This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "168 Hours" by Laura Vanderkam. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What is Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours about? What is the key message to take away from the book?
In 168 Hours, Laura Vanderkam argues that most people have enough time for everything they need and want to do. The problem is that people are not using their time intentionally. Drawing on her experience, she explains how we can be more intentional with our time at work, at home, and with our leisure.
Below is a brief overview of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam.
The Key to Productivity: Being Intentional With Your Time
How can you fit a meaningful job, time with your loved ones, and leisure time into your schedule?
Many of us would say that it’s impossible. But in 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, productivity expert Laura Vanderkam argues that you can have a full, satisfying life by managing your time intentionally.
As Vanderkam points out, we all have 24 hours a day—or 168 hours in a week. However, we don’t get equal amounts done with our 168 hours. For example, Lisa might run a non-profit, go to Pilates class, do volunteer work, and raise a large brood, while Mary might struggle to do all her tasks at her full-time job, leaving her with only enough time and energy to scroll through her phone messages before she goes to sleep.
Why do Mary and Lisa vary wildly in their productivity despite having the same number of hours? Vanderkam contends that this stems from two different approaches to time: Lisa is intentional, actively scheduling her week around her priorities. In contrast, Mary spends much of her time doing low-priority tasks (like unimportant jobs at work) and easy but only mildly satisfying leisure activities (like scrolling through social media).
Vanderkam explains that when you’re intentional with your time, as Lisa is, you do three things: First, you actively schedule your week around your priorities. Second, you understand your “core competencies,” or unique strengths—the things that you’re amazing at or can’t outsource—and spend most of the week using these strengths while delegating tasks that you don’t excel at. And third, you understand that you choose how to spend your time. If you don’t do a task, it’s not because you lacked time but because you didn’t want to do it. By doing these three things, she contends you can live a full, meaningful life.
In the next sections, we’ll discuss Vanderkam’s tips for being intentional in general, at work, and at home so that you make the most of your 168 hours.
How to Be Intentional With Your Time
Now that you’ve learned why you need to be intentional with your time in order to build a meaningful life, we’ll go through Vanderkam’s four steps for doing so.
1) Record how you use your 168 consecutive hours. Throughout your day, write down how you spend each hour. Be specific about exactly what you did; instead of writing “dinner,” write “made stir-fry” or “ordered and ate takeout.”
2) Review your time record to discover how you’re currently spending your time. To do so, Vanderkam recommends dividing your activities into major categories, such as sleep, work, or social media. Then, add up the hours you spend on each activity; it likely won’t add up to 168 hours because you lose some time logging them, but it should get fairly close. Then, reflect on your totals. Are you satisfied with the time you’re spending on each activity? What could you do differently? Keep in mind that unlike a day’s time, 168 hours should be plenty of time for all the activities that matter to you.
3) Identify your unique strengths. You likely know some but not all of them. To discover your overlooked strengths, Vanderkam suggests creating a bucket list with 100 items on it. Then, review your list and start doing some of the cheap and easy ones. By trying several activities, you’ll discover what you like and are good at—and what might count as a unique strength. Be open to the possibility that a unique strength could surprise you. For example, you might take an art history class and discover that analyzing art is a unique strength—and you could use that skill to write a book.
4) Block off time on your schedule first for tasks using your strengths. To ensure you have enough time for what you do best, schedule more time for these tasks and less time for tasks you’re not as good at (we’ll explain how in the next section).
Why and How to Be Intentional at Work
Now that you know the importance of being intentional in general, how can you become intentional at work? Vanderkam argues that the key is to do work you love. In this section, we’ll explain why you need to do work you love and how to ensure you love work by creating your perfect position.
Why You Should Do Work You Love
Vanderkam argues that if you want to have a meaningful life, you must intentionally choose work you love for two main reasons. First, you spend many hours at work, so your job satisfaction inevitably affects the rest of your life: If you like your job, you’ll have more energy to enjoy your personal life. If you hate your job, your dissatisfaction will lead to lower energy throughout the rest of the week.
Second, Vanderkam argues that if you enjoy your job, you’re more likely to achieve more in your career. When your job involves your unique strengths, you enjoy it more. When you enjoy your job, you spend more hours working—and thus are more likely to become an expert in your field. That’s because research indicates that to excel at a skill, you must spend 10,000 hours of deliberate practice on it, meaning you concentrate and zero in on your weak spots so that you can improve. So to reach the highest level in your career, you must spend 10,000 hours deliberately practicing your work (and the related skills)—which you’ll only do if you genuinely adore your work.
