As soon as I read the blurb of Laura Vanderkam’s book I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time I knew it was for me. I was pleased to discover that Vanderkam agrees that we can have it all. Not only that, she has the hard, scientific data to prove it!
I Know How She Does It is Vanderkam’s report of her study of time logs of 1,000 days in the lives of working mothers. The stories of working women like us are inspiring and relatable. Vanderkam uses these real-life stories to help build a framework to guide working women to build a life that works for them.
Although I was only a few months into working motherhood when I read the book, I had already figured a lot of Vanderkam’s advice out for myself – organisation and time management are skills of mine. Despite this, I still got a lot from the book. It reinforced for me (with cold, hard data; you know, numbers and stuff!) that I am using techniques that also work for hundreds of other women. That is reassuring. I’m not just ‘fitting it all in’ and it doesn’t matter if my life look nothing like anyone else’s.
Here are my key takeaways.
It is impossible to read this book and miss the message that there are 168 hours in a week. I wonder how many times the words “168 hours” are printed. I don’t know, but the answer is a lot and “168 hours” is now permanently imprinted on my brain! (What can you expect, Vanderkam is the author of a book titled 168 Hours, after all)
The reminder that there are 168 hours in a week is key to avoiding what Vanderkam calls “The 24-Hour Trap”. A 24 hour period may not be balanced, but 168 hours can be. When you look at the bigger picture, there is plenty of time for all the things we want to do:
‘When it comes to time, we often think that “balance” requires fitting all of our priorities into twenty-four hours. In particular, we want to fit those priorities into each of the twenty-four hours that constitute Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. We act like these are the only four days that count. Indeed, when we lament the hard choices of long work hours or travel, we are often looking at what we are trading off during those four days.
But that’s not the whole picture of time. Indeed, Monday through midday Thursday is exactly half the week. So is midday Thursday to Sunday. We have a funny tendency to think that work/life balance requires having a lot of personal time Monday through midday Thursday, but discount however much personal time (and relatively little work time) happens during midday Thursday to Sunday. Monday and Tuesday aren’t balanced between work time and home time, but then again, neither are Saturday and Sunday, for the opposite reason. Why do we discount that?
As it is, it’s possible to enjoy lots of family time, and personal time too, if you avoid the 24-Hour Trap, and take the whole week into account when assessing your life. Many women consciously chose to work longer some days, and less others. Any given 24 hours might not be balanced, but the 168-hour week as a whole can be.’
Vanderkam tells the story of one mother who, for several reasons, wanted to work and consciously decided to work more. When comparing her life before and after this change, Vanderkam concluded that working more ‘didn’t require short-changing her family or herself. It simply required focusing on what she did best and not the myriad other things that could occupy her time. Life was a work in progress.’
When it comes to managing work and life, flexibility matters more than limiting the number of hours we work. There are many ways of managing flexible work, including split shifts, working remotely or from home, working on weekends, and avoiding ‘The 24-Hour Trap’. While there may be financial and career consequences to changing to part-time hours, there ‘aren’t necessarily consequences to moving your work hours around on dimensions of time and place.’
Use your time wisely. This sounds obvious enough, but it can take a shift in your mindset to really make it work. Many people just complete tasks as and when they receive them. Even more people are a slave to their inbox.
Work out when you are most productive and organise your working time around this. Use ‘wasted’ time wisely, for example, by checking emails on your commute to work or catching up on social media while waiting for the microwave to finish. Vanderkam tells the story of one mother who used the half hour while her husband got their child to sleep for her ‘me’ time. Instead of waiting around aimlessly, she’d go to the nail salon down the road!
Vanderkam’s tips for using time wisely include looking forward, planning, mentoring, being ‘strategically seen’, building in down-time and cutting out the rest.
Being around family and being with family are not the same things. Make the time that you are together count. Consider your week and ask yourself where you can have quality family time. The family meal does not have to be had at dinner. Can you have breakfast or lunch together instead?
‘Having it all’ is only possible if we take time for ourselves. Leisure time works on a supply and demand basis. You need to have something you want to do as leisure that is compelling enough to take you away from household chores; and then you need to have time to do it in. Many people give up on the idea of leisure as they tell themselves they don’t have time. But is this right?
There are many minutes in the day that we fritter away with things like checking Facebook and hanging around the house. Vanderkam says that keeping our favourite activities at the top of our minds will help us to take advantage of these little pockets of time. If you like reading, sneak in a quick chapter while your kids play or while dinner is in the oven. Even if you only read a few pages, it’s still time better spent.
Vanderkam also encourages us to think differently about leisure time. Sign yourself up for activities, extend day-care, put your kids in the crèche so you can go to the gym. Acknowledge that the time you spent reading this blog while at work is actually leisure time.
Vanderkam’s book is targeted to working women, but her advice applies to us all – men and women, working or not working. I recommend this book to anyone struggling to keep all the balls in the air, who feels like there isn’t enough hours in the day or who is looking for an alternative to the trade-off between a career and family. But I also recommend it to busy people who, like me, think they’re not doing too bad of a job by themselves. It is reassuring to read that other people are in the same boat.
If you want more of a taste before reading the book, check out Vanderkam’s recent TED Talk here: