I Know How She Does It: A Review and Q&A with Laura Vanderkam

Not long after my second child was born I went back to work. I was grateful to have a new job, thrilled for the opportunity to be back on a trading floor and determined that having young sons would not hold me back. One day shortly after I returned to work my nanny called — and I know you saw this coming — to say that she had been sick all morning and could not longer watch my boys.

There is no way I could tell my boss that I was leaving work, so I did the only thing I could and called my husband and asked him to go home. Although my husband and I had once had the same job, he had never left the workforce and was more accomplished and far more senior to me at this point. He happily agreed to go home and I had the thought that has derailed so many careers, “How will I ever manage this?” There was no part of me that could lie to myself and pretend that different variations of that morning were not going to happen again and again.

In Laura Vanderkam’s new book, I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, she makes it clear that I asked the obvious, but certainly the wrong question. She explains that, “In the discussion of women’s life choices, we often focus on the crazy moments, or the difficult moments, which make sense. They’re darkly entertaining. These get the press.”

I Know How She Does It

I would eventually trade in work for my kids. I believed that the kind of life that Vanderkam argues is within the grasp of every woman was not within mine. I saw no way to balance three kids, my career, my husband’s career/travel and be left with a shred of sanity. Yet Vanderkam suggests that we are always trading one use of our time for another and the important thing is to recognize the choices we are facing and make them deliberately. The question is not work versus family she says, “We lament the softball game missed due to a late flight, and start down the road of soul-searching and the need to limit hours at work or perhaps resign, but we don’t rend our garments over the softball game missed because another kid has a swim meet at the exact same time. No one ever draws the conclusion from that hard-choice moment that you need to get rid of the other kid.”

For every woman who has wondered how or if it is possible to do what I could not, Vanderkam has the answer. Instead of focusing on the dramatic moments she asked 143 highly successful mothers to record exactly how they had spent the 336 half-hours of one week. The women were all earning in excess of $100,000 and had at least one child under 18 at home.

Although the study is small her findings are big. These successful women over the course of perhaps not a day, but certainly a week manage to get enough sleep, quality time with their families, leisure and have the big career. They do it by paring their lives down to what matters to them and then with much forethought carefully fitting those activities into their week. Each woman had her very own method for fitting it all in but there were some notable patterns. Many women worked a “split shift” by working part of their day and then finishing up what needed to be done after their kids were asleep. Many women fit exercise into the early morning or on the way to work. All managed to fit enough sleep into their week and enough of what they enjoyed into their days. Vanderkam explains, “Everyone has opinions on having it all. I want to show, moment by moment, how it’s really done.”

Vanderkam’s point is an essential one. There are days, sometimes even weeks, when it seems impossible to shoehorn everything we need to do into a single day. But this does not mean that our lives cannot be full of the work, family and leisure that we want. It simply means that for any given day the balance might not be optimal. Vanderkam asks us to zoom out our lens and look at our lives from a broader vantage point with a slightly longer time horizon. By doing that we can see that with much planning and flexibility and a myriad of creative solutions offered in her book, it can all get done.

Vanderkam’s book is a road map for any women gripped in the panic I felt that day my nanny called. She starts by telling women to let go of the idea that your house or the appearance of your life needs to be perfect. Let go of the notion that you need to do everything yourself, seek out and accept help. Let go of the sound reel in your head that keeps telling you don’t have enough time, it is getting in the way of any creative solutions that will help you make the most of the 168 hours every week

Her most important point I think is not simply that you can have the high-flying career and the family, but that most of us have the time to do far more than we thought possible. And while I wanted to push back against the notion that just reframing your week and shedding the unnecessary will yield more time, I know that she is right.

When I discovered one day in June that a book I thought was due to my editor on November 1 was actually contracted to be delivered September 1, I knew I was headed for failure. How I got this date wrong is still a mystery but my timing could not have been worse with three kids home for summer vacation. I inadvertently stumbled upon a solution that could be straight out of Vanderkam’s book. My family had been visiting England and our first day back I was so jet lagged that I fell asleep at 8:30pm and woke up at 3:00am. In my still silent house I began to write and discovered that my productivity was twice as high at a jet lagged 3am as it was at 3 pm. The dark and silence were a writer’s friend.

