Whenever people ask me how they can start spending their time better, I say that the first step is knowing how you’re spending your time now. Over the past few years, I’ve kept track of my hours for a full week (168 hours) several times. It’s always an enlightening experience.
Last week was no exception. As I kept a diligent record of my hours, I was reminded of several things.
First, it is really hard to log anywhere near the sweatshop-type work hours people sometimes claim. My time log shows—sadly, I confess—that I worked at least a few hours on all seven days of the week. I also worked after my kids went to bed six out of seven nights. That’s in addition to a normal 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. kind of workday (8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. one day when I was traveling). But there were enough other things going on during this time—breaks and errands and the like—that my grand total for the week was just 50 hours. That’s more than full-time, to be sure, but it’s no where near the 70 hours I would have guessed.
And second, I was reminded that work doesn’t preclude a life if you want to have one — something that broader analyses of time diaries increasingly find. Time is incredibly elastic, which leads to some surprising realities.
While keeping my log last week, I was reading Alison Wolf’s new book, The XX Factor, which is out this week. While the bulk of the book (subtitled "How the rise of working women has created a far less equal world") deals with the politics of income inequality, to me the most fascinating parts of Wolf’s book are her analyses of how people—particularly working women—spend their time. After hunting through data from various time diary studies, Wolf notes that many common perceptions are wrong. You’d think that families with two high-income parents wouldn’t have much time to spend with their children. Yet in reality, such families spend more time with their children than many other categories of families—partly because of cultural expectations that children must be groomed for college and beyond.
Indeed, despite widespread perceptions that people are working more and more, Wolf tells me that "Nobody’s time with children declined"—men or women. Time is elastic. If you want to spend time with your kids, which many parents do, you figure out a way to do it. Even if you work long hours.
I spent very little time on housework which, in a phone interview, Wolf confirmed was the norm. "Everybody is spending less time on housework. That frees up time to do other things." Her book deals with how it frees up time for work, but another big thing it frees up time for? Leisure. Though there’s a common narrative that working parents are too busy to breathe, as Wolf puts it, "Of course, there’s leisure. We’re not being sent up chimneys at the crack of dawn." Subtract a 50-hour workweek from 168 hours, then subtract the 7.4 hours of sleep I got each night (about 52 total) and you’re left with 66 hours.
That’s kind of a lot of time. Even though I worked every day and worked most nights, I was not working more waking time than I was actually working.
And I see that on my logs. Despite my somewhat lackluster performance on the work-life balance front, I found time to roast marshmallows over a fire with my kids, to read on the porch, to go down a water slide (twice!), to run multiple times, to bake a pie, and even to look through the sales racks at Macy’s while one kid was at a birthday party. The truth is that we tend to make time for the things we want to do. Time bends to accommodate what we want to put in it. Even if we work a lot—even if it feels as though we’re always working—we have time for many other things, too.