After reading Laura Vanderkam’s short personal productivity book, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, I was excited to read her lengthier guide, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.
However, I was somewhat surprised when reading her book. While I found many helpful ideas and solutions in this book, my guess is that many people who aren’t in Vanderkam’s specific social strata are going to find her personal productivity ideas condescending or impractical. Not everyone wants to or is able to outsource cooking, cleaning, and laundry so they can be more productive in a career, or spend their hours devoted to doing “what matters” with their children. (Maybe cooking and cleaning with children is one healthy way to teach them that you can’t always just pay someone else to do the chores that you don’t like or that “eat your time?”) Some stay-at-home-moms will also likely feel slighted by Vanderkam’s suggestion that there is no reason for mothers not to “have it all,” and to have both a successful career and motherhood; and homemaking is definitely not a necessary art in her book. I don’t feel that this same tone is prevalent in What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, and I wonder if her life experience (including adding a second child to her family) helped her to write for a broader audience.
The book, however, is not merely a time-management book. Vanderkam covers a variety of topics, which at times seems she is attempting to squeeze too much into the book, and at other times provides genuinely helpful rabbit trails.
One focus I found helpful was her development of the theme of understanding and focusing on your “core competencies” — those areas in which you excel or need to excel. Those are the building blocks of time use. The book makes a big push for understanding core competencies in relation to career decisions, and then only working in a “job you love,” and touts it as foolish for those who are in careers they don’t enjoy. Clearly, this is not always an option for those outside the high-earning aristocracy.
She advocates finding ways to outsource or minimize time spent on areas which are not core competencies, and though I may not go about (either by choice or necessity) doing so the same way as she, there were nonetheless areas in which I benefited from hearing anecdotes of how she, her friends, or researched people did so. For example, while I may not be able to hire a personal shopper (since choosing clothes is not a core competency) like Vanderkam did for outfitting her maternity wardrobe, I could still follow her more practical advice for solving the clothes-buying dilemma: find a store where you like the style of clothes and the fit, and then look at what they have displayed on the mannequins and then buy the entire outfit, including jewelry and handbags. This is like having a fashion consultant at a fraction of the price. While I’m currently on a clothes-buying moratorium, this sounds like a hopeful idea for the future. At the same time, there are non-core-competency areas that I will continue to do and will also instruct and train my children to do, as well. Time-consuming or not, they are an essential part of life and to having a deepened understanding of life and labor. At the same time, I hope I can continue to grow myself and instill in my children the ability to choose to do but a few things so that we can do those few things well.
In spite of the negative issues highlighted here (and there are more), I still consider this to be a helpful time management book. Prioritization is an oft neglected skill in a culture that sees busyness as a sign of worth. We end up burning out and heaping up loads of guilt while having accomplished very little. There are parts of most of our lives that are taking up far more time than its worth, and a simple trade off could leave us freer to pursue the areas we truly need and want to.
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