168 Hours–Between a Clock and a Hard Place

by Darrin on October 21, 2011

Big Ben

“I cannot believe I’m still alive. I should have died days ago. Without any task or stimulus, I’m no longer living, no longer surviving. I’m just waiting. I have nothing whatsoever to do. Only in action does my life approximate anything more than existence. Miserable, I watch another empty hour pass by.”

-Aron Ralston, Between a Rock and a Hard Place

If you haven’t seen the movie 127 Hours yet, do yourself a favor and rent it as soon as you can.

This film recounts the true story of a man who had his arm pinned to the wall of a cave during a hike out in the wilderness of Utah. Unfortunately, he went out alone and told no one of his whereabouts. After an excruciating 127 hours spent stuck like this, severely dehydrated and hallucinating, he made the crucial action which saved his life.

He broke his own forearm and cut it off with a dull knife in order to escape and survive.

Ralston understandably became a media sensation after this happened in 2003. He made appearances on The Late Show, The Tonight Show, The Today Show, and even revisited the canyon for a taping of Dateline NBC. GQ magazine named him Man of the Year. He wrote a bestselling book and had a critically-acclaimed movie made based on it.

His story of triumph over overwhelming odds serves as a reminder of how powerful we all are when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

The Time Trap

One such inescapable obstacle that we all have to deal with is the mere 168 hours that we are stuck with each and every week, particularly when it comes to the time we need to devote to our personal health and fitness.

“I don’t have time to cook!”

“I’m too busy to exercise!”

“I’ll never find a way to get 8 hours of sleep every night!”

One of the biggest obstacles most of us have when it comes to becoming and remaining fit and healthy is finding the time in our lives to devote to it in the first place.

But how did it get like this? Remember when you were a kid and it felt like you had all the time in the world?

Three-month long summer breaks stretched out almost forever. It took an excruciating amount of time until your next birthday party. It seemed like it was an eternity until the next season of America’s Funniest Home Videos started up.

I don’t know about you, but I feel the exact opposite these days. Trying to get everything done in my life sometimes feels like rolling a heavy rock to the top of a hill which never seems to get any closer.

Like Ralston, I am trapped and unable to do anything about it. But unlike him I am trapped by time, not a rock. 168 hours. Each and every week.

Despite anything you may have read in science fiction novels or seen in cartoons, no one has yet figured out a way to either slow time down or tack on an extra day to the week.

We’re all stuck with seven days, or 168 hours, per week. From the hobo under the bridge to the workaholic CEO of a Fortune 500 company, we’re all on even ground when it comes to time.

And it’s how we spend that time that really matters.

Our mantra around these parts is eat better, move smarter, and relax harder. And I’ll admit that each of these things require some of your time. You’ll need to spend time in the kitchen preparing food, you’ll need to spend time on focused exercise, and you probably need to spend more time sleeping.

What follows is a brief guide to how I suggest you spend your 168 hours in order to fit these things into your life. And in particular, how you can fit in the things that I suggest you do to improve your physical health. Of course, everyone is different and you’ll need to figure out for yourself how to implement these ideas into your life.

But if you are willing to take more control of your time and eliminate or drastically reduce the “time-wasters,” you’ll find it’s possible to make these things a priority no matter how busy you are.

Work: 40-60 Hours

Let’s get the big one out of the way first.

From an anthropological standpoint, the amount of time we spend working is completely absurd.

Despite the common misconception that preagricultural humans had to spend every waking moment in vigorous pursuit of scarce food, current estimates based on hunter-gatherers suggest that our ancestors spent somewhere between 12 and 19 hours per week working, according to writer Jared Diamond.

Can you imagine having all your needs met working hours that would now be considered part-time at best?

Although a relative few are lucky enough to live such an easy life, I still suggest you spend somewhere between 40 and 60 hours per week working.

First off, most people are working 40-45 hours a week anyways. Unless you have a treasure chest of investments or a business that runs itself (or you’re living in a cabin by Walden Pond), it’s pretty much necessary to work this much in order to pay the bills and put food on the table.

But 99.9% of all people hate their day jobs, if they are being honest. After working in many different places across the country for more than a decade, I’ve found that most people regard working as a necessary evil and are putting up with crap they can’t stand in order to bow out completely at 65, at which time they think they can spend the rest of their life just chillaxin’.

