168 Hours: Trying Out Laura Vanderkam’s Time Log by Marcelle Cerny

We are excited to welcome back Marcelle Cerny as our guest today.  Marcelle was one of the founding members of 4Mothers1Blog, an earlier incarnation of Plenty.  Today, she is sharing her experience of keeping a time log so that she could track how all her time is spent.


How many of us lead lives that we reasonably feel are jammed packed? As a mother, wife and professional working out of the house, I often feel that my life is an all-out sprint: sometimes thrilling (especially when I feel like I’m winning) but always exhausting.   I struggle with feelings of guilt over where I spend my time as there never seems to be enough to go around between my kids, husband, family and work. And oh, when in the world am I going to find enough time to look after myself?

Of course, I’m not alone in feeling this way. Time management is an industry and an obsession in North America. As someone who has heard both the message to Lean In and to lean out (for the sake of the children, of course) in equal measure, I’m never quite sure if I’m doing too much, or not enough any given week. I just know that I’m tired.


Enter Laura Vanderkam. In her latest book, I Know How She Does It, Vanderkam looks at the real lives of professional women, all of whom earn over $100,000 and have at least one child under the age of 18 living at home.  Vanderkam challenges the narrative that it is not possible for a working mother to “have it all”, and if she’s successful at work, something (read: someone) must be suffering. Not so, says Vanderkam.  Based on actual weekly time logs kept by these women, most women (at least, most of the women in her sample group) are doing much better than the prevailing narrative would have you believe.  Most of them are getting on, finding time to have fulfilling time with their kids and their spouses, while still being successful at their jobs and finding time for themselves (and yes, she appreciates and addresses the relative economic and social privilege of the women she surveyed).


But, as I said, I’m tired. If I do a gut check, I could probably use a bit more balance in my life, so I decided to follow Vanderkam’s advice and track my own time. For one week, I kept track of everything I did, in approximately 15 minute intervals, as precisely as possible.  While you can find a tracking spreadsheet on Vanderkam’s website, I ended up tracking my week in a notebook so that I wasn’t beholden to an electronic device. In retrospect, I would recommend using an app, as it took more time than it should have (and time that I don’t have)  to add up the various categories.


Even after careful tracking, my week added up to slightly more than 168 hours. This is largely as a result of multi-tasking and double counting – it’s hard to accurately split up time spent helping my youngest with homework whilst simultaneously chopping carrots for dinner, for example. I’m sure Vanderkam’s methodology was more precise.

The other thing is that I’m not sure I can rely on this as indicative of a typical week. Vanderkam addresses this in her book, noting that it is rare for most of us to have a week without interruption, illness, mishap or unforeseen event, and it’s those mundane, 37.5 hour work weeks where everyone is healthy that are actually the outliers. [Full disclosure: I took issue with some of her earlier work in a previous iteration of this blog, challenging what I interpreted at the time as a fairly smug and unreasonably rigid position on how each person should manage the 168 hours each week contains. Whether it’s because she herself now has several children, I can’t say, but to my relief, she’s much more realistic now].

So how am I getting on?

Surprisingly, not too badly, but there’s room to improve.

As I’ve stated, I would say this week was a bit of an outlier. It was personal activity-heavy, with a total of 21 hours of non-family time, including personal email and internet time; and light on time with my kids (18 hours, including meals). With the exception of a high-school visit with my eldest on the Monday night and my youngest’s hockey game on Friday, I was out of the house without them every night and for seven hours on the weekend. A more typical week would see me home most week nights and with family on the weekend, so I may do this again during a week when I know I’m not so rigidly scheduled in the evenings, to get a more accurate picture.

The Good:

I worked a full 41 hours this week. This is pretty typical. I know I’ve worked more some weeks, and I’ve also worked less.  I am also happy to have the flexibility to work at home if needed, as I did one afternoon. Vanderkam notes that most of us overestimate the number of hours of work we actually do, since being seen to be “busy” is a cultural imperative. Strikingly, about 50% of women in her sample worked fewer than 40 hours per week (of course, this means about 50% worked more).  This is one part of my life where I feel that things are more or less under control.

Oh, and I squeezed in a half-hour nap, on my birthday.

The Bad:

Sleep.  At no point during the week did I get much more than 7 hours of sleep per night. Some nights, I barely got six.  I admit to relying on technology here to verify my own notes: my FitBit tracks my slumber, so (when I remember to wear it) I’m pretty sure the numbers I get are accurate. I know I do best with about seven and a half hours of sleep, so what I got was really not enough, which led to this:

Exercise time: two hours. Really, I want to do better than this. My FitBit also tells me that I had no trouble any day this week (except Saturday) hitting my 10,000 steps, so I wasn’t exactly a lump. Still, more would be better.

The Ugly:

I spent nearly eleven hours in transit from place to place. I spent zero hours in purely social time with friends, and a measly five with my husband (and that includes time talking on the phone and texting). Twenty two hours were spent on cooking, cleaning, shopping (including online) and errands (which was more than Vanderkam’s average. Before you say it, my husband does his fair share, too). I wasted 3.5 hours to “Cat Videos” the catch-all category for falling down the internet rabbit hole, like when I intended to check whether a certain size boot was in stock at my local sporting goods store, and spent 45 minutes on Reddit instead.

What would I change?

The benefit of laying out all 168 hours of your life is that you can really see where you can create flexibility. Vanderkam is a big proponent of thinking of a week not as seven, 24-hour periods, but more broadly as a mosaic of 168 hours, which, within reason, can be arranged any way you like. I know I can’t manage six am gym visits, but if one of us throws a load of laundry in the wash each morning, then that frees up time on the weekend for yoga. Maybe I’ll follow Vanderkam’s advice to outsource mundane and repetitive tasks, like ironing. I already occasionally work what she calls the “split shift”, where I leave work early to accommodate a late afternoon activity, only to do a few hours work at home later, and I could probably do that more.  I can finally accept that sandwiches are an acceptable dinner food on occasion.

Mostly, though, I would really, really like more sleep, and I’m still trying to figure out how to manage that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *