This article is part of a series of articles on time management strategies aimed at helping you determine the techniques that work best for you. We also hope to give you in-depth, actionable insight into how to use these time management strategies with or without the help of HourStack.

Change the way you think about time

What could you do with 168 hours?

Think about it.

You could learn to scuba dive. You could go on a number of long hikes. You could learn to bake macarons or chocolate eclairs. You could have a really long, luxurious nap, you could spend valuable time with your loved ones.

The better question is what could you not do with 168 hours?

168 hours is the number of hours you have in a week. Thinking about time from this more macro perspective is the secret to doing more of the things you value, and less of the things you don’t.

Most of us are used to thinking about time in terms of only a handful of hours—eight hours of work a day, seven hours of sleep, 24 hours in a day. We plan our lives around these small time slots, becoming ever more harried and stressed as we struggle to do the things we say we will do, or want to do, in the allocated time.

But, what if we thought about time differently?

In Bill Gates' words, “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”

Even if you sleep 49 hours a week (seven per day), and work 40 hours a week, that still leaves you with a whopping unallocated 79 hours.

You don’t need to be a time management guru to appreciate the potential. If you take into account the fact that it only takes 20 hours to learn a new skill, you’ll be well on your way to planning more exciting and efficient weeks than ever before.

So, let’s dig a little deeper into how you can go about implementing this time management strategy in your life.

In this article we’ll discuss:

  • What “168 hours" is all about
  • How you are using your time now
  • Your goals and core competencies
  • Strategies for mastering the 168 hours method
  • And lastly, some pros and cons of this method

What is this “168 hours” thing all about?

168 hours is a time management strategy designed by Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.

The core concept behind this time management strategy is that all of us have the same amount of time in a week—168 hours—but it’s what we do with this time that makes all the difference.

By tracking your time for a week, identifying your goals and core competencies, and then blocking out time to accomplish the things that you do best, you’ll find that you have more hours at your disposal to do just about everything you need to do, including getting enough sleep, advancing your career, and spending time with your children, friends or family.

While 168 hours takes a slightly more condensed approach to time management than Gates' Law (see the quote above), the point is the same. You can get more done than you think if you understand how you are utilizing your time now, and make the necessary changes.

The other problem with thinking about your time in increments of 24 hours instead of 168 hours, is that it is inherently more stressful (you feel you have “less time”), especially if you don’t take the planning fallacy into consideration—the phenomenon whereby an individual displays the “optimism bias” and thinks they need less time than they do to complete a given task, regardless of historical evidence to the contrary.

This time management strategy will help you hack psychology and bypass that optimism bias so that you can actually understand where your time is going and adjust it accordingly.

First understand how you are using your time

Before we talk about time tracking and how you can use HourStack (or something similar) to implement this time management strategy, ask yourself a couple of questions.

Do you know how you are using your time now? Or, in an average week of 168 hours, where is that time going?

I’m willing to go out on a limb and bet you’re either overestimating or underestimating what you’re doing with your time.

Let’s start with a little exercise to get a first impression of how you’re using your time. Pull out a piece of paper and jot down some quick answers to the following questions:

  • How many hours do you sleep in a week?
  • How many hours do you spend at work?
  • How many hours do you spend commuting?
  • How much time do you spend preparing meals or cooking?
  • How much time do you spend cleaning or maintaining your yard?

Naturally, there are many more questions you could ask yourself. And if you want to, by all means do.

My notecard looks something like this:

  • Sleep: 47 hours a week
  • Work: 40 hours a week
  • Commuting: None! I have a 100% remote job
  • Meals: 7 hours
  • Cleaning: 2 hours a week

Done? Good, let’s move on.

Next you’re going to take 168 hours and subtract all of those numbers from it.

That means, after all of those things—assuming I’ve guessed correctly—I have 72 hours to spend on the other things I like doing. That’s huge!

But, when you consider all of the other things I’m doing that are probably wasting a good chunk of that time (T.V., social media, online browsing, household chores etc), I may be using those hours a lot less intentionally than I could be. After all, as much as I enjoy watching shows on Netflix to decompress, I’d infinitely prefer to actually learn something new, like how to play the guitar.

Remember, while this first exercise is a good starting point, the optimism bias is probably at play and I am either underestimating or overestimating how much time I spent on each task, depending on what it entails. For example, while I might think I only sleep about 7 hours a day, I might not be taking into account, the time I take getting to sleep, or even napping.

