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Make the most of your week’s ‘168 Hours’

Do you always feel like you're in a time crunch? Author Laura Vanderkam says that shouldn't be the case, and shares strategies of people who successfully balance work, family and fun. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Do you always feel like you’re in a time crunch? Author Laura Vanderkam says that shouldn’t be the case. If we re-examine our weekly allotment of 168 hours, we’ll find that we can dedicate more time to the things we want to do without having to make sacrifices, she writes in her book, “168 Hours.” An excerpt.

Chapter one
Like many busy people, I live by my to-do list. Sometimes it’s scratched on my church bulletin (the “silent confession” part of the service includes an apology for not paying attention). Sometimes it’s scrawled in my must-not-lose black notebook that, alas, I once accidentally lost at LAX. Regardless, I obey its missives. I like nothing better than scratching off every entry. So, during one marathon late March day in 2009, when I saw a “to do” to follow up for this book with a woman named Theresa Daytner, who I’d interviewed a year before, I dutifully sent her a note.

But Daytner was not to be reached. I’m not sure what her to-do list said, but she was spending the day outside.

She told me later she had gone for a hike along a “babbling brook” near her Maryland home about 45 minutes west of Baltimore. It was a desolate area, so she’d borrowed her brother’s dog to keep her company. The two of them spent hours tromping through the mud. An early spring rain had turned the landscape green, bringing out tiny shoots on the trees and making the wildflower buds sparkle against the gray sky. There was simply no way she was going to miss one of the first warm mornings that offered up the opportunity to, as she put it, enjoy the “peace and quiet” and “recharge.”

As I talked to Daytner more, I soon realized that recharging was a normal feature of her life. This involved a reasonable amount of time in the dirt; she goes on trail rides on her hybrid bicycle in addition to her hikes. Until recently, she lifted weights with a trainer twice a week. She burrows into Jodi Picoult novels at night in addition to reading her book club’s fare; she confesses a slight addiction to watching 24. She gets massages. She gets her hair done. She recently planned an elaborate surprise party for her husband’s fiftieth birthday, featuring guests she had arranged to fly in from all over the country.

In other words, Daytner seems to have a lot of time. Relaxed time. Time she can and does use in any way she pleases. That includes knocking off for some blissful solitude on a weekday morning when more serious people are at work.

Of course, this begs the question. How, exactly, does Daytner have so much time on her hands? Is she retired? Unemployed? A homemaker whose children have grown?

The answer may surprise you. Daytner is certainly busier than I am. She’s busier than most people I know here in too-rushed-to-breathe Manhattan. Indeed, I would venture to guess that no matter who you are, you don’t have as much on your plate as Daytner does. Barack Obama himself was floored when he met her. Not long before that muddy March morning hike, Daytner seized a chance opportunity to visit the White House with a group of small business owners to talk about economic issues. She introduced herself to the president by her two main identities.

The first: Theresa Daytner, owner of Daytner Construction Group, a seven-figure-revenue company whose twelve-person payroll she is personally responsible for meeting.

The second: Theresa Daytner, mom of six, including eight-year-old twins.

“When,” Obama asked her, “do you sleep?”

But Daytner does sleep. Though a recent Men’s Health article test-drove the “Uberman” sleep cycle — during which one naps 20 minutes every 4 hours as a way to free up time to “excel at your job, bond with the people you love, indulge in your dreams, or just chill” — Daytner does all these things while sleeping at least 7 hours a night. She coaches soccer and spends weekends cheering at her children’s games. She is happily planning her twenty-one-year-old daughter’s wedding while growing her business. She became interested in construction years ago as a college student when she learned that being honest and competent could actually make you stand out in this space. Now, despite the recent construction slump, DCG (which oversees $10–75 million projects) was, when we talked, reviewing résumés to bring on new project managers. She was also on track to post year-over-year gains and was negotiating to enter the general contracting space, a move that could expand her business by an order of magnitude.

She was certainly not immune to the pressures of meeting a payroll (which includes health benefits for her employees’ families); she confesses to putting out fires at night, on weekends, and, if the earth would crash into the sun otherwise, by Blackberry while she hikes. She has not been immune from other entrepreneurial pressures, either. She launched DCG when her twins were still toddlers, and since she wanted her husband to work with her, she mortgaged the house to pay for child care. As her business has picked up, it’s become at times quite “draining, mentally.” That’s why she watches 24.

Nonetheless, when I spoke to her, she told me that her children had the next Thursday off from school and she planned to take the day off again. She was going to load as many of the kids in the car as would fit to go see Washington’s cherry blossoms and just chill on the National Mall.

All in all, her life sounded pretty sweet. And so, as I’ve been writing this book, I’ve taken to recounting Daytner’s biography at cocktail parties. Like Obama, people always ask, “How does she do it?” — or, if someone is feeling more peevish, “I don’t know this woman but I already hate her.” Our cultural narratives of overwork, sleep deprivation, and how hard it is to “have it all” suggest that a big career and big family like Daytner’s should not be possible. Or if they are possible, we certainly don’t expect daytime hikes and Jodi Picoult novels to wind up in there, too.

