(Laura’s note: This essay originally ran on the Wall Street Journal’s website in February. It made it onto their list of the most popular articles for the day).
There was a time, not so long ago, when I was busy, busy, busy. At least I thought I was.
I told people I worked 60 hours a week. I claimed to sleep six hours a night. As I lamented to anyone stuck next to me at parties, I was basically too busy to breathe. Me time? Ha!
Now I work 45 hours a week and sleep close to eight hours a night. But I’m not getting any less done.
My secret? I started keeping track of how I spent my time, logging how many hours and minutes I devoted to different activities such as work, sleep and chores. I soon realized I’d been lying to myself about where the time was going. What I thought was a 60-hour workweek wasn’t even close. I would have guessed I spent hours doing dishes when in fact I spent minutes. I spent long stretches of time lost on the Internet or puttering around the house, unsure exactly what I was doing.
I’m not alone in this time fog. If you believe results from the American Time Use Survey, done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and other studies, plenty of Americans have faulty impressions of how they spend time in our “too-rushed-to-breathe” world.
We all have the same 168 hours per week — a number few people contemplate even as they talk about “24-7” with abandon — but since time passes whether we acknowledge it or not, we seldom think through exactly how we’re spending our hours.
We also live in a competitive society, and so by lamenting our overwork and sleep deprivation — even if that requires workweek inflation and claiming our worst nights are typical — we show that we are dedicated to our jobs and our families. Being “busy” and “starved for time” is a way to show we matter. Put another way, it makes us feel important.
But if you think about it, complaining about a lengthy to-do list is not only boring, it’s a sad hook for one’s self-esteem. Owning up to how we spend our hours gives us more control of our time, and ultimately, of our lives.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Keep a time log. If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you may have tried keeping a food journal. Sure, you’re eating grilled chicken for dinner, but the eight M&Ms you grab from the receptionist’s candy jar add up, too.
Like tracking meals, tracking time keeps us from spending it mindlessly or lying to ourselves about what we do with it. Write down what you’re doing as often as you remember for at least a week. Add up the totals. Checking Facebook five times a day at six minutes a pop adds up to two-and-a-half hours in a workweek — curiously, the exact amount of time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends we exercise.
2. Be honest. While Americans claim to sleep six to seven hours per night, time logs show we sleep more than eight. One study tracking people’s estimated and actual workweeks found that those claiming to work 70, 80, or more hours were logging less than 60. Ask yourself what you’d like to do with your time. Claiming to be busy relieves us of the burden of choice. But if you’re working 50 hours a week, and sleeping eight hours a night (56 per week) that leaves 62 hours for other things. That’s plenty of hours for a family life and a personal life — exercising, volunteering, sitting on the porch with the paper, plus watching TV if you like. Set goals — maybe three hours of exercise and swapping out two hours of TV for reading — and see where in your 168 hours you could make that happen.
3. Change your language. Instead of saying “I don’t have time” try saying “it’s not a priority,” and see how that feels. Often, that’s a perfectly adequate explanation. I have time to iron my sheets, I just don’t want to. But other things are harder. Try it: “I’m not going to edit your résumé, sweetie, because it’s not a priority.” “I don’t go to the doctor because my health is not a priority.” If these phrases don’t sit well, that’s the point. Changing our language reminds us that time is a choice. If we don’t like how we’re spending an hour, we can choose differently.