So, in the next exercise we are going to attempt to get closer to the real answers. And we are going to use HourStack to do that because what’s a time management tool for if you can’t use it to illustrate a point. If you'd like to do the same you can, there's a free 14-day trial—plenty of time in which to do the exercise.

To really figure out where your time is going each week, you are literally going to track how you spend it, hour by hour. Laura Vanderkam, the brains behind this strategy, recommends tracking your time ****for an entire week.

While you could obviously easily use a tool like HourStack to make this activity easier, you do not need to. A simple printed calendar will suffice—make sure it has the days broken up into hourly increments.

Download a simple, printed calendar here.

After a week of admittedly pretty broad-stroke tracking, here’s a breakdown of my own time.

If you want to go into more detail than I did, I would encourage it. That’s how you’ll figure out which activities, small though you may think they are, are eating into your time.

A “Week View” of my HourStack calendar. The pink lines on the left indicate the “project” each entry falls in, and the colored labels are the overarching categories.

It is worth noting that I created a new workspace in HourStack to keep this activity separate from my other tasks associated with work. I did also have to change my “capacity settings” in my workspace from 40 hours a week to 168 hours a week.

Furthermore, I made sure that in my Calendar View, I could see all days listed on the calendar.

The added benefit of using HourStack to do this exercise—beyond the simplicity of the tool—is the fact that there are timers on each task so you can easily start and stop tracking time, and there’s an in-built Reports feature. This means HourStack will do all the end-of-week analysis for you. Which, if you ask me, is really cool.

Once you’ve tracked your activities for a week, you’ll need to tally up the time you spent on each category. This should give you an estimate of how much “free time” you have, how much time you are spending on each task or activity, and where you might want to reallocate time.

I didn’t get very creative with my "label" (category) names and you’ll find that they’re largely the same as the entry/task names. The reason I took the time to add labels, however, has to do with how that data gets surfaced in Reports.

Again, you can also choose to do all this analysis manually.

When I flip over to the reports tab, the first thing I do is change the report so that I only see data for the week of April 26 - May 2.

Now I can focus.

In the first section of the Reports I see how many hours I scheduled (104) and how many I logged (115). I will note that I only scheduled time for sleep, work and eating.

I did not worry too much about “scheduling time” for other tasks because I first wanted to see where the majority of my hours were going, not how accurately I was estimating them—though that too is fascinating and is obviously how you will finesse your schedule over time.

In the second part of the reports, I’ve filtered my entries by label. Here you can see how many hours I logged against each activity and how they stacked up against the hours I scheduled for them. Again, I only scheduled time against eating, work and sleeping.

In the above example you can see I spent more time than I’d planned on meals (a total of 6.75 hours in a week), and a little less time on work (39 hours that week). I also slept less than I thought I would.

In total, I logged 115 hours against 7 core weekly activities. That means I have 53  (168 - 115) hours of remaining time to do with it what I will, including possibly taking time from things like “watching T.V.,” or “social media” to do tasks of higher value.

If you want to track your time for longer than a week, by all means, do. I know that my weeks certainly have a different cadence depending on what is happening at work, or outside work. Some weeks I will work less, and others much more. By that same token, some weeks I sleep a lot less and probably consequently have less energy to exercise.

Either way, whether or not you choose to continue with this strategy is really up to you. Nevertheless, the results of this exercise I am sure will be enlightening.

Next you’re going to do some introspection and goal setting

To tackle the 168 hours time management strategy well, you’re going to ask yourself some more questions. These are not questions from Vanderkam’s book, but they serve the same purpose; they hopefully prompt you to think about what you want your life to look like.

In Vanderkam’s words, “… we spend massive amounts of time on things… that give a slight amount of pleasure or feeling of accomplishment, but do little for our careers, our families, or our personal lives… consequently, we feel overworked and underrated, and tend to believe stories that confirm this view.”

So let’s get right to it:

  • What do you want to accomplish? Professionally? In your personal life?
  • What things do you want to spend more time doing?
  • What do you want to spend less doing?
  • What things make you feel accomplished or fulfilled?
  • What things energize you?
  • What things are draining your energy?
  • What are your core competencies?

Let’s address the core competencies question as most of the other questions are pretty straightforward.

What are core competencies?