I won’t claim it’s easy. But as Daytner told me about her scheme to screen her e-mail (which takes “too much damn time”), and shift some of her employees’ responsibilities to keep her workday at roughly 8:30– 5:00, it soon became clear that she views her hours and minutes differently than most people.

For starters, she considers them all precious. She even takes advantage of the ten minutes between when her teens’ school opens (8:00) and her twins’ nearby school opens (8:10) to read Hardy Boys books to her sons in the car and nurture her relationship with them.

And second, “Here’s what I think is the difference,” she says. “I know I’m in charge of me. Everything that I do, every minute I spend is my choice.” Daytner chooses to spend those minutes on the three things she does best: nurturing her business, nurturing her family, and nurturing herself. “If I’m not spending my time wisely, I fix it,” she says. “Even if it’s just quiet time.”

But within these three priorities, she has found a little secret: when you focus on what you do best, on what brings you the most satisfaction, there is plenty of space for everything. You can build a big career. You can build a big family. And you can meander along a Maryland creek on a weekday morning because the day is too wild and beautiful to stay inside. Indeed, you can fill your life with more abundance than most people think is possible.

I thought about Daytner a lot as I was pulling this book together. Her life stands in such stark contrast to the way we twenty-first-century creatures have grown used to thinking about our time that she’s hard not to think about. It is safe to say that time has become the primary obsession of modern life. Some people are having enough sex. Some people have enough money. But no one seems to have enough hours in the day.

The futurists didn’t necessarily predict this. Back in 1959, amid the rise of labor-saving technology and massive productivity gains, the Harvard Business Review fretted that “boredom, which used to bother only aristocrats” had “become a common curse.”

But with the rise of two-income families and then extreme jobs, the story goes, the trend toward boredom abruptly reversed. By 1991, the sociologist Juliet Schor asked in her bestselling book The Overworked American, “Why has leisure been such a conspicuous casualty of prosperity?” The image she created, of people looking at their watches to remind themselves what day it was, stuck. And this was years before we tethered ourselves to our Blackberries and cell phones. Now, Harvard Business Review runs anecdotes like those about “Sudhir,” a financial analyst who works 90-hour weeks during summertime, his “light” season, and 120 the rest of the year. “Joe” actually rescheduled a family member’s funeral so he wouldn’t miss a meeting. “The 40-hour workweek,” the December 2006 issue lamented in a story titled “Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek,” “is a thing of the past. Even the 60-hour workweek, once the path to the top, is now considered practically part-time.”

Two decades into this narrative of the time crunch, most of us have fully accepted this worldview. And so, the parade of statistics supporting this argument marches on. We tell pollsters from the National Sleep Foundation that we sleep less than 7 hours per night; moms who work full-time and have school-aged children claim to spend less than 6 hours in bed on weeknights, with about 60 percent claiming there’s just not enough time to sleep. About a third of Americans who work full-time say they work more than 50 hours per week. A recent Gallup poll found that 12 percent of employed Americans claimed to work more than 60 hours. We say that we don’t have enough time to exercise; about a third of Americans tell the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that we fail to do the mere recommended 2.5 hours of activity per week, and I suspect the only reason some people actually meet those guidelines is that the government counts vacuuming as a workout.

Being busy has become the explanation of choice for all sorts of things. The percentage of adults who vote in presidential elections hasn’t changed drastically over the past 20 years, but the percentage of nonvoters who blamed their failure to get to the polls on their busy schedules nearly tripled between 1980 and 1996. We say we are too busy to read — only half of us, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, read a novel, short story, poem, or play in the last year. We’re too busy to read to our kids. Moms and dads who are in the workforce clock a lousy 1–7 minutes of daily reading to or with children, but even stay-at-home moms of preschool-aged kids don’t top 8 minutes per day. That’s barely enough time to pull apart the sticky pages of Goodnight Moon. A full 92 percent of us say we believe in God, but only about 40 percent of us claim to attend religious services weekly — and some studies have shown that when it comes to confessing the frequency of our church attendance to pollsters, we put our souls in peril and lie. Actual attendance is probably less than half of that.

The narrative of busyness has so seized the culture that a group called the Simplicity Forum launched “Take Back Your Time Day” in 2003, publishing a companion handbook on “fighting overwork and time poverty in America.” The handbook featured essays from Schor and others with more alarming stories and statistics. Dual-income couples, one author noted, could find only 12 minutes a day to talk to each other. Some 80 percent of children weren’t getting enough sleep. A reported 20–40 percent of pets, primarily dogs, suffered from separation anxiety due to their absent, overworked owners. Medieval peasants, the cartoon illustrations screamed, worked less than we do!

