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Karen Allendoerfer

The 168-hour challenge

June 26, 2010 at 5:40 PM

Last week I did something called the 168-hour challenge.  It was started by my friend, Laura Vanderkam, in association with the publication of her time-management book, 168 Hours: You have more time than you think.

In the book (which I have only read about 1/3 of, occupying approximately 1.5 of my previous 168 hours), Vanderkam suggests keeping a time log for a week to find out where your time really goes.  She notes in her book that most people overestimate the time they spend working and underestimate the time they spend sleeping.  

The next step, after you find out where your time is actually going, is to evaluate the proportion you spend on each activity, and see if that's what you really want to be doing.  For example, do you really want to spend 5 hours/week on "misc email and Facebook"?  (especially when you could be practicing those 3-octave scales . . . hmm)

However, since I found out about the book, and the challenge itself, on Facebook (Laura is FB friend of mine), that question, like so many others on this topic, is a bit more complicated than it first appears.

So, what did I learn?  The first thing is that I actually have less time than I think, not more.  K.J. Dell'Antonia pointed this out too, in an online review of the book in Slate.  My problem tends to be that I assume I'll always have time for everything.  Learn that quartet and those fiddle tunes for the Farmers' Market?  Learn another movement of the Franck sonata?  Practice violin with my daughter?  Clean the house?  Weed and water the garden?  Oh, sure, I have a free morning next Thursday when I'm working from home. . . I'll just do it then.

I also learned that I'm sleeping about 7 hours a night.  Not too bad, especially since I installed light-blocking curtains (with home improvement/care--not including cleaning--occupying a surprisingly whopping 9 of my 168 hours), but ideally I'd feel better if I got 8.  I also only spent 1.5 hours on exercise, which would be better if it were at least doubled, if not tripled.

All that aside, however, this is a violin blog, so it's time to face the music, so to speak.  How many of those 168 hours did I spend practicing last week?  Um, one.  Just one measly hour.

Like some of the people Vanderkam profiled in her book (and whom I knowingly tsk-tsked at in the back of my mind when I was reading it), I can protest with some legitimacy that this was an unusual week for me.  Orchestra is over for the season.  I had to postpone my scheduled lesson due to a work emergency.  I also attended the annual meeting for the orchestra (potluck dinner, budget report, and other business 1.5 hours), and presented my idea to start an annual chamber music concert, in honor of and named for our longest-serving member and former concertmaster, Phyllis Spence (chorus and orchestra reports 0.5 hours).  This idea was well-received and the board is taking up the planning.  The board, of which I am also now one of the newest members (election of new board members:  0.5 hours).  So, I went out socializing afterwards with my new friends on the board (appetizers and a beer in Arlington, 1.5 hours).  

I mean, it's not as if I did nothing violinish at all last week. 

Vanderkam's next point is that you should spend most of your time on your "core competencies," things that you can do well, or better than most other people, and minimize time spent on things that you dislike and/or are not good at.  This idea occupies a great deal of the beginning of the book and has been a bit controversial.  For example, in this review, Publisher's Weekly says that "Vanderkam's vision may yield plenty of time to pursue worthy activities, but it's a life leached of color or spontaneity." 

I wouldn't take it nearly as far as Publisher's Weekly did, but the idea of the core competency, and the idea, directly quoted from the book, that “There's little point... in spending much time on activities in which you can't excel” do make me a little uneasy, especially in a violin context.  It opens the door to a question that has no good answer, one that I usually try not to think about too much.  Do I, can I, "excel" on the violin?  

It depends on the context, of course.  Relative to beginners, even relative to what my youthful beginner self could do, yes, I excel.  Certainly relative to the millions of people on the planet who do not play an instrument, have no musical training, have no interest in music, I excel.  Even in my little world of orchestra and lessons and church, I can at least see excellence, sometimes I can touch it.  But in the real world of real musicians, of people who get paid to play the violin, I don't excel.  I don't belong there.  So is violin a core competency for me, or not?