If this is your attitude, do yourself a favor and rent the movie About Schmidt. Jack Nicholson stars as a guy who exemplifies this mindset. He worked for decades shuffling papers around and spends the last minutes of his last day at work sitting with his packed briefcase on his lap, watching the clock and waiting to leave the office permanently.

The film goes on to chronicle the beginning of his retirement and reveals it to be an enormous letdown, not worth all the blood, sweat, and tears he shed to get there. Here is the first clip in the movie, which shows how he spends his last minute of his last day at work:


This might be a bit of a downer, but I think that most of us need a slap in the face when it comes to work. Yes it is necessary, but don’t spend 83,200 hours of your life doing something you hate.

If I could do anything I wanted to do, would I get up and go to my 9-to-5 every morning? Probably not. But I’d much prefer it over sitting on my ass all day (like Peter Gibbons in Office Space).

I’m fortunate enough to have a job that I enjoy that also pays the bills. Although not everyone is this lucky, I truly believe it is within everyone’s grasp to have that kind of life. Here’s some of the ways that I have managed to do so and avoid being someone who’s attitude is primarily determined by how close it is to the weekend:

  • Challenge Yourself–Not feeling challenged at work is just as big of a problem as being overworked. If you don’t feel like you’re firing on all cylinders at your job, then find an area there where you can contribute a lot of value, and get to work delivering on it. By working hard on something you’re making a difference with, you will get a ton of satisfaction from your job. And almost every job has plenty of these opportunities.
  • Focus on the Positive–Okay, so some parts of your job are inescapable drudgery. I’ve been there. It sucks, but no work is all fun all the time. Try to shift your focus away from the unpleasant busywork and take more pride in the work you are doing that really makes a difference. (You are following my “Challenge Yourself” point, aren’t you?)
  • Find Work You Love–The simplest solution to most people’s dislike of their jobs is to simply quit, but this has problems of its own. You have to pay the bills and buy food no matter what, and who’s to say if you find a new job that you won’t hate it just as much as the old one? Get honest with yourself and ask what you really want to be doing with your life, and start moving in that direction. Start developing yourself and learning the skills that would get you that dream job. Look for your ideal position in your off time. Just don’t be the guy who drags himself into a job he doesn’t like for 50 years just because he doesn’t know what else he wants to do.
  • Hustle On the Side–This is the biggest area of opportunity for most of us, and yet the one that most people are unwilling to try: start doing more work on the side for free, in the hopes that it will one day have an impact and generate income for you. One of the components of the “relax harder” component of our philosophy is “follow your bliss.” Instead of sitting around watching Jersey Shore reruns, I strongly believe that most people’s bliss is actively contributing something big to the world. This may sound like the exact opposite of relaxing, but I personally have found that working hard on something I’m passionate about is one of the most rewarding activities I can engage in.

Sleep: About 56 Hours

Along with work, this is the other biggie. In fact, I believe sleep and work combined should compose about two-thirds of your 168 hours!

Since this is such a huge amount, I know I’ll need to justify it.

When it comes to making room for more projects and responsibilities in life, sleep is often the first thing to get sacrificed. Since it’s something we spend so much time doing, it’s intuitive to think that we can simply shave a little off here and there.

And this is a huge mistake.

In a perfect world, you’d sleep until you woke up each and every day.

Now, like most of you groaning right now, I do live in the real world and understand that this goal is attainable by VERY few people… but I will go out on a limb and say that most of us should be waking up without an alarm clock more often than we wake up with one. (I am currently in the middle of a yearlong project to set an alarm clock as little as possible.)

We Americans live in a culture that is insanely pro-sleep deprivation. The less sleep you get each night the more you seem to get bragging rights.

Here’s a couple of facts that will blow your mind:

  • Before Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, the average person slept about 10 hours each night.
  • Instead of getting all our sleep in one big block, it was likely spread across two sleeping sessions.

Sound like the sort of thing you could fit into your modern life? Yeah, me neither.

I think we’re just gonna have to admit that most of us will never be able to give our bodies the type of sleep that it “wants,” but we can do a whole lot better than we are currently doing.

The amount of sleep you need is unique to you, and you’ll need to find out what that is for yourself, but a good rule of thumb is to assume that you should average 8 hours of sleep per night.

Yes, you’re going to have to pull some late nights occasionally (don’t we all?) but make sure for every one of these you make one day where you can catch up on your sleep.

