The 168 Hours Challenge: How a Time Audit Can Reboot Your Work/Life Balance Mind-set

The 168 Hours Challenge: How a Time Audit Can Reboot Your Work/Life Balance Mind-set

“There aren’t enough hours in a day!”

How many times have you uttered that between meetings, emails, project deadlines and soccer practices?

If you’re like most working parents, your days are probably scheduled to the max—and your nights are equally packed with errands, household chores and taking care of the kids.

By the time you settle into bed, you probably can’t shake the feeling that you could have made better use of the last 24 hours—and that work/life balance is little more than a pipe dream.

Regardless of how your harried schedule makes you feel, it is possible to find time for what matters most to you, says time-management expert Laura Vanderkam. It all comes down to one simple question: Exactly how are you spending your hours?


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For her new book, “I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time,” Vanderkam asked accomplished working moms to take what she calls the 168 Hours Challenge by keeping detailed logs of how they spend every day—down to the half-hour—for a full week.

The surprising result? There was more opportunity to balance work and family than the women initially thought.

“Every time I log my hours, I learn something new—and I find that to be pretty much the case for most people,” Vanderkam says. “It’s interesting to see that we often don’t work quite as much as we think we do. Another fascinating thing for people to see is just how much family and leisure time is still available.”

If you log all 168 hours in a week, Vanderkam says, you’ll likely have similar “aha!” moments—like discovering that your downtime is an hour a day wasted on social media, when it could be spent in a more relaxing yoga class.

“Keeping a log forces you to be honest,” says Vanderkam, adding that many of us have little sense of just how we allocate our time. “It’s like keeping a food journal when you’re trying to lose weight—it forces a sense of accountability.”

To see for ourselves how a time audit can provide insight into a busy schedule, we asked Dr. Neela Sethi Young, a 37-year-old pediatrician in Los Angeles, to take the 168 Hours Challenge.

Young is not only a practicing doctor but also also a wife, mother to a 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son and the co-founder of Jaanuu, a medical-apparel company—which means her days are jam-packed for 16 hours straight.

“I blink and it’s 8 p.m., and I’m wondering where my day went,” Young says. “The main reason [I opted to do the 168 Hours Challenge] was to understand just that: How am I actually spending my time during a typical week? I’m curious to see if I’m managing it as efficiently as I could be.”

We take a closer look at how Young parsed her week—followed by her biggest takeaways from seeing her schedule in black and white.

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As a doctor and entrepreneur, Young works a 60-hour-plus workweek—but protects the time she spends with her two young children.

Work, Work, and More Work: A Whopping 60 Hours

The 168 Hours Challenge revealed that—not surprisingly—Young devotes more than half of her waking hours to work.

Young gets up at 6:30 a.m., so she has enough time to check her email, prep for the day’s tasks and get her kids fed and dressed for school.

Once she’s out the door, she’s knee-deep in patient care until sometime between 6 and 7 p.m. Then it’s time to put her mommy hat back on and relieve the babysitter—but it’s not unusual for Young’s evenings to be interrupted by work-related events, calls or marketing meetings before she turns in for the night between 10:30 and 11 p.m.

All in all, she logs 60 or more hours working in a typical week.

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“I wasn’t surprised to see how much I work, but I don’t feel overly stressed about it,” she says. “One thing that definitely stands out, though, is just how much my Jaanuu time is a bit all over the place.”

The company, which she co-founded with her brother in 2013, sells women’s medical scrubs online. And although Jaanuu is less than 2 years old, Young is already focused on added growth, with plans to incorporate new designs, a men’s line and possibly other types of medical apparel.

This ambitious road map means that Young not only works on her side business during her days off from the clinic, but she also tries to fit in calls and emails during lunch or when she’s not seeing patients. In other words, she’s always in touch with her team—making her workday feel all the more harried.

“Weekends are a lot more packed with mommy time. It can get hectic running from one thing to the next, but I know that this time is special. In the blink of an eye, it’ll be gone, so I just try to enjoy it.”

Family Time: 30 Hours

Young’s weekday evenings are devoted to her kids—gymnastics, karate, story time and movie nights—but the weekends are when family activities really ramp up, with time spent playing at the park and lunch dates.

Overall, Young dedicates about 30 hours of her week to family time—including a Saturday night movie date with her husband, Chuck, 37, an orthopedic surgeon.

Work does creep in—Young sees patients one Saturday a month—but for the most part, “weekends are a lot more packed with mommy time,” she says. “It can get hectic running from one thing to the next, but I know that this time is special. In the blink of an eye, it’ll be gone, so I just try to enjoy it.”