I have noticed that among musicians, I tend to be more organized and more administratively conscientious than many--even than many who are much better players than I.   I do this sort of organizational work at work as well.  Administration and organization may be a core competency for me too, more so than playing the violin is, but I enjoy it less.  I also find that it is not really valued very much by society.  Everyone loves to heap praise on creative types, but administrators are considered boring, colorless, and lifeless--bean counters--even, sometimes, by themselves.

Where this leads is, I think, to an argument for diversity.  Organizations need people with different core competencies, and they need to value both.  And individuals, too, need to make their own decisions about how to spend their time.  I am still going to try to spend more time practicing next week--but I also am going to try not to feel guilty about having used some of my precious violin time for administrative things. 

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on June 26, 2010 at 6:01 PM

I can't agree at all with the book's statement about only spending time on activities in which you excel.  It's a lot of fun to go whack tennis balls with my kids on a summer afternoon, although none of us are, or probably ever will be, local tournament material, much less Wimbledon.  I love to swim, but no one has ever mistaken me for Dana Torres.

It's the same with music.  Scotland's Really Terrible Orchestra celebrates adult musicians who will never even reach the level of competent amateurs.  They love to play, though, and their concerts are usually a sell-out.  (The wine served beforehand as an anaesthetic may help!)  No one should ever tell them they aren't using their time well.  This site is full of competent adult amateurs and adult beginners, very few of whom could be said to "excel", but just try to get the violins out of their hands.

As far as only having an hour to practice last week, Karen, I only have two words for you: working mother.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 26, 2010 at 7:05 PM

 Lisa, yes, I agree that statement is problematic.  If I tried to only spend time on things that I could truly excel at, I'd probably end up sleeping all the time and never leaving my room! 

But I think the general idea of figuring out your core competencies and doing things you like and are good at while minimizing or outsourcing things that you don't like and are not good at is a sound one.  I've emailed with the author and her personal philosophy isn't as hard core as that quote sounds.  She was president of an amateur chorus in New York, which is something we have in common--amateur music at a reasonably high level, and the administration associated with that.  

She also recommends outsourcing housework and boring clerical work, which I can get behind.  Although, if you have an outsource-er, you have to have an outsource-ee, and I have yet to meet the person whose core competency is doing laundry, putting toys away for the umpteenth time, or scrubbing a toilet.

From Bart Meijer
Posted on June 27, 2010 at 3:07 PM

Karen, I always enjoy your blogs. Could writing be one of your core competencies? And I have just bought your friend's book.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 28, 2010 at 12:03 PM

 Bart, I enjoy writing, but like many things, I'm not very disciplined about it.  I do some writing at work too--grants, progress reports, correspondence.  Writing something out helps me solve problems, I think.  It's usually clearer to me what I need to do (or not do) for a violin problem, if I write about it.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on June 28, 2010 at 6:29 PM

What an interesting exercise (although it doesn't rate compared to playing Kreutzer lol).  I wish I could conclude that I slept more than I do.  Hah!  I guess I have trouble seeing some of the point of the only-do-what-you-excel-in mantra.  It seems to me the world is divided into two or three cateogories of activity.  One is the things you like to do.  One is the things you have to do.  The final one is the things you excel at doing.  Hopefully, the final category is subsumed under/divided between the first two.  Obviously, organization is important to optimizing participation in these activities.  But, I would never tell someone to avoid an activity they liked, even if they weren't much good at it.  That would empty the joy out of life. 

Karen - good luck with your efforts to make it all work.  You seem to have a great life and appear to be getting adequate sleep without spending too much time sleeping.  Let us know if try this further during a more normal week, whatever that is for you. 