Your core competencies are those things that you do best that nobody else can do as well as you. For example, at your job this might be in-depth research, or it might be analyzing complex data, or it might be managing with empathy. At home this would be something like spending time with your kids or partner, or exercising. The latter two illustrate a slightly different way of thinking about your core competencies—the things only you can do for you. Nobody else can exercise for you, just as nobody else can strengthen the relationship you have with your kids or partner for you. Those things take one-on-one time with you and only you.

Examples of things that are not core competencies for most people are laundry, cleaning the house, or making food (unless of course those things are part of your job, or a fulfilling hobby). Those are tasks you can either outsource, not do at all, or spend less time doing.

My core competencies, for example are:

  • Writing
  • Teaching scuba diving
  • Making things and crafting
  • Amateur microscopy
  • Reading fiction and non-fiction
  • Underwater photography

I might not be the best at all of these skills but nobody else can do them for me seeing as they are things that fulfill me, or that I want to get better at doing (photography and microscopy).

My core competencies are not:

  • Doing laundry
  • Tidying or cleaning
  • Cooking
  • Mowing the lawn
  • Grocery shopping

Naturally, you can do this exercise for both personal and professional activities.

Now, when I look back at where I spent my time, I might notice I’m spending two hours a week mowing the lawn, or am spending three hours grocery shopping. Given these are not my core competencies I might instead decide to stop going out to the grocery store and order online. Or, I might secure a gardening service to take care of the lawn. Or, if I don’t want to spend the extra money on a lawn service, decide to let the grass get a little longer, and switch to mowing every other week.

If this gives me two extra hours a week, that will be a win as that’s two extra hours I can spend learning microscopy or writing fiction.

Use your insights to rethink your schedule

You should now have a good understanding of why thinking about your time in 24-hour increments is not always the best solution. After all, I don’t mow my lawn every 24 hours, and therefore wouldn't normally think about reducing the frequency of mowing.

In Vanderkam’s first year tracking her time, she realized she spent 327 hours reading (about one hour a day), but that most of it had been spent on reading online articles and magazines. She stopped making excuses about not having enough time to read books, and the following year, allocated this time to reading books instead.

To begin with, you may want to try tracking your time more frequently—say every 30 minutes—to make a habit of it. Once you’ve done that, you can check in less and do a little more guesstimation.

In an interview with M.M.LaFleur, Vanderkam says, "I’ve been tracking my time continuously, using time logs, for three years now, in half-hour blocks. I usually check in about three times a day and write down what I’ve been doing. This system has helped me spend my time in ways that are more gratifying."

In summary, tracking your time is not going to hurt you. It might be a pain to get into the habit to begin with, but once you make it a habit, it will get easier. So, keep at it!

Strategies for mastering your 168 hours

The best way to master a time management technique is to understand the nitty-gritty details. How do you implement it successfully? Here are a few things to think about.

Take short breaks

Not only do short breaks help prevent “decision fatigue”—which leads to poor decision making—but they also boost productivity, improve creativity, and restore motivation for long-term goals.

Vanderkam calls these “non-smoke breaks” and suggests keeping them brief—in the order of about 10 to 15 minutes. These breaks are not unconscious breaks like scrolling through your social media feed though (that’s a good way to increase your stress, actually). They’re intentional. Go for a walk. Take a coffee break in a different room. Get a healthy snack.

Manage your energy levels

Monitor your energy throughout the day and figure out when you'll need zone out time. You may find that you have lower energy as a result of psychological factors (not just less sleep). Even high-intensity positive emotions can be physically and mentally taxing.

You can make your experiment with 168 hours even more interesting by really tuning in to your emotions as you go about your day. And, if you can build in activities that make you feel calm, or that allow you to rest, if mentally, you’ll feel better for it.

Keep your to-do list super short

Don't set yourself up for failure. Keep your to-do list super short. You should reasonably be able to accomplish what's on that list. Nobody wants to look at a list and feel overwhelmed before they can start tackling it.

Use a time tracking tool to make logging your time easier

The goal of this article is not to tell you to use HourStack, though we’d of course love that. The goal is to give you a new strategy that you can use to better manage your time.

If you do choose an online tool, choose one that is easy to use, that makes logging time simple, and that can surface your data quickly so you don’t actually end up wasting even more time.

The path of least resistance is the best.

Give it enough time to build a habit

According to James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, on average it takes about 66 days (2 months) for a new behavior to become automatic (though that number is not clear-cut and for some people it takes less or more). Give yourself enough time to do it. If you don’t manage to get it right the first time, just keep trying. Change is hard.