For the remainder of the summer I split my family in half. My husband and older sons returned to New York time. I, however, lived on Greenwich Mean time in New York. I woke every morning at 3, worked until everyone got up at 7, took my kids to their various summer activities, wrote and then picked them up in the afternoon and spent the rest of the day with them. I would put my youngest to bed at 8:30 and get straight into bed myself, leaving my husband to sort out the older two. Was this a long-term solution to our lives? Not if we wanted to remain married, but I got the book in on time and discovered as, Vanderkam makes very clear that time is fungible and if managed right will yield hours you never knew you had.

But let’s be honest here. I was writing a book, not working on a trading floor, I had a spouse who was happy and able to spend evenings with his children and I still had one child young enough to be put to bed before 9. Some job flexibility, a bit of help with childcare and younger kids with less complex lives were all prerequisites to my solution.

In truth I usually don’t like books like this. They are often filled with platitudes and untested generalities that are of little use. Vanderkam’s book is the exact opposite. Through a combination of her own study, mountainous research and the results of this group of successful professionals, I Know How She Does It offers concrete, specific and tested solutions to the time management problems that plague most of us. Although she aims her book squarely at moms with kids at home, most of Vanderkam’s insights are relevant to anyone who goes to bed at night feeling like 24 hours was simply not enough.

Vanderkam wants women to know that they can successfully combine family, career and time for themselves. and if you ever doubted whether it could be done, she will show you how. If you ever doubted whether you could do it, the answer is yes

We had the opportunity to ask Vanderkam a few questions about managing time with teens. Here are her answers.

GF: In many ways teen’s schedules make our lives more difficult because they are less is under our control. The notion of working after our kids are asleep is fanciful as they go to sleep after us. Any particular thoughts on time management with teens?

LV: You can’t work after they go to bed, but you can work before they wake up — particularly on weekends. I seem to pop up by 7 regardless, so if my kids were sleeping until 10, that would be 3 found hours… Also, since they do entertain themselves, you can be prepared to seize time. So if they have friends over to watch a movie, you could use that to work or read or exercise rather than picking up the house.

GF: I had a job (on a trading desk) that offered very little flexibility when my kids were small. My boss wanted me in my seat during the hours the market was open. Any thoughts for parents who have less ability to move their work responsibilities around during the week?

LV: I certainly had some women in my study who couldn’t move around the tiles — if you’re a physician, you can’t finish up seeing patients at home after the kids go to bed! I think the important thing is to try logging your time for a while so you make sure you’re not telling yourself false stories. We often believe that the only parenting that counts is 10 a.m. on Tuesday if we’ve got toddlers, or 3 p.m when school lets out for older kids, but that’s not true. If you’re having family breakfast together, that’s great. It doesn’t have to be dinner to matter. If you’re laughing around the kitchen counter at night with popcorn, that counts as much as being there at 3:30. I had a number of women tell me that the process of logging their time relieved a lot of guilt. Usually, women bend over backwards to make sure they get time with their kids. Other things may suffer (time with friends, time with one’s spouse) but it’s often not the kids.

GF: As my three kids became teens their activities and social lives ate up our weekends. Early morning games in far-flung locations, activities in the City 40 miles away and midnight pick-ups from parties or school dances. At the same time our own parents are aging and ask more of us. Thoughts about how to make more time during the week (after all teens are in school all day) as we have less time on the weekend?

LV: This is a good point about having to rethink what is available as leisure time. Our weekends are pretty busy too with 3 kids having activities and birthday parties (the baby at least doesn’t have his own social life yet, phew!) If weekends will be full, you need to manage your energy during them. You won’t have long stretches of free time, but what would make them feel sustainable? Maybe it’s getting in a run before everyone’s up for the day. Maybe it’s a quick coffee with a friend on Sunday at noon before the soccer craziness starts. Look to see what might fit and plan for that. And then, yes, rethink the workweek to see where you might put restorative leisure pursuits in there. Maybe you and your partner each get one weeknight “off” to do fun stuff. Maybe you take an exercise class at lunch, or meet a friend for breakfast. All possibilities!

A shorter version of this article originally appeared on The Mid.

Laura Vanderkam

Laura Vanderkam is the author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast: And Two Other Short Guides to Achieving More at Work and at Home,

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think,

All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know About Wealth and a novel, The Cortlandt Boys.

She is a frequent contributor to Fast Company’s website and a member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors.Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Reader’s Digest, City Journal, Fortune, and Prevention. 

A 2001 graduate of Princeton, Vanderkam lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and four children. She blogs daily at LauraVanderkam.com.

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