How Do We Really Spend Our Time?

Mastering the art of productivity requires first mastering a bevy of other skills. We must understand efficiency in order to get things done without wasting resources. We must learn to be organized so that clutter doesn’t trip us up, distract us, or leave us inefficiently searching for whatever it is we need when we need it. We must rest at the right times to let our bodies and minds recuperate from the work we’ve put them through.

Behind all these skills is time. Time management is a pillar of productivity. Productivity, after all, is nothing more than taking the right actions to make the most of our time.

Time-management expert and author Laura Vanderkam wrote an op-ed that recently appeared in the Sunday New York Times about the inaccurate perception many of us have about how we spend our time. (More than a few people sent me the article, and I’ve interviewed Vanderkam before for my own work.)

Vanderkam’s contribution to the field of time management is that she questions—hard—whether people “don’t have enough time” to do the things they say they want to do. She wants evidence. She wants us to prove how we do spend our time and then justify that there isn’t enough of it.

She implies, but doesn’t say directly, that time is an excuse.

The Parents’ Rebuttal

The article clearly struck a chord with people, but I think it spoke to parents in particular. Parents, especially those with very young children, claim that they are different, that their time is sucked up by the whirlwind of childcare, from bathing and feeding them to driving them all around town to make sure they get adequate extracurricular activities.

Vanderkam has four children, all of whom were under the age of eight when she published her most recent book. For her writing, she asks people to keep time logs and note down what they are doing in every half hour block. Vanderkam tracked her own time, too, for an entire year. There is evidence of a hard life with not enough hours in the day to get everything done, but only sometimes. Other times, she reflects on how she spent her hours and finds naps, hundreds of hours for reading magazines, massages, and dinner with friends. In the Times article, she writes:<blockquote
There are 168 hours in a week. If I worked 37.40 and slept 51.81, this left 78.79 hours for other things. This is a lot of space. Even if I felt I was constantly packing lunches, I spent a mere 9.09 hours weekly on housework and errands. There was some driving around — 7.84 hours a week — but there was also time for singing karaoke twice, picking strawberries, peaches and apples and even two solo beach days for me: one on the Atlantic, one on the Pacific. My life wasn’t just train-car-bathroom pumping.

Giving Up Productive Hours

When I worked full-time in an office, sometimes I felt guilty for not working every single moment of the day. I was aware whenever I took more than a hour for lunch, usually because I was on a long walk letting my mind wander. At least once a year, I’d waste an entire morning at the office updating my resume and LinkedIn profile. Every few months, there would be an hour when I did nothing but photocopy and file health insurance claims, or answer an online a survey (don’t get on the Pew Research mailing list if you are easily distracted), or emailing a friend. And still, I was a top performer. I got a lot of work done compared to the average of all my colleagues.

While I haven’t landed on any phenomenal research yet about the optimal amount of time we need for breaks, when we should take them, or what they should entail, I have a suspicion that some of my “wasted” work time is in reality its own form of recuperation.

But that’s me and isn’t reflective of what most people do. Most people, it turns out, think they work more than they do by about 5 to 10 percent, according to a 2011 report comparing time-use surveys to time diaries.

What Can You Do?

Logging your time is one of the best ways to figure out how you actually spend your time, and whether there’s anything you’d like to give up in order to do something else. Vanderkam has advice for how to keep a time diary on her blog. Just keep in mind that to be productive, you do need sleep, time to socialize, and other rejuvenating activities.


Vanderkam, L. (2016). The Busy Person’s Lies. The New York Times. Retrieved May 14, 2016 from

Image by marcel van den berg, CC.


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