Pros and cons of the 168 hours time management method

I usually like to maintain a pretty balanced list of pros and cons, but this time management strategy has more pros than cons in my opinion. Overall, it’s a good strategy to combine with another strategy—like time blocking—as this is more focused on managing your time in the more holistic fashion.

Pros of the 168 hours method

168 hours is a good memory tool: When you have a historical record of everything you’ve done, you also have a journal, of sorts. Vanderkam says, "Because I keep these time logs, I can look up any day I want and tell you exactly what I did, which is kind of fun...Nothing is slipping through my fingers because I can haul the memories back up and hold onto them."

Assuage your guilt: Time logs can also help to assuage guilt as we often overestimate how much time is going to the tasks we don't want to do, and underestimate how much time is going to the things we do want to do. Vanderkam says, "A time log will show, in black and white, that you’re probably spending many hours with your children, and that can be a very good antidote to any misplaced guilt that might be lingering."

Easily identify tasks that eat time: This is an especially effective way to determine which activities are taking up more time than perhaps you realized. It’s also very easy to track this if you use a tool that has built-in reporting functionality.

Get a real idea of how many hours you have to spare each day: The best (and perhaps worst) part of this time management strategy is that it shows you how much time you actually do have to spare once you’ve taken sleep and work out of the equation. It can be alarming to see how much of that potentially valuable time is spent on things like watching television, or crafting the perfect social media post. Unless you work two jobs, you probably have the time to work and learn something new every single week.

Figure out how you spend your time: Honestly, this is more down to the effectiveness of time tracking, than the strategy. If you track your time you’ll know how you spend it. And, if you know how you spend your time when you’re not thinking about it, you’ll be able to make more conscious and informed decisions.

A less stressful way to think of your time: Vanderkam says, “Looking at life in 168 hour blocks is a useful paradigm shift, because—unlike the occasionally crunched workday—well-planned blocks of 168 hours are big enough to accommodate full-time work, intense involvement with your family, rejuvenating leisure time, adequate sleep, and everything else that matters.”

You can use this strategy in conjunction with other strategies. Because this is a big picture strategy, you can use it alongside other time management strategies or techniques. This is great news if you already have a method you love. For example, I’m a big fan of the BuJo method, and of time blocking. 168 hours is something that fits in perfectly with both of those things.

Cons of the 168 hours method

Money might be a problem: If you can’t afford to outsource some of the things that gobble up your time but are not core competencies, well, you’re going to be at a disadvantage to someone who can. That’s not to say there aren’t other options, but outsourcing time-consuming chores is something you’ll find a lot easier if you’re wealthy.

You may not be able to track your time every half hour: I hesitate to put this in the cons column as technically, you don’t need to track your time on the half hour. However, to get a really good sense of your time utilization, it does help to be able to build some sort of habit whereby you can accurately determine how you are using your hours.

Not useful for very detailed planning and to-do lists: Because this is a time management strategy aimed more at determining how you’re using your time, and how you can do more of the things you want to do, you’ll still need to have other strategies in place as well to help you figure out the day-to-day, nitty-gritty details.

Prioritization is a little iffy: While I’d love to be able to prioritize all my tasks around my core competencies, the truth is I can’t. Sometimes there are just some things I have to do that I can’t outsource—certain activities at work, paperwork when I’m registering new students for a scuba class, etc.

Fairly intensive strategy to begin with: It gets easier once you’ve done it for a bit, but logging your time for both work and personal life every hour (except sleep time) can be pretty tough to start with, and for that matter, to stick with.

Over to you now...

While you certainly can’t make more time, you can make more intentional decisions about how you spend that time. “Getting the most out of your 168 hours is a process of evaluating where you are and where you want to be.” Says Vanderkam.

Having practiced this strategy for a week, I can safely say that while it is very hard to maintain an accurate log—I am not good at remembering to write down what I’ve done every half hour—it was insightful, and has made me think much more about the activities I don’t want to spend time on, as well as the goals I want to accomplish, and how I might now, build time into my week (not day) to move in a positive direction.

If you use this strategy and find success (or not), we’d love to hear from you. You can reach out to us any time at support@hourstack.com or start a conversation with us on twitter @hourstack.

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Updated October 15, 2021 in Tips & Tricks