Here’s some strategies you can use to start sleeping more:

  • Throw Out Your TV–I know this sounds kinda extreme, but it’s probably the best way most people have available to free up the time they need to sleep. The average American watches approximately 35 hours of TV each weekalmost the equivalent of a full-time job. And you can be assured that very little of that is actually educational. With Netflix and Hulu, you don’t have to completely pull the plug, but you’ll have much more control of your watching habits.
  • Go to Sleep When the Sun Sets–Okay, another “unrealistic one,” but try to get to bed as soon after dusk as possible. This might be impossible during winter especially, but once the sun sets your body will try to catch some z’s anyways.
  • Make Your Bedroom As Cozy As Possible–You want your body to think “alright, it’s time to sleep” as soon as you enter your bedroom. Keep it clean, dark, and whatever temperature you prefer. Also, don’t spend too much time lounging around there. Bedrooms should be for primarily for sleeping and having sex.

Fun: 16 Hours Minimum

Depending on who you are, the “having fun” part of your life can also be a prime candidate to be neglected when you are busy.

I, for one, am incredibly guilty of this.

I referenced above a Jared Diamond paper that suggests our ancestors “worked” only between 12 and 19 hours per week. He goes on to say that one of the ways we spent the rest of our time was “playing” with others.

Mark Sisson is a big proponent of the idea that we need to spend more time socializing and having fun with others, and our modern society, where social interactions are moving more and more into the virtual arena, is particularly conducive to not spending enough time having fun.

And when I say fun, I mean active fun, not passive fun. Yes, it can feel good to crash on the couch after work and watch “The Office” until you go to bed, but it is never as satisfying as the feeling you get after doing an active type of fun such as playing sports, having your girlfriend over for dinner, or even just going out to the bar with your friends.

I suggest having 16 hours at an absolute minimum set aside for fun each week, and ideally more than that. 16 hours is the amount of time left over in one day after you have taken out 8 hours for sleep. If you are an absolute workaholic and are going from the moment you wake up until the second you go to sleep, this means you must take one day completely off each week.

In a perfect world, you might devote two entire days to having fun while making time for a little bit each day as well, but start out with 16 hours if you are really struggling here.

Education: 7 Hours

Ever see the movie Groundhog Day?

Of course! it’s a classic! But instead of being just another cookie-cutter comedy, it had something profound to say: most of us are living the same day over and over again, and it’s a rare occasion when we are able to break out of our routines and do something different with our lives.

As long-time readers probably know, I think that the best way to “break out of a rut,” fitness-related or otherwise, is to build new routines that automatically help you get there.

And you’ll never do it unless you are open to learning new things.

Too many people finish school and say “Yes! I will never open another book ever again!”

It’s honestly tragic that school is so boring for most people. Instead of looking forward to discovering new things, most students see it as some form of drudgery, some kind of necessary evil for getting a diploma on the wall that will lead to higher earnings.

But it is only by learning that our minds get opened to the many ways in which we can really get what we want out of life.

Step one is knowing what you want, even if you only know what you want right now. When you’ve got that nailed down, then you can go to work learning how exactly you’re going to get there.

Read books, watch documentaries, find mentors… Just make sure that for an hour each day, you open your mind to new possibilities.

Working Out: 3 Hours Maximum

One of my biggest pet peeves about the fitness world is that it makes people think they have to become athletes, bodybuilders, and models to truly reap the benefits of being in shape, and must therefore spend ungodly amounts of time working out.

If your passion genuinely lies in these areas, then by all means follow it, but the vast majority of us are just looking to get in shape in order to have fewer illnesses and injuries, become more energetic, live longer, become more sexually attractive, and more socially visible.

You can easily achieve these goals with 3 hours or less in the gym per week. You could probably do it in 2 hours, and some seriously focused individuals could do this in as little as one hour.

But for god’s sake stop spending more than 3 hours per week in the gym. This anti-social behavior will only encourage you to waste your time doing 101 different variations of chest, bicep, and ab exercises that give you no better results than if you focused on the “big movements,” such as:

  • Walking/Running/Sprinting
  • Squats
  • Push Ups
  • Pull Ups
  • Deadlifts
  • Cleans
  • Presses

Martin Berkhan of Leangains recently published an excellent article on what he calls “fuckarounditis,” or spending excessive amounts of time doing exercises that improve your physique very little, that I suggest you read. Martin is pretty notorious for having a physique that most of us mortals could never achieve–and he works out very little, supplements even less, and focuses on just a small handful of exercises.

