168 Hours

I read a lot of books how to manage one’s time and make the most of one’s life, a question all rabbis need to address at one point or another, both for themselves and their congregants. Most recently I picked up Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.

juggling clocksThe premise is simple: there are 168 hours in a week. Spending the requisite amount of time working, sleeping, and attending to personal needs, there should still be plenty of hours in there to spend quality time with loved ones, and even squeeze in other passions, like playing an instrument or writing a novel. The trick is to be intentional about one’s time.

I was totally hooked by the premise. However, I soon found myself at odds with Vanderkam’s approach to reorganizing one’s time.

While Vanderkam offers helpful exercises and thoughtful questions about how we spend our time, and shares stories of people with different careers and family structures, her book is overwhelmingly about restructuring one’s life to spend more quality time with one’s family (I inferred from this that she assumed that people without children already have enough time for everything and would never read such a book).

Vanderkam doesn’t offer a disclaimer about writing from a place of privilege and from a particular family structure. She is a freelance writer with a working spouse and professional help raising her children. Many of her suggestions are not going to work for someone who doesn’t fit that mold.

For one thing, one of her major suggestions is to outsource everything that isn’t a “core competency,” not only housework, like cooking and doing the laundry (which I happen to love doing because it’s part of my day-off ritual), but also the less satisfying elements of one’s paying job. If that’s not possible, Vanderkam says, it’s time to think about making bigger changes in one’s career.

In that vein, Vanderkam does ask some really thoughtful questions about what we want to spend our workday doing, and challenges the notion that the hours we spend in the workplace are equivalent to the hours of actual “work” we do. She talks about the hours of our workday that are wasted in activities that don’t utilize our “core competencies” and offers two options: 1) work within your job to restructure your schedule and minimize wasteful activities 2) leave your job and find or create one that makes the best use of your time.

Then she says this:

“How do you get to that position of confidence?….First, if possible, don’t be the only person in your family earning an income. While two-income families have their own issues, they give the person who would be the sole breadwinner more flexibility. When you are your family’s sole means of support, it’s hard to quit a project or take a big career risk that might allow you to focus more on your core competencies” (Vanderkam 97).

I have to say, I took issue with this remark. I was raised in a household where my father was the primary breadwinner. My mom worked (and still works) as a nurse because she finds the work meaningful, but she never had to think twice about cutting back her hours to be a stay-at-home mom (she referred to her weekly 3-11 shift as her “night off”) or quitting a job when it became intolerable. She never had to worry about fighting for health insurance or a retirement plan from her employer, because my father’s employer provided these benefits. She never had to ask for family leave, because she could just cut back her hours.

My life and career are going to look different from my mother’s. And so I was troubled by Vanderkam’s notion that the solution to a career issue is to fall back on one’s spouse. This not only comes from a place of privilege (many of my partnered friends don’t have that luxury either), it perpetuates the notion that a career (particularly a woman’s career, though Vanderkam doesn’t say that explicitly) is about an individual’s personal fulfillment and not financial sustainability.

Like many books and articles coming out on how to “have it all” and/or advance in the workplace, Vanderkam doesn’t address the radical changes that need to happen in our society, in order to give women–and men–the opportunity to pursue fulfilling work while having families or pursuing other passions.

Imagine the “confidence” and freedom women and men of all skill and income levels might gain if we had a higher minimum wage, pay equity between genders, universal health-care, universal preschools, or tax-deductible child-care. We might choose to work more, knowing that our children are in good hands, or less, knowing that our healthcare and childcare needs will be provided of regardless of whether we are part-time or full-time. Imagine how these and other infrastructures might make it possible for everyone to re-imagine how we spend our 168 hours.


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