Review: 168 Hours by Laura Vanderkam

I kind of sleep too much. At the direction of 186 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, a time management book by Laura Vanderkam, I’m been tracking my days minute by minute. After three days on Wednesday, I’d slept through one of them. That was an interesting revelation. I’d lost an entire day to sleep.

168 Hours by Lisa VanderkamI have the good fortune of not having to get up at any particular time. I work for myself, on my own projects. No kids (though, a young whippet who’d give any toddler anywhere a run for his money in the care department). No places to be except my desk, which is just about 500 feet away. So, I just let my body wake naturally, which is nice way to make sure you get enough sleep but can apparently easily lead to oversleeping. Now, Monday and Tuesday were kind of restless nights—I don’t always sleep well (an app I sometimes use puts my efficiency at a low 70 percent most nights), so though I spent 10 hours in bed less than 9 were actually spent sleeping. Last night, though, I slept well and thus was up and going at 7 this morning.

I like Vanderkam’s ideas, and they can be summed up pretty easily. You have more time than you think and you just need to take control of that time. Nothing about it seemed all that earth shattering to me, except the number of people who get up insanely early to have a few hours to themselves. I don’t really have the problem of constant interruption many in the out-of-the-house workforce seem to, but I do notice I get way more done when I’m up early. So I’m going to try that. I also already commit to regular exercise (training for a half-marathon!), some 9 to 10 hours a week, so that’s not going to have to change much. I was also always pretty good at blocking in my work time. When you work for yourself, I don’t see how you can’t do that.

Two things, though, really bothered me about the book. I’ll take each in turn.

Television

Vanderkam demonized TV every chance she got and suggested cutting it left and right. “TV isn’t nearly as relaxing as people think it is,” she says, betraying what’s a purely personal opinion. She’s somewhat of a science writer, and the book is filled with data supporting almost all of her conclusions about how we spend our time, except that one. I found it almost offensive, and I’ll explain why in a minute.

Here are some other examples:

  • “It takes about 1,000 hours to write a book, and if you stop watching 20 hours of TV per week, you’ll free up the time right there.” Note: I often write while I watch TV, and I’ve completed three books.

  • “Then you’ll come home and think of other things, like what’s on TV. Indeed, you’ll watch a lot of TV. One recent University of Maryland study found that unhappy people watched 20 percent more television than happy ones. Unhappy people like to escape.” Correlation doesn’t equal causation. Sometime escape is exactly what you need if you’re troubled.

  • “When people feel like they’re moving forward in their jobs, this gives them a lot of zeal for the rest of their 168 hours. This includes being more present for their families when they are around, and watching less TV.”

  • “It seems more productive than watching TV…”

  • “The other trap you’ll fall into if you don’t plan your family time is that you’ll watch massive amounts of TV. Television is OK in small doses, but it generally isn’t a core competency in the way that making collages together might be for a family of artists, and (as we’ll see in Chapter 8) isn’t as pleasurable as people think.” There it is again, what you think is wrong, without any evidence to back up the assertion.

Now, Vanderkam demonizes housework almost the same way, which I love. Less of that in my life? Yeah, no problem. I also can’t be too hard on her for the television thing because she does have good tips on how to make sure it doesn’t become time that’s wasted, like, deciding beforehand what you’ll watch and turning the TV off after it’s over. It’s also good filler time. An episode of King of the Hill on Netflix is only 22 minutes, right? Lot of places that can fit in.

But—I love television. I adore it. Ever have since I was a kid. I became absorbed with the stories television told (the serial format works so well for me) and the shows I loved and love brought me so much joy. I’m sad she misses that. Star Trek, The X-Files, MacGyver. God, I even cried when MacGyver ended. I was only 10. Shut up. Now I’m in love with Torchwood, Doctor Who, Fringe, Homeland. Maybe this obsession is now why I write my own stories and web series and short films? Storytelling is core competency for me (that’s another Vanderkam point — don’t invest time in things that aren’t core competencies) and television supports that. It doesn’t hurt it. Vanderkam spoke several times of the fiction she’s writing, and I think she’d find that letting herself go in the great storytelling available on TV more often will help, not hinder her effort.

