Author Q&A: Laura Vanderkam on Time Management

Time management expert Laura Vanderkan is the author of I Know How She Does It.
Time management expert Laura Vanderkam is the author of I Know How She Does It.

When I was doing research for a Harvard Business Review article on time management, I came across Laura Vanderkam’s work on the topic. She has since become one of my favorite authors. We corresponded on twitter, and it turns out that our most recent books were published on the very same day, just a few months ago.

Her book, “I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time,” is really great, and makes the case that many successful people are able to find enough time for both their careers and their family/personal lives. I wanted to share some of the wisdom from her book with you. Here’s my Q&A with best-selling author, Laura Vanderkam.

1.     What inspired you to write “I Know How She Does It”?

I love what I do for a living, and I love raising my four little kids. I really do believe I have it all, and that whatever professional success I have experienced has not required harsh trade offs at home. I know from conversations with my blog readers, and from studying the schedules of women at the companies where I give workshops, that many of us have space for work, family, and fun.

Yet so much of the literature on women, work, and life is incredibly dire. I wanted to counter some of those lamentations with actual data on how professional women and their families spend their time. So I collected time diaries from 1001 days in the lives of women who earn six figures (that is, they have the “big jobs” much cultural commentary assumes women won’t pursue) and have kids at home. I wanted to see what the lives of other women who had it all really looked like.

Laura Vanderkam's book shows that, with good time management, you can have a great career and enough time for life.
Laura Vanderkam’s book shows that, with good time management, you can have a great career and enough time for life.

2.  Can you tell us a few things that surprised you when you analyzed the time diaries of the women in your sample?

The good news is that women with big jobs have far more balanced lives than most people think. They worked, on average, about 44 hours per week. That’s more than the average mother with a full time job (who works about 35-37 hours/week according to the American Time Use Survey), but it’s not around the clock either. Considering that the average mom with a full-time job earns less than $40,000 a year, there appear to be some pretty big returns to considering jobs that require a few extra hours on the margin. Women in my study also got enough sleep: 54 hours/week on average. That comes out to just a little under 8 hours a day. No one averaged less than 6 hours/day over the entire week. Indeed, only 3.7 percent of the days in my study featured fewer than 6 hours of sleep. Not only is it possible to have a big job, a family, and still get enough sleep, getting enough sleep is actually the norm!

3.  Can you share one or two important pieces of advice based on your book?

First, take charge of your time. I was particularly heartened to see how much flexibility women had in their lives. About three-quarters did something personal during work hours (of course, the flipside is true too — about three-quarters did work outside of work hours). In many cases that wasn’t because people had official flexible schedules — they just worked the way they wanted to work and figured that if the work got done the particulars were irrelevant. In life, it’s sometimes better to ask for forgiveness than permission. I’ve seen some evidence that men are more likely to work this way, and consequently don’t wind up sacrificing the pay, prestige, and promotion opportunities that those who ask for official part-time schedules often do.

Second, stop telling yourself stories that aren’t true. Everyone in my study kept track of her time for a week, and I think that experience was often enlightening. Many of us claim we have “no time” for leisure when the reality is that we have time, we just don’t have as much as we want. But that’s a very different matter! We may assume that “if I work full time I’ll never see my kids” but that’s not true either. One woman told me after tracking her time that “I used to have guilt. I don’t have guilt anymore.”

4.  We often read work that laments the overwhelming pace of life today. However, your book strikes me as very hopeful, in that you show evidence that people can achieve career success and a fulfilling family/personal life. What led you to this conclusion?

I also recommend Laura's earlier book, 168 Hours.
I also recommend Laura’s earlier book, 168 Hours.

A lot of the literature on the pace of life today is based on anecdotes, not data. Humans have a funny tendency to give more weight to stressful moments than happy ones, particularly if the stressful moments seem to support the overwhelming cultural narrative (“No one can have it all!”) In reality, when you look at the entire 168 hours of a week, you see space for all kinds of things. This is just math. With 168 hours in a week, even if you’re working 60, and sleeping 56 (8 per day, which many people claim not to do) this would leave 52 hours for other things. That’s a lot of time — and most people don’t work anywhere near 60 hours. Looking at the women in my study, they worked 44 hours, and slept 54, leaving 70 hours for other things. The time is there for what matters.

5. It is often stated that balance is achievable in the longer-term, and that it is okay to sometimes be out of balance in the short-term. Would your research back up this assertion?

I hear the phrase “you can have it all, just not at the same time” a lot, and it’s said as if it’s an obvious truth, but I don’t agree. There is space in the 168 hours in a week to be deeply committed to more than one thing. I believe you can be deeply committed to your career, to building your family, and to nurturing yourself as well. If you feel like some part of your life is not getting the space it deserves, focus on how you can solve that problem, rather than assuming this is just the way of the world.

6.  Your book focuses on women who have “big careers” and are raising kids. What implications do you think your book has for working dads?

All books need a target audience — you chose dads, and I chose moms! But there is nothing in my book that isn’t equally applicable to men who wish to achieve career success while being deeply involved in family life as well. I think men don’t internalize various narratives about needing to have a spotless home to the same degree women do, but male readers can just skip over those parts!

Thanks, Laura!

What you think of Laura’s perspective on time management? Have any stories to share? Let’s discuss in the comments.

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Laura Vanderkam is the best-selling author of I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, and 168 Hours. Her work has also appeared in Fast Company, Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and four children and blogs at www.LauraVanderkam.com. You can receive a free time makeover guide by subscribing to her monthly newsletter here.

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