The longest book review ever on a really crappy book about time management

(Author’s Note: I originally published this as a review on my Goodreads account but I felt compelled to subject a wider audience to how much I loathe this book.)

Book Review:
168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (I don’t know why I am giving a purchase link; no one should ever buy this book)
by Laura Vanderkam

What a waste of several of my precious 168 hours! Like many people, I struggle with motivation and focus so I’m always looking for wisdom or advice on topics like time management, productivity. This has to be one of the worst how-to/self-help books I’ve ever read.

First, the book takes its basic premise from the Big Rocks philosophy – In a nutshell, the Big Rocks concept is to picture a jar and, next to it, rocks of various sizes from large to small. You put the big rocks in first, then medium ones, then small ones, then pebbles, then sand, then water. At first, it seems like the lesson is “there’s always room for more” but the real lesson is that if you didn’t put the big rocks in first, they never would have fit once all the small stuff had been put in. Then, you make the leap from physical big rocks to metaphorical ones, thinking about what in your own life is top priority, really important – and you work on putting your time and energy toward those big rocks.

Instead, she goes with the “core competency” metaphor which really only resonates if you’ve read a zillion business books (I have, so I was OK but I thought the analogy was weak because people are not corporations and accomplishments are not finished products off a manufacturing line).

I’ll save you several of your 168 hours by summing up her advice:

1. You’re not really that busy.
— Yes her observations are astute. Most people do exaggerate the hours they spend and the hours they have available. Still, the book starts out on a shame-y tone: you are a liar, you are not that busy, you’re just too lazy because you are not working all the time. What is true is that most people feel busy because they feel overwhelmed. Even if they don’t do everything they’re supposed to in any given week, the list of things to be done in a week seems insurmountable. Better advice: look at that list hanging over you. What needs to get done this week? What can you plan to do (and, hardest part, stick to the plan) next week or the week after?

2. Start each week by mapping out how you plan to spend each of your 168 hours
— This was the only real useful tip in the whole book and it was something I was already doing. If you look at your whole week’s schedule and slot in all your Big Rocks first you set yourself up to actually work on them. For example, if you schedule in time for exercise or time to read, you are more likely to do those things vs. waiting for some free time to magically appear (it won’t).

3. If you aren’t good at something, don’t bother trying to get better, it’s a waste of your time.
— She advises that you figure out what you’re really good at, do only that and “outsource” everything else forgetting that many of us find joy and accomplishment in learning something new. To a certain extent, if you’ve spent hours trying to learn how to do/understand something and you’re not making progress and you lack interest, then yes, it makes sense to give up and focus your efforts elsewhere. No one aspires to by Sisyphus. But to say you should only do what you are good at robs us of the excitement of lifelong learning.

4. Figure out what your dream job is and do that.
— Well, my dream job is to be an astronaut. It’s not going to happen. I am in my mid-30s, have no science education and a 15-year career doing something else. Almost every book in this genre makes a similar recommendation. I find it useless. If everyone were doing his/her dream job, would we have janitors? Port-a-potty maintenance crew, etc. Granted, there are some “undesirable” jobs that appeal to a handful of people (i.e. podiatrists, those people who rescue alligators/venomous snakes from human habitats) but most of us aren’t working our actual, honest-and-true dream job. Better advice would be how to find meaning in your work, how to stay motivated and focused when the work gets boring (even dream jobs come with a side of tedious tasks), how to move forward, grow and get new challenges/opportunities in your field. Now, if you h-a-t-e your job, that’s something to look at but I feel like many of us are working jobs that are medium-ish — they are not too hard/too easy, they pay enough to pay the bills, there’s an ebb and flow between challenge and overwhelmed — where’s the advice on how to make the most of that kind of job? The kind most of us have?