I suggest you do the same.

Much like how we’ll probably never be able to replicate the sleeping habits of our ancient ancestors, we’ll probably never achieve their amount of physical activity, either.

I strongly believe that one main way we can work around this is by placing a higher importance on high-intensity exercise, which seems to give you a disproportionately large bang for your buck as medium- or low-intensity exercises do.

So stick with three one-hour sessions or six half-hour session at the absolute maximum per week. And feel free to even dial that back a bit. As long as you focus on compound movements, high-intensity exercises, and full-body workouts, you’ll see very little improvement compared to if you were to become a full-on gym rat.

Food Preparation: 3 1/2 Hours Maximum

One of the big failings I see in most nutrition advice is excessively focusing on calories, carbs, fat, etc. (none of which can even be measured accurately enough to make any difference in your body composition).

If you instead focus on eating Real Food (fresh and minimally processed meat, vegetables, fruit, eggs, etc.) you’ll find that your body automatically starts to shed your unwanted fat even though you are eating when hungry and stopping when full–exactly the behavior we are told to resist by many weight-loss experts.

This phenomenon (that can best be seen by comparing cultures that eat this way with those that don’t) has not yet been explained adequately by the scientific community. Does eating this way alter the hormonal balance in your body? Does it lower your body fat setpoint? Does it decrease stimulation of food reward centers in the brain?

There’s plenty of theories out there, but no consensus as of yet. In the meantime, take advantage of this observation and try it yourself. You don’t necessarily have to know why something to know that it works.

The average American spends 30 minutes each day cooking, or 3 1/2 hours each week. This is the smallest amount of any developed society.

So am I going to suggest that you double this and spend 7 hours each week in the kitchen? NO! Although you might be able to throw together the most badass barbecue in the world if you had more time, I’d like to see you just spend as much time cooking as the average person to start out with.

Start out by making one meal per week (in bulk, so you have lots of leftovers). Then add another one into the mix once you can do that first one blindfolded. Then another. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to prepare 4-7 meals without even batting an eye.

Chores, Errands, Hygiene, and Commuting: As Little as Freaking Possible

Okay, perhaps my guy-ness is really showing here, but I consider “necessary evils” such as doing chores and running errands to be a complete freakin’ waste of time.

In my opinion, anything you do that doesn’t directly help you move towards your goals in life should be done as little as possible.

While it’s nice to have a clean house and new clothes, these kinds of time-intensive activities can easily eat up your life if you aren’t careful. Here’s a few suggestions of how to deal with this:

  • Just Stop Doing Chores–aka “the bachelor solution.” If you are living by yourself, then lucky you! Stop being so anal and keep your place just as clean as you need to not be distracting, and just tidy up whenever you have anyone over.
  • Outsource Your Errands to the Interwebs–I hate to be a billboard, but when I see a good service I’ll let you know about it. You know Amazon.com right? Well, think about it: not only do they now carry everything, but their prices are better than at most stores you can go to, they offer free shipping on orders over $25, and they deliver right to your doorstep! I recently started ordering all my toiletries and other household items online and have saved a ton of time and money as a result. (Note: this isn’t limited to Amazon. Most online retailers offer free shipping on orders above a certain price.)
  • Outsource Laundry, Housecleaning, and Groceries–This one is entirely dependent on your financial situation, but it can be really easy to find people to do your laundry, clean your place, and shop for your groceries, particularly if you live in a city. Do some research to see how much these services would cost you and see if it’s worth the time you’d save.

The Time Solution

168 hours.

It doesn’t sound like much, does it? For most of us, there is more to do in a week than can sanely be crammed into this small amount of time.

In particular for our discussion here, there are several areas where I suggest you devote more of your time:

  1. Cooking and preparing healthy food.
  2. Working out. (As long as you’re not already overdoing it.)
  3. Sleeping, socializing, and working on things that are important to you.

By cutting back on the “dead time” in your life you can easily fit these things in without making yourself go insane.

Unlike Aron Ralston, you don’t need to go so far as to cut off your own forearm to free yourself of the pressures of time. But you’ll probably need to sacrifice some bad habits that were holding you back the entire time anyway.

And when you see the results, you’ll know that it was all worthwhile.
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