I get that not everyone has a career like mine, but that it never seemed to enter the realm of possibility that TV isn’t all bad really stood out to me. I wonder if it has to do with her religious background, because I know from experience that the demonization of TV correlates very strongly with the church (as do most demonization of things). And that brings me to the second point—the religious overtones.

Religion

They’re actually quite subtle. But praying and the Bible (or religious texts, as she sometimes calls it) pops up in this book a lot. If you really want my opinion about wasting time, trying to carve out dedicated prayer sessions is probably up there. Besides, Jesus never said pray before bed, did he? He said pray without ceasing, right? And maybe that’s my biggest problem here, the way so many evangelical Christians misunderstand the role of prayer in their own faith. I’ve written about this before, but the church has a tendency to compartmentalize God, to put him in a box only to be taken out only when needed. Vanderkam’s version seems to be God as a line item on a schedule. And you can hardly blame her, that’s how most Christians treat their faith.

Still though, I think what really gets to me is the tacit way the book seems to assume religion is a part of everyone’s life. That common idea drives me insane about organized religion in general, particularly Evangelical Christianity. Not everyone believes in God. And not everyone who believes in God believes in God in the same way. But the structure of Christianity is designed to prevent you from even recognizing other belief systems, let alone respecting them. It just never seems to occur to Vanderkam that some people aren’t going to need advice about scheduling prayer time or daily devotions. And it’s not that there’s religious oriented advice in the book, it’s that there’s nary an acknowledgement of the kinds of people—the majority of our country and world, I’d say—who aren’t much like her and don’t need that advice.

The same goes for the kinds of people she talks about and the folks she interviewed. If she didn’t find most of them through a church network, I’d be shocked (some, it seemed, she did cross paths with through earlier work as a reporter). In 168 Hours, we mostly meet the happy, shiny people you’d be comfortable having lead worship on Sunday mornings. Never did I feel like I really go to know these people, which, ironically, is the same way I felt about most of the people I met in church. And while I did see the phrase “partner” in place of husband or wife or spouse now and then, it always seemed more a reference to an unmarried heterosexual boyfriend or girlfriend, nothing more. As much as this book speaks of family life, not once are same-sex households even acknowledged even though, shocker, as much as some would like to forget, they do exist.

I think you can be authentic as a writer, and still attune to the amazing diversity around you.

I’m guessing when it comes to 160 Hours, it’s subconscious. Like I said, the church leads to a kind of bubble mentality—you’re discouraged from much association with those who don’t hold your beliefs, less they drag you down. So it’s easy to start seeing the world through a church-colored lens. And you might be thinking, well, maybe there wasn’t an opportunity to talk about same-sex households. Maybe from a time-management perspective, they’re not much different from heterosexual households. Yes, and no, I guess. And taken one at a time, these little issues with the book wouldn’t add up for me to much of anything. But as a whole, the 168 Hours didn’t feel inclusive, and I think it’s only someone being excluded (unintentionally, I really do believe) would recognize.

Maybe that doesn’t make enough sense to you and you think I’m nuts, but I almost didn’t pick up 168 Hours after reading Vanderkam’s ebook, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, because I picked up on both of these issues in that relatively short piece. Still, I’m glad I did, because I think much of her advice is rock-solid.

And before you email me to complain, when I talk about inclusivity, I’m not talking about political correctness. I’m talking about biases, beliefs so ingrained that you don’t even realize you have them, but that still blind you to the fact that other people are different from you. Religion is a big one that can so easily blind you to the rest of the world and so easily turn others off at the same time—and I’m speaking from experience. It just happens that two of Vanderkam’s biases struck me the wrong way. I’d never want her to change who she is, or not share herself and her life in her writing, but the lack of grace toward differences many in the church have unfortunately seep through in subtle ways. I think you can be authentic as a writer, and still attune to the amazing diversity around you.