actually playing with or reading to their children, and everyone underestimates how much time they spend watching TV or wasting time online.

As Vanderkam points out, it’s not surprising we delude ourselves. I think Americans consider putting in a lot of hours at the office to be an unqualified virtue. We equate healthy sleep with sloth. The problem with over-estimating how busy you are, she maintains, is that you believe you’re incapable of having the kind of life you want. She recommends using even small pockets of time more wisely, just as Alianthus-Altissima did in her excellent post the other week, Women In Academia: Making Every Second Count. (Unlike Vanderkam, Alianthus-Altissima did not recommend doing pushups while your food is microwaving, for which I am grateful.)

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think includes a few activities to start you on your way to productivity. The first one is to make a list of 100 dreams, so that you know what you really want out of life. I have done things like this before – I am a total sucker for them – but I might do it again, because lately I am much more focused on my writing goals rather than trying to excel at every damn thing there is. Vanderkam addresses this, too, asking you, in corporate parlance, to identify your “core competencies.” That way, you can spend less time on things you neither excel at nor enjoy. You can decide it’s fine not to sit through every softball game your daughter plays or not to make treats from scratch, ever.

I am in the middle of doing the next activity, in which I’m trying to track all of my time for a week. I found a great app for it and I’m going to write about that experiment in another post.

Of course, if you really aren’t wasting much time, and you are way busier than you want to be and can’t see a way out of it, you have no use for this book. It will only insult you. Parts of it annoyed me along the way. I know Vanderkam is correct about the importance of exercise, but I don’t appreciate being bossed about it constantly. Her target audience is upper-middle-class (or richer) working moms, which leads her to talk at length about some solutions that don’t fit into many people’s budgets. It would be great if we could all get a maid service, but come on.

Her viewpoints are often startling and extreme, and I think many people would feel like a life this examined would not be worth living. Welsh poet W.H. Davies wrote in the early 20th century, “What is this life if full of care,/We have no time to stand and stare?”

But I do too much standing (okay, sitting) and staring, and it doesn’t make me happy. Because I am so dreamy and easily distracted, I found this book useful. It made me feel like I might be able to do all those awesome things I want to do, after all.

By Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

8 replies on “Do You Have More Time Than You Think?”

But what is ‘wasting time’  though? Is it me watching three episodes of Mad Men in a row instead of using that time for my Spanish? I know this is slightly offtopic because it’s about perception, but still. Maybe you should just be more sure about what you do with your time before deciding if you’re wasting it or not.

I have learned over the years that my anxiety rises the more I do not allow myself to do absolutely nothing, which is why I sometimes force myself to go look at FB or read Persephone on breaks. But, then, I’m type-A, achievement-oriented, and basically a workaholic when left to my own devices, so if I don’t basically take a chill pill, I won’t dick around at all.

And having fun is important.

But it does make me wonder about all of the underutilized time I have in the day. When I’m riding the bus, for example; how could I be making the most of that time? When I’m the passenger in the car on a 30-minute drive, what could I be doing?


For me that’s the biggest problem.  Whenever I am driving I always think of what else I could be doing.  And if I am sitting in traffic behind a bunch of rubberneckers and I look at the time, needless to say I get a little anxious.

I think the answer is to just move to a big city with mass transit.


I was cracking up at your opening line.  Because okay, I dick around a lot.  Yet I’ve learned the hard way that it’s a requirement for my sanity.  I need me time.  I need time I’m not doing anything. Ask Mr. Nonsense, if I don’t get this time I go nuts and get very very unpleasant to be around.

Yes yes yes! I’m absolutely the same way. I dick around a fair amount, but 1) it sometimes helps me get time to work through unconsciously what I’m doing (whoo academia), and 2) I need that time so I don’t lose it.

I know I’m not always the best about using every bit of my “work time” for work, but I always get things done.

I think a certain amount of dicking around must be necessary for most people. Probably the right amount varies from person to person. I did like Vanderkam’s rephrasing of “I don’t have time” to the more honest (for me) “that’s not my priority.” Saying “that’s not my priority” makes me feel like it’s OK if I don’t choose to do something.

Also, if dicking around actually is someone’s priority, I think that’s her business.

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