Create Your Perfect Position
Now that you’ve learned why you need to do work you love, how can you do so? Vanderkam suggests that you must create your perfect position, a job that has four main elements. First, you enjoy and are good at the work (because it involves your unique strengths), so you’re willing to do the work even without the prospect of external rewards. Second, you have some control over how you do the work; for example, you can decide what time you want to work. Third, the work is hard but not too hard—and so provides regular opportunities to enter “flow,” a mental state in which you’re so immersed in the activity that you lose track of time. Fourth, you work in a supportive environment; for example, you have great bosses.
Vanderkam states that once you know your perfect position, you must create it. You’ll likely not be able to find it, since your perfect position is tailored to your strengths and preferences. You thus have two main options when creating this position.
Start Your Own Company
The first option to create your perfect position is to start your own company. This might involve chasing a lifelong dream; for example, you might finally open the bakery you’ve always dreamed of having. Alternatively, this might involve starting a company that’s not necessarily aligned with your passions but increases the control and support you have in your life. For example, you might not love accounting but having your own accounting firm will give you the flexibility to work remotely.
Adjust Your Current Position
The second option is to adjust your current position so it’s more closely aligned with your ideal. Vanderkam writes that most employers prioritize their bottom line—so they’re often not picky about exactly what you do, as long as it brings in profit. As such, they’ll likely be willing to adjust your position in the way you want, as long as you frame your desire in a way that prioritizes their profit margin. For example, say you spend half your time marketing a product and half your time selling it, but you’re the top salesperson in your company and hate marketing. If you say, “I could double my sales if I didn’t spend all this time marketing,” your company may be willing to let you reduce or eliminate your marketing responsibilities.
Schedule Your Perfect Position
Whether you’re starting a business or adjusting your current position, Vanderkam argues that you should schedule your time well using a three-step process:
1) Decide what you mean by ‘work.’ Vanderkam asserts that anything that involves your unique strengths and furthers your career is work; any other task, even if it’s required for your job, is not work because it’s not helping you.
To discover what constitutes work, first review your bucket list and pull out your professional goals. Then, map out what you’d need to do over the next year, five years, and 10 years to achieve those goals. Break down your yearly goals into monthly and weekly steps, and decide how much time each step requires—either by researching or by reviewing your own experience.
Once you have a clear idea of what work you should be doing, plot it in your schedule. Vanderkam suggests that you work at least 30 hours per week—even if you’re working part time. If you work fewer than 30 hours, you won’t be productive enough to reach your career goals; if you work too many hours, you’ll grow tired and become unproductive. So you want to hit a sweet spot where you’re working enough to be productive without overexerting yourself.
2) Focus on your work. When you’re scheduled to work, focus solely on activities that further your career. Your 30-hour minimum shouldn’t include any time that you spend distracted or doing tasks that help your company but not your career. And don’t allow yourself to get behind—make contingency plans for potential issues that might arise during your work time, like a back-up babysitter you can call if your nanny is sick. And if you aren’t able to work as planned, immediately readjust the rest of your schedule so that you still achieve your weekly work goal.
3) Delete, diminish, or delegate any job tasks that don’t fit your definition of work. To delete tasks, remove yourself from projects that won’t further your career. To diminish tasks, devote most of your schedule to actual work and schedule small blocks of time for minor but necessary tasks such as returning phone calls. To delegate tasks, assign non-unique strength tasks to someone who can do them better than you can.
Why and How to Be Intentional at Home
You’ve learned how to be intentional at work, but how can you be intentional at home? Vanderkam argues that the key is to focus on your unique strengths—just as you would in business. Specifically, she recommends that you focus on your children and your partnership, and that you limit how much time you spend on your housework.
In this section, you’ll first learn why and how to be more intentional with your loved ones. Then, you’ll learn why you should delegate most of your housework—and how to do it.
Be More Intentional With Your Loved Ones
Vanderkam recommends that you be more intentional with your loved ones. This is important not only because it will benefit your relationships with them, but also because your relationships with your children and partner are unique strengths. Only you can parent (not babysit) your own children in your unique way; for example, you might be able to foster your kids’ love of the outdoors because you also love the outdoors, whereas your partner can’t foster that passion in the same way because they prefer being inside. And only you can invest time in your partnership.
Maximize Time With Your Children
By being intentional with your kids, you’ll spend meaningful time with them instead of watching too much TV or getting bored with the routine. To be more intentional with your children, Vanderkam recommends that you maximize both the quantity and the quality of the time you spend with them. To maximize the quantity, adjust your work schedule so that you work in chunks (like from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m.) instead of throughout the entire workday (from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.). By chunking your workday, you’ll work the same number of hours but gain free time to spend with your kids while they’re still awake.
To maximize the quality, Vanderkam suggests that you first ask your kids to create their own bucket lists. Select activities that you’ll also enjoy, and schedule time to do those activities together. For example, if you both enjoy basketball, go to a game together.