From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on June 28, 2010 at 6:32 PM

Very interesting!  I tried to do a similar exercise (but on my own with no guidance) and since a while, I've cut much of my computering time and noticed that I played better my violin (and had better grades) when I practiced and studied less but slept a bit more and see my friends in outdoors activities more often.  (It's a non sense to never listen to your tired body and mind. Doing more problems or practicing when your mind is too tired to record info is kind of stupid and inneficient)  

Sadly, on school time,  "oudoor" and "sleeping" therapy is harder to do than tell...  Might as well just relax before the university storm and mental torture : )  

Karen, very interesting blog!


Bravo to be a born administrator!!!  I'm more of an instinctive so I admire you for this! 

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 28, 2010 at 7:00 PM

 Laura was on the Today Show today:

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on June 29, 2010 at 4:04 AM

I agree with many of the previous commenters.  Spending little time doing things outside of your core competencies is unwise.  How can we learn to do things we're not good at or improve in areas we're somewhat good at (for, example, playing the violin) unless we spend time on them?  I learn from my students that practicing (spending time on something you don't know how to do well) can be very rewarding psychologically and can improve your character in many ways.

I think that keeping track of one's hours can be a good idea, similar to keeping track of one's  eating for Weight Watchers.  It can make us think about how much we value certain activities.  For instance, is spending a lot of time on Youtube really bad?  I've learned a lot from it.  Learning new things is one of my top priorities, although that seems to be in direct conflict with the author's major premise.

Thanks for bringing up this topic.  It has already generated a lot of input, and I'm sure that there will be more.

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on June 29, 2010 at 5:28 AM

I expected the idea of the book to be to point out how much time one wastes that could be spent doing things one loves.  Did the book address wasted time?

It has already been pointed out in that the expert violinists are the ones that spent the most time practicing.  This is not inconsistent with your desire to practice the violin, even if it isn't one of your "core competencies". 

To tie this together: my teenage son lost his computer privileges (facebook, etc.) and now spends all his free time practicing the guitar.  He has improved immensely in this time.  He admits that he'd rather not put forth the effort to regain the lost privileges because he appreciates this relationship with his guitar.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 29, 2010 at 10:25 AM

 Yes, it addresses wasted time.  Fran, I think your son's could be a story in the book.  

It doesn't go very much into the difference between loving to do something and being good at it--there is almost an underlying assumption that if you love to do something, you will get good at it soon enough, and it will become one of your core competencies.  (Pauline, learning new things, being incessantly curious, could be one of yours.)  At least that is how I choose to look at violin for myself.  As I said, I try not to think very much about whether I "really" excel at the violin, because it's a question with no good answer.  I can excel relative to how I played last year, or last week.  I can excel in the sense that I can touch people with music.  That's enough.


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 29, 2010 at 3:07 PM

 I am doing it again this week, which is still not "normal," because I'm going to visit my parents for the long weekend.  

One aspect of the approach that I hadn't appreciated before is the advantage to thinking in weekly, rather than daily, chunks of time.  My mind doesn't think "daily" very naturally.  I tend to feel like I am doing things too frequently and they get annoying and frantic-making if they have to be daily.  There are costs involved in getting started and winding down that introduce inefficiencies if they have to be done every single day.  But 3-4 times a week, even for the same number of hours, feels much more do-able.  

Practicing the violin is a case in point.  I am shooting for 5 hrs/week of practice, which is a realistic and practical amount of time that I can spend practicing.  That works out to either about 45 minutes a day, or it's 3 to 4 60-90-minute chunks.  Honestly I will probably end up with something even less regular, such as a 20-minute chunk, two 45-minute chunks, a 15-minute chunk, and a 2-hour chunk.  

But each of those lengths has its plusses and minuses, and can be used for different purposes.  I might just do some quick touching up of the hard parts in orchestra music, or work out and write down some fingerings and bowings for a quartet movement, if I have only 15 minutes.  I've been finding that even that small effort really does pay off the next time I sit down to practice.  Then the next time I can concentrate on listening for musical issues or intonation without getting stuck on fingerings and bowings.

