Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: An Interview

Laura Vanderkam is the author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, a book that takes a close look at what we’re doing with the 168 hours each of has every week.

What inspired you to write ’168 Hours’?

I had my first son in May, 2007. In the months leading up to his birth, like many new parents, I wondered how I was going to make all the pieces of my life fit together. I kept hearing all this cultural noise about how hard it was to build a career and a family, let alone sleep, exercise and all that. Since I’m a journalist, I set out to write about this time crunch. But along the way I realized a few things. First, my life didn’t fall apart when I became a mom; I was still managing to make time for the things I enjoyed. Second, I found dozens of successful people who were building big careers while raising big families — and who didn’t even seem to feel that busy. This makes sense if you think about it. With 168 hours in a week, even if you work 50 and sleep 56 (8 per night) this leaves 62 hours for other things. Third, I found several data sources, like the American Time Use Survey, and historical time diary studies, which show that we are not nearly as overworked and sleep deprived as we think. All of these put together led to 168 Hours.

What goes on in your 168 hours? Can you describe your family and your other obligations?

I work about 45 hours per week on my different writing projects. I sleep somewhere between 50-56, depending on how the week is going. I exercise 4-5 hours, and sing in a choir on Tuesday nights (which takes about 4 hours, all told). I spend much of the rest of the time with my two sons, ages 3 and 1, and my husband, with some relaxation and chore time thrown in.

What overall trends in the time that parents spend with their children did you see in researching the book? What were the key differences between parents who work and parents who stay at home?

One of the most fascinating discoveries for me, writing 168 Hours, was learning that parents are actually spending more time interacting with their children these days than in 1965. This is true even though far more mothers are in the workforce. The culture of parenting has changed. Once, moms would send the kids outside so they could mop the floors. Now, a mom is more likely to go outside and play with the kids. As a corollary, our housework standards have declined a lot! Even moms who are not working for pay spend a lot less time doing housework now than women did in 1965. They do more than those who work full-time (so that is one difference), but when standards go down, they go down for everyone, and stay-at-home moms are spillover beneficiaries of this trend.

What would you recommend for a parent who wants to spend more time with his or her children?

If you have some control over when and where you work, one great solution is to stop work relatively early (like 5:00pm), hang out with your kids until they go to bed, then put in another hour or two of work from, say, 8:30-10:30pm. Even if you can’t do this every day, you may be able to swing 2-3 times per week. If your office is big on evening hours, and you have young kids who wake up early, you might be able to spend some morning time playing together. Regardless, even if you only have a few hours during the workweek, consciously focus on your children when you have carved out time for them. No phone calls. No checking email. Spend the time reading together, talking, or doing a hobby together, rather than watching TV.

How do you handle your own schedule around your children? How do you make sure you spend time on your priorities?

Because I have two little kids and work from home, right now my challenge is making sure I have enough hours available for “work,” rather than enough hours for “life.” That may not be the usual work-life balance challenge people talk about, but it’s mine! We have childcare for about 50 hours per week, during which I do at least half my running, and my choir practice (my husband and I both take that night off). I try to work for most of the rest, and squeeze in another 45 minutes after they go to bed some nights. My husband also takes the kids for a shift on the weekends so I can finish up projects that didn’t happen during the week (and run). I try to put my runs and choir responsibilities on my to-do list, right next to my professional goals, to make sure they get done.

How do you think family considerations play into most productivity advice?

Certainly it is harder to make life work when you have a family, but I am impressed with how productive many parents learn to be. If you have to pick up a child at daycare at 6pm, then you have to be in your car before that, which means your work has to be done (or else you need a plan for doing it after bedtime). Because of these constraints, parents learn to focus on what matters. I know in my own life it has sometimes been difficult to make schedules work around my kids. But I also know that I never would have written 168 Hours if I didn’t have children, so in that respect, they’ve definitely been a productivity boost.

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