“168 Hours” to a Fulfilling Career AND Life–Q&A with Laura Vanderkam

Three core work+life ‘fit” principles are 1) there is no “right” answer, only the unique “fit” that works for you and your job, 2) there are countless ways to optimize that “fit” between your work and personal life beyond the extremes of “all work, all the time” or “no work at all,” and 3) your work+life fit will changes many times over the course of your life and career.

Three core work+life ‘fit” principles are 1) there is no “right” answer, only the unique “fit” that works for you and your job, 2) there are countless ways to optimize that “fit” between your work and personal life beyond the extremes of “all work, all the time” or “no work at all,” and 3) your work+life fit will changes many times over the course of your life and career.


Interestingly, over the past few years, much of the work+life research, policy and discussion has focused on how to limit or contain work in order to optimize the amount of time for responsibilities and interests outside of work. The Off Ramps/On Ramps-Opting Out debate and the 4-Hour Workweek phenomenon are examples.

But what about those who want both—a fulfilling career that continues to advance and a healthy personal life? To date, there really hasn’t been much written specifically for this group because the collective cultural bias has declared, “It can’t be done…and if it is, it can’t be done well.” But what if that’s not necessarily true, at least for some people?

In 168 Hours (which goes on sale today), Laura Vanderkam, a highly regarded journalist and mother of two young sons, shows that it is possible to take your career to the next level while having a full personal life. “It isn’t easy, but it is doable as long as you actively choose how to spend your time the way you want.” As the subtitle of the book explains, “You have more time than you think.”

Recently, Vanderkam and I sat down to talk about the 168 Hours approach to work and life. Here are highlights from our discussion. For more information visit the 168 Hours website.

CY: One of the key messages of the book that struck me right away was the need for us to take a much more active role in managing how we choose to allocate our time to all of the parts of our lives. That is somewhat antithetical to what many of us are used to doing. We tend to let so many things just “happen,” and then of course they don’t happen the way we want them to!

LV: Achieving the goals outlined in 168 Hours will require effort. But I’ve tried to present research and case studies of real people that debunk a number of misleading ideas about work and family that make up our collective narrative about what is and is not possible.

CY: The people you showcase as examples of individuals who have leveraged all 168 Hours for incredible personal and professional success are amazing. I was inspired.


LV: When I started writing the book, I was pregnant with my second child so I was looking for personal inspiration and role models. Yes, these are impressive people but they aren’t celebrities. I am a journalist so it was important to me that the examples were real people that others could look up to and follow.  Not faceless composites. They are really doing it, and we can learn a lot from them.

CY: What are the three misleading ideas about work and life and you hope the book debunks?

First misleading idea is that if I have a career and family, I won’t have time to sleep much less do anything else like exercise or volunteer. The 168 Hours reality is that we actually aren’t working as much as we think we are. Ongoing, conscious management of the way we allocate our time leaves us with plenty of hours for sleep and many other things we might want to accomplish. But we have to look at the entire 168 Hours we have at our disposal, not just the discrete 24 hour chunks.

Research has found that we consistently over estimate the amount of time we work. And that’s evolved into the, “I work so hard” narrative. People think life should be easy all the time, but there will be hard days and hard weeks. You can come up with any anecdote you want. It’s easier to share, ‘Oh, I’m sleep deprived because I worked 12 hours yesterday then the baby didn’t sleep all night,’ versus , ‘Oh, the last three days at work have been manageable. I’ve been able to leave a little earlier, and the baby slept great.’ It doesn’t come up.

Second misleading idea is that the best solution for combining work and life, especially for women, is part-time. The 168 Hours reality is that this is not necessarily so. In fact, it might actually be better at a particular point in your career to give more time to work IF it’s getting your closer to a position that will give you more flexibility and autonomy. For example, you make more money and have a lot more control over how, when and where you work when you are a partner in an organization than when you are an associate. But rising to the ranks of partner may require extra work for a period of time, which could be worth the investment in the long-run. That doesn’t mean you need to put the rest of your life on hold but just keep the longer-term goal in mind and manage where you choose to put your 168 Hours accordingly.

Finally, it’s not true that men don’t think as much about these issues. The reality is that men think about these issues too. Men work more than women in two-income families, but they are also slightly more likely than women to play with their children. In fact, men are great examples of how to actively choose how to allocate their 168 hours. For example, they choose to focus on the kids during their hours versus housework. For women, maybe instead of being infuriated when their partner does this, ask yourself, is there a way to take housework off of your plate? Can you outsource even a part of it? Or can you just choose to not do it and live with the mess? That is a valid option.

CY: How do we start choosing what our 168 Hours look like?

LV: First, log your time.

CY: I agree with you.  Any of the people I’ve met over the past 15 years I’ve been doing this work who are highly accomplished both personally and professionally rigorously manage how and when they do what they do every day. There is no way around it.

LV: There are guidelines and examples throughout the book about how to log your time. And you can go to my 168 Hours website to download a time log template that will get you started. Only after I carefully logged all my time, did I realize that I wasn’t working as much as a thought I was. It clearly showed me that there was time for many other parts of my life.

Next, think about what you want to choose to do with your time. Of course I encourage people to start with the big stuff like finding a job you love, because it takes twice as much energy to do a job you hate which leaves you less for everything else. But again, we need to take charge and create the job we love. There’s an interesting exercise in the book called “100 Dreams” to help you figure out what activities and interests you want to make time for in your 168 Hours.

Options open up if you do look at the entire 168 Hours period versus only 24 hour increments. For example, a mother tries to get home every night from work to put her child to bed. As a result, her consistent early departure from work causes her to miss some career enhancing opportunities. But what if, instead, she looks at the whole week. Two mornings she could go in later and spend time with her child before school. But then if she decides to stay later at work those two evenings and miss bedtime, she hasn’t sacrificed time with her children. She’s working within the entire 168 Hours.”

CY: This is where the need to greater work+life flexibility in how, when and where work is done and life is managed is critical. Without flexibility in an organizations culture and operating model, that scenario would be more difficult.

LV: But as I point out in the book, fewer and fewer professionals are working in inflexible cubicle jungles.

The final “get started” step is to identify the things you want to take off of your plate. What do you really hate doing? It may not take much time but, boy oh boy, the amount of energy you expend making yourself complete the task takes time away from something else. Let’s say you hate doing laundry. Is there something else that is a better use of your time? How could you get it off of your plate? Are there other members of your household who could help you out? Or is it worth $30 a week to have the cleaners do it for you?”

CY: Thanks, Laura! As someone who works full-time, has two children, a husband, friends and interests outside of work, 168 Hours really made me examine if I’m as effective as I could be. Am I leveraging how I flexibly choose to allocate my time? It was the reinforcement and inspiration I needed. And even if I wanted to limit the amount of work in my “fit,” 168 Hours would make me think differently about how to achieve that goal.

A book that makes you think is priceless. Congratulations!


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