Spend Time With Your Partner
By being intentional with your partner, you’ll nurture your relationships and develop a happy partnership that can withstand life’s inevitable challenges. To do this, Vanderkam recommends three strategies. First, schedule regular dates; if you can’t afford childcare, plan a romantic evening at home. Second, each night before bed, spend 30 minutes talking. Third, connect with your partner briefly throughout the day by calling or texting.
To maximize your time at home with your loved ones, Vanderkam suggests that you delegate your housework. Housework probably isn’t a unique strength, so it’s better to delegate it while you focus on parenting and your partnership.
Vanderkam notes that many people resist delegating housework because it costs too much. However, she argues that you should delegate your housework despite the expenses involved for two main reasons. First, housework only seems expensive because it’s usually considered free female labor. Second, paying others to do your housework is likely worth the investment because it buys you back time to focus on more important tasks. For example, if you make $50 per hour and spend six hours weekly cleaning, this costs you $300. If hiring a housekeeper costs $100 but eliminates your cleaning time, you’re saving $200.
To delegate your housework, Vanderkam recommends that you first decide which chores to delegate. Review your time record and figure out how much time you spent on the following chores: laundry, food preparation (from shopping to cleanup), general cleaning, and maintenance tasks (which are infrequent but time-consuming, like calling your internet provider when the wifi’s out). Then, select one to delegate—whether it’s the chore that takes the most time or the one you dislike the most.
Your next step will depend on which chore you’ve decided to delegate:
1) If you dislike laundry: Hire a laundry service to wash and fold your clothes. Your dry cleaner may offer this service; otherwise, a quick internet search will reveal the options in your area. To save even more time, select one that both picks up and delivers your clothes.
2) If you dislike food preparation: Vanderkam recommends two strategies. First, shop for groceries online. You can shop whenever it’s convenient, save time commuting, and easily refill your grocery order instead of looking for the same carton of milk you buy every week. Second, when shopping online, purchase pre-made foods to simplify meal prep. For example, you might buy a carton of broth and frozen vegetables for a simple soup.
3) If you dislike general cleaning: Hire a cleaning service. However, even if you do so, you’ll likely still spend a significant amount of time on daily upkeep—such as clearing your kitchen counter. Minimize this time by focusing on clearing your surfaces. If your surfaces are clean, your house will feel clean—even if your drawers look like a hurricane hit them.
4) If you dislike maintenance tasks: Vanderkam recommends that you hire an assistant. To do so affordably, search for a virtual assistant online. Alternatively, look for a personal concierge in your area: These people (or companies) will perform your maintenance tasks for an hourly, monthly, or per-project fee.
Why and How to Be Intentional With Your Leisure
Now that you’ve learned how to be intentional at work and at home, you’ll learn how to be intentional with your leisure time. In this section, we’ll discuss why you should schedule your leisure time and how to do it.
Why You Should Be Intentional About Your Leisure Time
According to Vanderkam, if you want your leisure time to be meaningful, you should schedule it—otherwise, you’ll spend too much time watching TV.
Vanderkam asserts that most Americans think they have less leisure time than they do because they spend too much time watching TV. Most Americans claim to have just 16.5 hours of leisure time per week. However, data indicates they have 30 hours —they just don’t realize it because they spend 20 hours mindlessly watching television.
Vanderkam argues that this underestimation is a result of not being intentional about leisure time. TV watching isn’t necessarily a fulfilling leisure activity: One study found that it brings less joy than several other activities, such as reading or hiking. However, we choose it because it’s easy: It’s affordable, mindless, and easy to do whenever you have a few minutes.
Therefore, if you want to do meaningful activities in your leisure time, you need to be intentional about your leisure. But how?
Make Time for Leisure Activities
Vanderkam gives the following tips for being intentional about your leisure time:
1) Choose your leisurely pursuits. Experiment with several items on your bucket list to find one to three activities you’d like to spend up to 10 hours on weekly. Make sure to include exercise! As Vanderkam notes, it’s both essential to your health and a unique strength because nobody else can do it for you.
2) Schedule these pursuits in your weekly calendar. Vanderkam recommends that you be flexible when scheduling these activities during the week. Consider waking up early or trading childcare duties with your spouse one night a week. And don’t forget to plan at least one fun weekend activity! Brainstorm what you’d like to do with your family or friends at the beginning of each week, then confirm those plans midweek.
3) Create lists of leisure activities that you can do in short bursts. Review your bucket list and separate the activities you can do in less than 10 minutes from those you can do in less than 30 minutes. Then, do one of those activities whenever you have small bits of free time. For example, you could doodle a picture instead of scrolling through your phone while waiting at the doctor’s office.
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Here's what you'll find in our full 168 Hours summary:
- How to fit a career, time with your loved ones, and leisure time into your schedule
- How to be intentional with how you spend your time
- Why you're spending too much time watching TV