Whereas if I tried to adhere rigidly to a schedule of regular daily practice, it would be 45 minutes a day, and I'd be feeling guilty if I didn't do those "20 minutes of scales and arpeggios to warm up," leaving me only 25 more minutes to do everything else.  I might never get to orchestra music at all in that schedule.

On the other hand, 20 minutes of scales to warm up can be really nice, if you have the time to get into it and really do it justice on a particular day.  If I can devote 90 minutes or 2 hours on some leisurely weekend morning because I did the laundry during the week, then I get some of those rewards too, those that come in the "second hour of practicing."

From Terez Mertes
Posted on June 30, 2010 at 6:13 PM

 Enjoyed reading this, and people's comments!

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on July 1, 2010 at 7:25 AM

Very interesting blog, Karen.

I have not read the book so I might have completely missed the author's point, but I too find the advice on spending time only on core competencies is problematic. Most of us would agree that pushing one's limits and doing things that one feels uncomfortable are almost necessary for learning and personal growth. One of the best ways to practice violin, for instance, is to practice where we feel hard to play or the spots we are currently incompetent to play well. To focus on the core competencies, one can maximize one's accomplishment and may be externally rewarded more for that. But if this is all she does and if she values personal growth more than what other people expect of her, then it is a kind of laziness, or in some odd sense wasting her precious time that she could have spent on exploring beyond her competency to make her lifer richer and her mind and body more elastic.  

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on July 1, 2010 at 10:27 AM

 Yixi, that's an interesting point that doing things that aren't necessarily apparent core competencies may be, in itself, a core competency.  That may be especially true of violinists, who happily undertake a very difficult instrument, one that very few people are naturally good at--and even those who are have to practice a lot.  

Focusing on your strengths rather than your weaknesses is one of those things they tell you in career counseling.  And the book is focused on people who have careers and who make those careers a priority.  She argues that spending most of your time on your core competencies, and prioritizing those, can help you have both a career and a fulfilling personal life.  But it's true, not everyone has, or even wants, a career at all.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on July 1, 2010 at 5:10 PM

Career is different than free time.  I don't want a surgeon who doesn't excel cutting into me.  My plumber, auto mechanic, and tax accountant should also be doing excellent work.  If this book is mainly career-oriented, that must be why the author stresses spending the most time on what you excel at- good advice for running a business.  The time away from work, though, is a different story. 

Even at work, trying things tangential to what you usually do can be good for the company and for the individual.  The best jobs I have had were the ones where people were willing and able to competently cover for each other, at least on some things.  Besides making it more interesting, the whole place doesn't shut down when someone's ill.  Also, you don't know what you excel at until you've given it a good try.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on July 1, 2010 at 7:03 PM

Thanks for the explanation Karen. This makes sense. But looking around, we'll see tons of people with successful career who have stress-related health problems, including substance abuse. I think more and more people are now awakening to the fact that work is over-rated in our society.

I second what Lisa said. And I would go further to say that you don't know your core competencies even you've tried and failed a few times. When I conclude that something is just not for me, what I'm really saying is I'm tired of trying this.  We often give up too early before our potential is shown, but it is not always a bad thing because it help us to eliminate choices and help to focus on something we really want to do.

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on July 3, 2010 at 5:26 AM

Karen, I thought about your practice time predicament and wasn't going to give my opinion since you are far advanced compared to me and I don't have a responsibility to any ensembles.  But this evening I decided to give my story--maybe something in it applies to you.  Anyway, in January I decided to make it a New Years resolution to practice every day (or at least try to).  My teacher encouraged it--she said even practicing bowing 10 minutes a day if I could manage it would be beneficial.  So on my busiest days, when I don't feel I can take time to practice, I announce that I'm going to practice for 10 minutes.  Sometimes it's 9:30 at night!  Most of those times, I don't get interrupted and end up practicing for half an hour or so.  So my suggestion to you is: Go ahead and plan out your practice as you said in your response, but for the other days plan to pick up the violin for 10 minutes and do some warmup exercises.  Even if you don't do anything more, at least you will have done SOMETHING.

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