Of course, medieval peasants also experienced a 25-percent-plus child mortality rate, which strikes me as stressful, so the idea that they somehow led more relaxed lives is odd.

Indeed, much of the time-poverty narrative takes on a rather absurdist tone if you think about it. For instance, the January 2007 issue of Real Simple magazine posed a question to its “time-starved” readers: If you had an extra 15 minutes in your day, how would you use it?

In wistful prose, the respondents daydreamed about all the leisurely, soul-restoring pursuits they’d indulge in if only their clocks would slow down for a while. Jenifer Thigpen of Orlando, Florida, wrote, “I’d play fetch with my dogs, who bring joy to my crazy, hectic life.” Julie Lane- Gay of Vancouver pledged to “write thank-you letters. Not perfunctory notes, but real letters that thank people for things they’ve done that have made a difference ... Someday I hope to do it.” Sarah Nahmias wanted to “relearn how to play my flute. It’s something I enjoyed immensely when I was younger but lost touch with as I got busy with children and family obligations.” Andrea Wood of St. Augustine, Florida, lamented, “I feel as if there’s never enough time in the day to prepare the foods that are good and good for me, so I would spend some time chopping, prepping, and cooking large, healthy meals ahead of time.” Others wanted to soak in the tub, read, relax on the couch, or, as one woman wrote, try the hammock she had assembled but had yet to touch. Katie Noah of Abilene, Texas, mused, “Fifteen minutes of uninterrupted writing time would be a priceless gift,” though, presumably, she did find 15 minutes to read Real Simple and write a letter about her elusive dream.

Regardless, this message permeates the culture. An Amazon ad in my in-box highlights exercise DVDs that vie to offer the shortest workout, for example, “The 12 second sequence: Get fit in 20 minutes twice a week!” If we’re scrambling over 20 minutes to exercise, no wonder achieving big things, like building a career while nurturing children, leading a nonprofit organization, and training for a marathon, seems downright impossible. Or perhaps they’re possible, but only if you find a career you can do part-time, or downshift for a bit, which is the theme adopted by many work-life-balance speakers and authors.

Then there is Theresa Daytner with her six kids and her seven-figure business. While the rest of us lament our inability to find 15 minutes to read, she’s in a book club. While we dream of 15 minutes to try out the hammock, she’s out for a hike.

And here’s the crazy thing. She — and the people who claim they’re “too busy” to vote, or have only 12 minutes to talk with their spouses — all have the exact same amount of time. All of us. We all have 24 hours in our days, and 7 days in our weeks. If you do the math, that comes out to 168 hours each week to create the lives we want. We all have the same 168 hours, repeated until the span of our lives is through. And so, when we meet people like Daytner, we wonder: Why are they able to fill their time with so many meaningful things while others are dreaming of 15 minutes to take a bubble bath?

That is the central question of this book. 168 Hours is the story of how some people manage to be fully engaged in their professional and personal lives. It is the story of how people take their careers to the next level while still nurturing their communities, families, and souls. As a journalist who writes frequently about career issues and social trends, I’ve either interviewed or studied many such high-achievers — men and women — over the years for this and other projects. You know the kind — say, the mom of five and marathoner who happens to have governed the state of Alaska for a stint in her spare time. A man managing a nine-figure private equity fund who makes time to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with his preteens. An entrepreneur working startup hours who tends a farm to nurture her connection to the earth. A father who finds time to train for a marathon by having his son bike along as he runs. A rising young biologist who earns her PhD while caring for one toddler and then interviews for, and lands, a tenure-track professorship while 8 months pregnant with her second child. When I hear these stories, I’m often tempted to ask, like Obama, “When do you sleep?” But I’ve learned that, like Daytner, many of these people do, and not in 20-minute spurts every 4 hours, either.

The point of these stories is not to make anyone feel bad or lazy. Rather, I view these stories as liberating, particularly as a young(ish) person trying to build my career and family — as well as nurture my personal passions for running, singing, and other things — in a world that continually laments how hard it is to do it all. Once you tackle the question of how some people do so much head on, you can start to ask others that the time-poverty narrative doesn’t allow. For instance:

What if you don’t have to choose between pushing your career to the next level and building forts in the backyard with your kids, because there is plenty of time for both?

What if you can have great health — because you’re sleeping enough and exercising enough to be in the best shape of your life — and volunteer more often than 90 percent of the population?

What if you can have enough time to get reacquainted with your partner, both as lovers and friends, not just as co-parents hashing out the administrative details of your household? And what if you can do all of this — and play the flute, or write in your journal, or whatever else you secretly desire — without fantasizing about an extra 15 minutes per day?

The hard — but hopeful — truth is that you can. Yes, you have a lot going on in your life. You may be wondering if you have time to read this book. But before you put it down to go check your e-mail, I want to make sure you take away two thoughts: you can choose how to spend your 168 hours, and you have more time than you think.

Excerpted from "168 Hours" by Laura Vanderkam. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from Penguin Group.