Here’s my question for you today: how much do you know, really know, about how you spend your time?
Do you know how much time you spend each day on social media?
On chatting with loved ones?
On the inevitable transitions between activities we rarely account for in our calendars but that take up real time each day?
Today, I’m so excited to share with you some highlights from my recent conversation with Laura Vanderkam. She is the author of a new book, I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time.
Over the years, I’ve read countless front page articles about women opting out of their careers because, in a nutshell, they find they just can’t combine work and family. That’s the typical media story, but I know very well from the data that it’s not the story most women are living. Most women are combining both and want to keep doing so.
Journalist and time management expert, Laura Vanderkam, collected some fascinating data for this new book. She had over 100 women – all mothers who are raising children while working in big jobs – closely track how they spent their time for a week – half hour increment by half hour increment. Her research yielded some surprising and important findings that tell a story contrary to the typical gloom and doom, “moms are opting out” narrative.
Check out my recent conversation with Laura below, including her own time management tips. And be sure to check out the super helpful worksheets linked at the end, and do your own time diary experiment!
Tara: Laura, tell us what motivated you to write this book.
Laura: Much like you, I was seeing so many stories in the popular culture about the whole “I don’t know how she does it” image of mothers with big careers. In that story, as a working mom you’re either distressing the pies to make them look homemade for the bake sale, or you’re missing soccer games because of that late flight – what I tend to call this recitation of dark moments.
The conclusion is that life is crazy. When I looked at my own life and looked at those of many of my friends and people I know, I said, “There are crazy moments to be sure, but they are not all crazy.”
Because I write about time management, I’ve looked at the lives of women with big jobs and families, and their lives didn’t look that crazy either. I said, “That is not something I am seeing in the conversation.”
When the lion’s share of the conversation points one way, it scares women into thinking that if they do wish to pursue their professional ambitions and they have a desire for a family as well, they will just be one harried mess for the next 18 years. I don’t think that’s the case.
Tara: I love that you actually collected data here. Tell us about the research that you did for this book.
Laura: I had women keep track of their time in time logs, writing down what they were doing: when they worked, when they slept, when they did housework, when they exercised, read – all these things. I looked at 1,001 days in the lives of women who have big jobs and also had kids at home.
I knew that if I had data, if I showed that most women with big jobs were not working excessive work weeks, if I showed that most women with big jobs and families were getting an adequate amount of sleep and had time for leisure, I thought that that would add a lot to the conversation.
Tara: And you really did discover that! What were some of your surprising findings?
Laura: We assume that people who have big jobs must work around the clock. We also assume that women with big jobs and families are chronically sleep-deprived. I found that wasn’t the case. On average, women in my study worked a little bit north of 40 hours a week, but it wasn’t that much north of 40 hours a week. They slept 54 hours per week on average, which is the equivalent of about 7 hours and 43 minutes per day. They are not working around the clock, and they are sleeping enough to have a good life.
Tara: What did you find about leisure and their opportunity, whether in spending time with friends or pursuing creative hobbies?
Laura: Certainly some women had more than others. I found a rather strong correlation between having younger kids and having less leisure, which makes sense if you think about it. The time that you’d be able to read or exercise is consumed with some of the physical care of your young children. Having kids under the age of two definitely corresponded with having less leisure time.
Tara: You have four kids, including one that’s just a few months old. You are living this! What do you notice makes life manageable for you, and what do you notice brings the most chaos and stress for you?
Laura: I certainly try to look at my weeks ahead of time, and I try to anticipate where there will be trouble spots. Often, this is just about trying to create enough margin in my life that when things take longer than they should, when things are not going as I imagine they would, I can still move forward on other priorities.
I try to not pack things too tightly. I was reading to my son’s second grade class today to celebrate his eighth birthday. I made sure that time was enough before our talk that I wouldn’t be rushed. If I’m rushed, then something is going to wind up happening that’s stressful, and I don’t like that. I don’t like having those stressful moments in my life.
Partly that’s about figuring what should be in my life and what should not be in my life. If you say yes to everything, then it’s not going to work. Then you can’t leave space in your life. If you do leave space in your life, you can often find that a lot still fits.
Tara: That’s pretty fascinating because it seems like a really simple thing: leave buffer. But if you think about it, what’s a simpler way to create a feeling of spaciousness with your time than actually having that?
Your own time diary is in the book. You have a very busy schedule, but I can imagine how if each of those appointments in the day has a lot of buffer in, then that changes the feeling of how you’re moving through it.
Walk us through what that looks like when you’re taking time to look at your week in advance and look for trouble spots. Do you have a set time you do that or a set way that you do that? How do you approach that?
Laura: I tend to do my planning for the next week on Thursday and Friday. Friday I plan the next week. Thursday I try to make sure that the weekend is planned for whatever needs to get accomplished on the weekend. I want to usually have a good sense of that by Thursday, so I can do anything I need to on Friday to prepare for that.
By planning this ahead of time, then I can have a more relaxed, expansive view of what time is available. Once you’re in time, it’s hard to spend it well because you have stuff coming at you. It’s hard to make decisions necessarily right in the moment that are focused on your long-term goals.
By looking on Friday at what I hope to do in the next week – I’m looking at my calendar, I see what’s already in there – and then I say, “What else would I like to accomplish in my career? What would I like to build in, in terms of family priorities? What would I like to accomplish, in terms of my own personal priorities?” If I want to run three times next week, I need to write that in. When is that going to happen? If I want to visit the library because I have some new books I’d like to get, that needs to go in there, too.
By having that space to think about it, I can think about it. It’s highly unlikely to occur to me to go to the library if I suddenly have 45 minutes free on Tuesday afternoon. It just won’t occur to me. Whereas, if I know it’s a priority for the week, it will occur to me during that open space, or I will have already blocked it in for some other bit of time.
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Want to become more conscious about how you are spending your time? Download Laura’s handy time diary worksheets HERE.
And you can order her new book HERE!