We all have 168 hours a week to handle work, family and personal affairs. Perhaps because that can't be stretched and we're ambitious, it always seems like a severe constraint. So we moan about never having enough time for everything, being superbusy and overwhelmed. And we accept that everyone else is equally stressed.
Laura Vanderkam says it's a myth, however, that we're all time-crunched. Her research shows we're doing fine. Sure, things aren't perfect but mostly we're in reasonable balance, accomplishing most of the tasks and activities that we want, including sleep.
Ms. Vanderkam, a journalist who lives near Philadelphia and is fascinated with how successful people organize their lives, asked women who earned more than $100,000 (U.S.) a year and had at least one child under 18 living at home to keep track of their time. She recruited respondents through her blog and professional networks, so it was not a scientific sample, but the result was 1,001 days in the life of professional women, a group seen as juggling complicated lives with two shifts – one at the office and another at home.
"Their lives were more balanced than is often thought for women in demanding careers," she said in an interview.
They didn't float through life effortlessly. In her book I Know How She Does It, she notes there were moments on the time log when people were wildly busy, and some people were more wilder than others. But the logs didn't show 168 hours of desperation. The women were working a bit more than the average work week, but not that much more, an average of 44 hours weekly. No one topped 80 hours and only 6 per cent logged over 60 hours, with half of those instances attributed to exceptionally busy periods – such as tax time for accountants – that were followed by a lull. And she points out that if the average was 44 hours, some were working less.
As for hours of sleep, it was better than you would expect listening to the chatter around us. It varied each night, with Wednesday the low point, but here are the daily averages, starting with Monday: 7.4, 7.5, 7.3, 7.5, 7.5, 8.1, and 8.6. Even Wednesday's 7.3 hours falls between the seven to nine hours normally recommended. Sleep and work hours were inversely correlated, as you might expect, and people tended to work longer on Wednesdays.
So not idyllic, maybe not even ideal, but certainly not unbearable. And she stresses in her book that pressured moments are not necessarily bad. "I want to push back against this expectation of a stress-free life, because it keeps us from seeing the sweet moments that already exist. Counting blessings is trite, but there's something to it," she writes.
She suspects there's a reason we all believe our lives and those of people we know are out of control or nearly out of control. In a world that views sleep deprivation as a sign of importance, she notes that we can be tempted to view the shortest period of sleep as typical, ignoring that longer nights of sleep occur, to say nothing of the weekends.
"Keep track of your time," she suggested in the interview, to understand what your life is actually like. "Many times people don't give themselves credit for things they have done – they focus on the two nights working late and not being home with the kids rather than the five nights they spend with the kids."
Change your mindset as well: Think 168 hours, a full week, rather than a 24-hour day. We tend to fall into a trap of thinking we have to achieve balance each day – achieve all our priorities in a 24-hour period. She argues it's possible to fulfill your work duties and have lots of family and personal time if you take the whole week into account when assessing your life.
Many women rush home from work to snatch 15 minutes with their children every evening. What would happen, Ms. Vanderkam asks, if they purposefully worked late two nights, opening up the chance to come home much earlier the other evenings? She feels they would get credit from the boss for staying late those evenings while having more (and less rushed) time with their kids. "The time is there. The question is how to move the pieces around. Be creative," she says.
That creativity extends to weekends. Most people in her study tried to keep the weekends free of work. Sixty per cent of logs featured no work on Saturday and 49 per cent had no work on Sunday (with much of the Sunday work in the evening, preparing for the week ahead). But even religious people are only told to keep one weekend day sacred. Why not insert more work on one of the weekend days to relieve the pressure during the week? If you have teenage children, she notes, they often sleep to noon anyway. Why not work during the morning when they are unavailable?
As well, be as mindful about family time as work time. Treat those hours as important. If you have four hours after you come home from work until bed, spend some time thinking how best to use that. And be aware of your morning routine: Often she finds people don't seize the opportunities between waking up and heading off to work.
The time is available to have a fulfilling career and rewarding family life. She has the numbers to prove it.