5. Just pay people to do your work.
— Of all the advice this was the most jerky. Don’t do laundry, pay $35/week to get it done. Don’t clean your house, hire a housekeeper. Hire a gardener/ground crew, a nanny, a personal chef. Only do your grocery shopping online. Or buy pre-made meals (and she suggests weight loss companies, of all places, as good sources for a month’s worth of food). Pay a personal shopper $400 for the day to help you pick out clothes at a store that sells really expensive clothes. What? How about: invest a bit of time in figuring out what kinds of clothes look good on you and sticking with a few core, classic looks. And, start with clothes that will last a while, then develop a relationship with a local tailor who can alter clothes to fit you perfectly. Basically, she suggests “outsourcing” all of the domestic chores. WHAT A SPLENDID IDEA. I would LOVE a personal chef, someone to run all my errands, a butler and a maid, to never weed or shovel snow again — wouldn’t you? The reality is, most of us can’t afford to outsource all that work. It’s more realistic to say, “outsource the thing you hate most.” For us, we hire someone to clean our house every three weeks. It’s a bit of a stretch but worth it because we both really, really, hate cleaning.

6. Have your personal assistant/executive assistant/secretary make your appointments, manage your schedule, and take care of the little tasks that add up.
OMG. HAHAHA. Seriously? Raise your hand if you have a dedicated assistant? OK, even if you do have an assistant, raise your hand if that assistant is tasked with managing your work schedule/calendar AND your personal schedule/calendar (i.e. haircuts, appointments, etc.). Yeah, didn’t think so. Dear Laura Vanderkam: Mad Men is not a show that takes place in the present tense.

7. Friends are a waste of time. So is relaxing.
— Another gem in this book is that time with friends is time wasted unless you are multi-tasking. Go out to eat with a friend (since you have to eat anyway) or somehow schedule time around something you need to do. Don’t knit; she calls that a “cliche” forgetting that perhaps knitting’s emerging popularity stems from the fact that people find happiness and a sense of accomplishment in doing it. She recommends watching less TV; I agree with that. She recommends watching no more than one hour of TV per day; I think that’s unreasonable. If we are home, we watch Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy! and an episode or two of something on Netflix. If we’re out, we’re out; no TV. Over the course of a week there’s an OK balance. Her point is that TV gets you nowhere toward your goals. That’s true. What she neglects to understand is that the human brain needs a certain amount of downtime.

8. Sleep? Pssht. Be a morning person.
— Sleep for 7 hours, max. 8 if you’re a real lazy-ass. You can sleep when you’re dead. Don’t “sleep in” on weekends. Wake up earlier and go to bed earlier since “nothing meaningful” gets done after 10p anyway. Except. Everyone is different. Some people have their best “brain time” at different times. More useful: adjust your sleep schedule around your best hours of the day — plan to sleep when you know you’re likely to have the hardest time staying focused.

9. Using your 168 hours well means what I say it means.
— And herein lies the whole problem with this book for me. It’s all subtext but it permeates all of her advice — every time she says “do this, don’t do that (doing that is for suckers)” she makes a judgment about what constitutes a good use of an hour. Incidentally, every time she offers a list of suggested activities (i.e. “read to your child, take a walk, etc.) she almost always throws in something related to religion. Examples: going to church, reading a religious text, Bible study, etc. For me, an atheist, those are a total waste of time. She makes time for church every week but calls knitting “cliched.” The effect is that reading this book, I felt judged. I felt like getting “the most” out of 168 hours meant going-doing-ticking off to-do lists and for me, that’s just not what life is about. It’s about balance. It’s about finding meaning in each day.

In short, on this topic, there is no magic bullet. I’ve yet to read any magic technique that will tell you that you are getting the most out of your life. Only you can decide that. The best advice is simply to think about the kind of life you want and work through the ups and downs to stay on track. Me? I want to be happy, I want to be loved and for the ones I love to know that I love them. I want to have fun. I want to be useful and make the world a bit better. I want time to think and learn and to grow and change as I age. I’m using my 168 hours to work on that and I’m OK with doing my own laundry.


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