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Seconds, Minutes, Hours

I have a love-hate relationship with the leaning in/opting in/”having it all” media barrage.  I love the discussion for the hope it offers and the fascinating stories it uncovers, and I hate it for its privileged tone and generalization of an issue that is highly individual.  The latest headliner on the topic was published in The New York Times Magazine Sunday: “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In.”  Like many of the other articles on the topic, it profiles some interesting people and discusses their lives and their choices without talking about the biggest elephant in the room: TIME.

At the core, the decision about whether to work outside of the home or in the home comes down to how many hours there are in the day and how people want to spend them.  It comes down to what kinds of activities bring joy and fulfillment and security and whatever else people need, how much time each of those activities take.  And what’s left over after that.  Let’s do the (weekday) math, starting with the basic necessities:

  • Sleep = 40 hours/week.  This assumes 8 hours of sleep a night, a threshold many of us need to meet to stay mentally fit and slim and alert and productive.  And not cranky.
  • Commute = 7 hours/week.  The average commute time in the U.S. is 50 minutes round-trip.  Rounding up to 60 to account for getting from house to car and car to office, we’re looking at 5 hours/week for the average worker.  Add in daycare/school drop-off and pick-ups, and we’re likely at more like 7 hours/week (this estimate is rough).
  • Meals = 5 hours/week.  Estimating conservatively, let’s say we spend 15 minutes eating breakfast, 15 eating lunch and 30 eating dinner.
  • Hygiene = 4 hours/week.  Averaging primpers + get-up-and-goers, let’s call this 40 minutes a day or so (showering, brushing teeth, etc).
  • Exercise = 2 hours/week.  This assumes 30 minutes a day during four of the five weekdays.
  • “Life Maintenance” = 2 hours/week.  This is a conservative estimate for laundry, grocery shopping, bill paying, etc.

Just those basic tasks — sleeping, eating, showering, commuting, exercising, and keeping life moving along add up to 60 hours/week (out of 120 total).  This leaves 60 free hours in the (traditional) work week.  So the real question to be asking in this opting in/opting out debate — and actually, in life and work in general — is “How do I want to spend these precious 60 hours?”  What matters most?

If you haven’t thought about it in a while, today might be a good time to think about how you’re spending your 60 hours right now.  Take a few minutes at the end of each day to jot down how you spent your time, and look at it at the end of the week to see if there is anything you might want to change.

I do this every few months just to have a sense of whether I’m spending my time the way I think I am.  It can be an eye-opening exercise and a good check if my gut tells me it’s time to re-prioritize.  It can be an amazing reminder that I need less time in the gym and more time on the playground…less time in front of a screen and more time holding hands with my husband…less time reading to myself and more time reading to my children.   After all, as Gretchen Rubin says, “the days are long, but the years are short.”


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