People typically give two responses when asked how they are doing. They either say they are “busy” or “tired.” Being busy, tired and stressed are our society’s status symbols. But do we really work as much and rest as little as we think? Laura Vanderkam says no.

The author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, one of my favorite books on time management, researched these claims. What she found was that people think they work more and rest less than they do.

Vanderkam’s findings include that Americans sleep about eight hours a night, just like we did 40 years ago. One reason we have enough time for this sleep is that we work less than we realize, she wrote.

The problem is not that we’re all over worked and underrested, it’s that most of us have absolutely no idea how we spend our 168 hours,” Vanderkam wrote.

The 168 hours Vanderkam references is simply how many hours we have in any week.

We all have 24 hours in our days, and seven 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,” Vanderkam wrote.

A popular online meme put this same concept a bit differently:

time management

Beyonce, who is worth more than $250 million at 34, released a surprise new album one night while we were sleeping. Singer, songwriter, dancer, model, actress, businesswoman, wife, mom… the woman seems to be able to do everything, all while we complain about being busy and tired.

The difference is not that Beyonce has more time than us. A difference between successful people and those who do not feel successful is that they know how they spend their time, according to Vanderkam.

When you start with a blank slate and fill in the major components, 168 is a surprisingly vast number,” Vanderkam wrote.

There is time to sleep eight hours a night (56 hours a week), work 50 hours a week (most people work more like 35-43 hours a week) and still have 62 hours a week to do other things, Vanderkam wrote.

You need to figure out what you want to do during your 168 hours. Many of us have no idea; one of the benefits of claiming to be overworked or starved for time is that it lets you off the hook for dealing with the burden of choice,” Vanderkam wrote.

William Penn

The question for us then becomes do we really know how we’re spending our time?

I wrote yesterday about my struggles with updating my goals this year. In that post, I mentioned that I have tracked how I spend my time since September. I asked the editorial board I advise to track their time too. I used the Hours app, but told them they could use the app or a paper time diary.

The goal was for each of us to determine how we were using our time and whether that usage was consistent with our goals and priorities.

The ed board members stopped tracking after a couple of weeks, a month at most. Most of them said they began forgetting to log or just thought they’d learned what the needed to know. We discussed our findings during weekly ed board meeting.


Most of the editors’ findings about how they spend their time weren’t too shocking. They said their time working for student media and their academic time were fluid and it often was difficult separating the two. They said they watched too much TV and didn’t sleep enough, usually because their days were filled with classes and meetings, leaving night hours for homework. They also said that social media usage was difficult to track accurately because they popped on and off of social on their phones pretty much all day, each time they got a free minute.

I found time tracking so interesting that I kept going after the editors stopped the experiment. I still am tracking my time today. My findings include:

  • There is no such thing as a typical week for me. For example, some weeks I worked 30 hours on my dissertation, but I finished it in December, logging zero hours since. One week I worked 65 hours at my job.
  • While I feel like I work a lot, I actually spend far fewer than 40 hours a week at work. My average work week was 23 hours. However, this number is misleading since I was completing my dissertation. Together, I spent about 36 hours a week on the two, still falling below 40 hours a week on average.
  • I sleep a lot more than eight hours. I’ve always been a napper, but my sleep hours are about 10 hours or more than expected each month. Despite this, I frequently feel tired. Tracking my time and using my FitBit to monitor sleep quality helped me understand that something is wrong with my sleep patterns. I will discuss it with my physician soon.
  • I spent more time with my family and friends than I expected. I will never complain about this, and I want more. My fear is that, while I spend a lot of time with my family, it is not attentive, focused time. For example, I might be on my phone checking social media or we may be watching TV together.
  • It was difficult logging time spent reading and on social media. I do these activities any time I get a spare minute. I mostly read at night before I go to sleep, so it was difficult to know when reading ended and sleep began.

My time tracking system is flawed, but it taught me a lot about how I spend my time. I plan to alter my categories now that I have completed my Ph.D. I want to measure the quality of the time spent with my family and how the time I spend at work is divided. Quite simply, I want to spend better, more focused time with my family, which will require me to focus on completing tasks at work and doing less work at home. I also need to fit my research time into my regular work day now that I won’t have two days a week devoted to it.

Time tracking helped me identify what my ideal week looks like, although this will change now because a professor’s schedule changes every semester. I’ve never accomplished my “ideal” week, but I hit the mark in some categories every month. I want to reevaluate my schedule in a way that allows me to get closer to consistently experiencing my ideal week.

I wondered if I should have waited and asked the editors to track their time later in the semester. Things aren’t quite as demanding, academically, in September as they are in November. But I think the experiment had merit because seeing how they spent their time when they had more may have made them aware of places to revise when they got busier.

Overall, time tracking is worth doing. If nothing else, it creates awareness of how you’re spending your time, which allows you to evaluate how you’re using your most important resource.

Your assignment:

Agree to track your time for at least a couple of weeks with your staff. Discuss your findings. Where are you spending your time well? Where can changes be made? Share your results in the comments below.