Relax, you have 168 hours this week

Scott Behson from HBR takes you the back-of-the-envelope calculation to show how you always have time for a life.

Starting with those 168 hours, first take away 49 just for sleep. Don’t try to cheat on this. If you are getting less than 7 hours a night, you are probably not resting enough, and your decreased performance will take its toll on the rest of the hours of the week.

So you’ve really got 119 hours. Let’s assume you’re an ambitious professional and subtract 56 for work. That would amount to working 8 hours a day, 7 days a week – or, if your weekends are off-limits, 11+ hours a day on weekdays only. I know some of you put in more time than this. However, outside of very few professions (and peak times at others) no one really needs to – so if you do, you are probably working inefficiently or being pressured to uphold unrealistic expectations. In fact, research shows that productivity craters after 6 hours a day. If you work more than 56 hours a week, you may need to examine your time use.

Assuming 56, then, you still have 63 hours. But take out two more chunks of non-fun activity – 7 hours per week of commuting, and 13 hours per week of errands and routine housework – and you’re down to 43 hours. This is the amount of time you have for family and other aspects of life.

Childcare, cooking, and other responsibilities on the home front certainly take effort, but they can also serve as family connecting time. Let’s put you down for 20 hours of those.

Guess what: that leaves you with a full 23 hours. Maybe you’ve been saying you don’t have time for exercise, but it seems you do (and exercise makes you more effective the rest of your week at work and at home). Let’s devote 3 hours to that – and still give you 20 hours of free time to do whatever else makes you happy and healthy. It’s surprising, isn’t it: with a little prioritising and planning, work and life aren’t so impossible to balance.

So here’s the real question: Why are we always so stretched? Why doesn’t 168 hours actually feel like enough time? I can name three culprits: time sucks, time confetti, and technology. And those suggest three ways to get your life back.

Don’t succumb to time sucks. These are those trivial activities that, once you get into them, are so comfortable that you just keep doing them. It takes real resolve to limit yourself to just a few hours of TV or gaming a week, or just one fantasy sports team, or just 30 minutes a day on Facebook. But try keeping a keeping a diary and adding up the hours you’re spending now, and you might just gain that resolve.

Stop throwing around time confetti. In her book Overwhelmed, author Brigid Schulte makes an important distinction between time chunks and time confetti. The best way to use your free time, and make it really feel like free time, is to block it off in chunks. A dedicated hour of play with your kids feels like more time than four quick, distracted 15-minute interactions in between other stuff. The big problem with time confetti, Schulte says, is that it amounts to “contaminated time” which prevents pure enjoyment, relaxation, focus, and mindfulness.

Start being the boss of your technology. Smartphones, email, and other communication technology are great assets in the quest to get the most out of a day, but they can also create the perceived need to be accessible to work 24/7. Set limits such as “no screen hours,” letting everyone at work know the single time you’ll check email each night, and banning devices from the dinner table or family room. Lots of others have written about how unplugging actually leads to higher productivity.

I’m surely not the first to point out that your week contains 168 hours. It’s a staple of time management books and courses, as seen here and here. But until you go through the exercise yourself of adding up your weekly commitments, you probably won’t find the almost three hours per day potentially left over. Of course, all our situations differ, and some face more challenges and time commitments than others, but knowing that you have 168 hours might be the motivation you need to prioritize and make the changes that will make life more satisfying.