Reviewing her time log, did, however, put in perspective just how much time her kids’ activities really take up. Just going swimming can be a several-hour endeavor—not including the time it takes to simply get out the door. But it actually made Young feel good to see that her “lazy Saturdays” aren’t as lazy as she thought.

Domestic Duties: 12 Hours

For Young, housework translates to grocery shopping, meal prep and cleaning—something she was happy to find only took up 12 hours over the course of her week.

“Over the weekend, there is a lot of clean-up time, but during the weekdays, there’s really not a whole lot of time for that,” Young says. So during the week, most of her household chores entail cooking and quick grocery trips, while weekends are reserved for cleaning the house, as well as farmers’ market runs.

Thankfully, Young can rely on others to help her out with domestic to-dos. She and her husband split chores, and her babysitter also pitches in when work gets busy. Plus, a housekeeper comes in once a week to do deep cleaning.

So this turns out to be an area of Young’s life that she feels is well managed. Knocking out her chores in one fell swoop over the weekend, for instance, frees up enough time for her to whip up cookies on her day off from the clinic.

A Little “Me Time”: 10 Hours

Prior to the 168 Hours Challenge, Young thought she gave herself a decent amount of downtime. “But when I sat down and looked at [the log], I realized [my downtime] often wasn’t more than an hour a day doing Pilates,” she says.

The rest of her personal time is typically spent unwinding with some television or checking email and social media before bed.

“Sometimes we just go, go, go. We forget to do more things we love,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman who said she couldn’t use more ‘me time,’ but as a working mom, it’s all a balancing act.”

So after itemizing how she spends a full week of treating patients, dinner prep, marketing meetings and quality time with the kids, what exactly were Young’s biggest “aha!” moments?

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A snapshot of Young's time log.

Lessons Learned From Logging 168 Hours

Overall, Young wasn’t shocked by her packed schedule, but she did have a few lightbulb moments after seeing her hours tallied on paper.

Here’s what she had to say after completing the challenge:

What surprised me most ... “I didn’t realize just how little time I make for myself. Even squeezing in Pilates would leave me feeling guilt-ridden because that was an hour I wasn’t spending on work or family.

I know this is a season of my life that’s really busy. But taking time for yourself is good for your mental health, and I realized I can’t feel bad about taking that hour because it really energizes me for the day—and changes my attitude for the better in other areas that play into the rest of my life.

Also, I was pleasantly surprised to see just how much I actually do get accomplished. At times during the challenge, I’d feel like I barely got anything done in a day.

Then my husband would roll his eyes and laugh, telling me that I did more than enough. When I stopped to look at my day in black and white, I realized he was right. It makes me feel like I must be doing something right.”

Where there’s room for improvement ... “I give Jaanuu so much energy because my heart and soul is in it. So I don’t mind that it takes a lot of time, but the challenge highlighted that I’m doing things for the company pretty much constantly—from responding to emails over my morning coffee to mentally making plans while preparing dinner.

There could be a way to better manage those hours. One thing I’ve considered is carving out specific blocks of uninterrupted time for the business that’s separate from the rest of my day. But I’m also fearful it would take valuable time away from my kids.

“When I look at my time log, I see an honest reflection of a working mother who’s got one foot in each door all the time. This experiment has taught me to go a little easier on myself.”

For example, I could go into Jaanuu headquarters Monday and Tuesday mornings for a few hours, since I’m not practicing those days.

But that might mean missing out on dropping my kids off at school, or potentially not being able to take them to lunch. So I have to find some middle ground here.”

My big-picture takeaway ... “In the end, what the 168 Hours Challenge showed me is that I’m actually not as bad at managing my time as I thought!

Yes, there’s room for improvement, but overall, I’m doing the best I can—I’m seeing my patients, working on my company and spending quality time with my family.

When I look at my time log, I see an honest reflection of a working mother who’s got one foot in each door all the time. This experiment has taught me to go a little easier on myself and to celebrate the areas where I really am managing time well.”

What Vanderkam thinks ... “The fact that her [Jaanuu time] is all over the place is a problem for all entrepreneurs.

But now that Young has kept track of her time, perhaps she can find hours that aren’t devoted to her kids—while they’re in school, before they wake up or after they go to bed—that can be devoted to building her business.

This way, she isn’t having to trade off one thing for another.

But, honestly, 30 hours devoted to family is good, given how many hours she’s working. If she’s managing to exercise, work at her practice, run a business on the side, see her family and get enough sleep, that sounds pretty good to me!”

Interested in taking the 168 Hours Challenge for a spin? Check out Vanderkam’s website, where you can download your own time log—and hopefully get some insight on your own work/life balance. 

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