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Book Review: 168 Hours by Laura Vanderkam

The subtitle to Laura Vanderkam’s “168 Hours” is You Have More Time Than You Think.  Indeed, that is the thesis she carries very convincingly throughout the book.  Vanderkam tracks people’s activities by the half-hour (real time diaries are included) to demonstrate that people fritter away more time than they think.  The upside, therefore, is now that you know this, you can choose your activities more consciously and get this time back.

I loved this book.  Full disclosure: Vanderkam cited one of my coaching exercises in this book.  But I shared the exercise in the first place because when Vanderkam and I connected (thanks to Peter Shankman’s HARO!) I loved the thesis of the book.  I have used time diaries for myself since the 1990’s and have recommended them to my coaching clients for 10 years now.  Like tracking your food intake or spending habits, tracking your time is very powerful in reshaping your self-awareness and priorities.

Vanderkam tackles both work and home activity as she looks at time spent.  She offers a lot of concrete examples and practical suggestions.  If you don’t have a high degree of flexibility and professional autonomy some of the strategies may be hard to implement.  But the intended reader is likely not in that boat so this is a small downside.  The book is inspirational and a great time management and productivity resource.  It is not structured as a how-to like a David Allen or Stephen Covey book, but it delivers a deeper message:  “168 Hours” is about making conscious choices, wise and meaningful choices about what we do with our time.  It’s not about doing more, but about doing what matters.

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Match Your Work To Your Energy

Take this short energy quiz.  Give yourself 1 point for every Yes and 0 for every No.  How do you score?

I know what time of day I am most productive.

I schedule my most important work for when I am most productive.

I know what time of day my energy tends to sag.

I know what I need to do for a quick but sure energy boost (e.g., eat a snack, take a cat nap, go for a walk).

I know some activities and tasks that I can do even when my concentration tends to wane.

I know how much sleep I need each night.

I wake up without an alarm clock.

So how much do you know about your energy rhythms?  We all experience bouts of time when we can focus extremely well and times when we can’t.  Sometimes this varies based on the activity.  But many times, our productive and unproductive time blocks are consistently around the same times during the day.  We recognize that people are either early risers or night owls because it is a meaningful distinction, and we can empathize with it (I’m an early riser).

I don’t know what makes someone a morning v. evening person, but I do know that whichever you are you need to match your activities accordingly.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that night owls are destined for the graveyard shift.  But it does mean that where there is flexibility in getting things done you may want to schedule your most important work for when you are at your best.  This is one very basic way to match your work to your energy.  Rather than fight against the tide, you account for your internal rhythms as part of how you manage your work.

Similarly, you might reserve more mindless tasks for when you know your energy sags.  Perhaps this is when you return routine phone calls,  make that doctor’s appointment or run some errands.  Perhaps this is when you review previous emails or catch up on regular trade reading.  We all have regular activities that don’t require us to be 100% alert — figure out what these are and bunch accordingly.

Finally, there is a limit to how much we can get done if we merely match our work to our current supply of energy.  Ultimately you want to increase your ability to focus and work at high energy.  Therefore you do want to know how to maintain and increase your energy.  You want to get enough sleep and know how much is enough.  You want to harness and manage your best energy and therefore manage your work to its best.

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