I Know How She Does It

Laura Vanderkam Also available in audiobook: Download our app for free listening.

As you probably know by now, mastering work-life balance is not merely tricky – it is almost impossible. And, according to quite a few surveys, that sentence seems true even to men, most of whom don’t even bother with the children or the groceries (unfortunately, that’s still somewhat true even today).

And what should women say to that? How should a working mom of three balance between her career in advertising, the nagging of her superiors, and the ballet lessons for her daughter – and still find enough time to buy clothes for her husband and prepare lunch for everybody?

We don’t blame you if you have been looking for a manual of this type on the science fiction shelf for the past few years. It’s time for a change: in “I Know How She Does It,” Laura Vanderkam says that there are such things as successful working moms – and that she knows how they make the most of their time.

So, get ready to discover how to build a satisfying life that works without veering off your chosen career path, and prepare to become “an efficient-yet-balanced” supermom!

Interruptions aren’t breaks

Here’s one of the most interesting statistics you’ll ever read. According to the American Time Use Survey, in 2013, the average working mother worked 35 hours a week – give or take a few hours depending on whether she earns over or below $100,000 a year.

Doesn’t sound that much? That’s because it isn’t. It amounts to no more than 8 hours per day – which is basically how long the workday is ever since 19th-century Welsh socialist Robert Owen formulated the slogan “Eight hours’ labor, Eight hours’ recreation, Eight hours’ rest” back in 1817.

So, if stats confirm that you’re working 8 hours a day, provided that you also sleep as much, what’s stopping you from recreating and being with your family during the 8 hours in-between? We know that you can list quite a few answers to that question, but believe it or not, it all boils down to a single one: interruptions. Because of them – those minor, unimportant, trivial disruptions – the 8 hours you spend working actually last about 14!

Just think about it this way: if you check your Facebook profile just five times a day, and you spend no more than 10-15 minutes each time, you’ve already lost an hour doing… Well, nothing. And what about your mail? What about the phone calls? Or, to look at the big picture, what about that time the kindergarten was closed or your cousins came to town?

The worst thing is that interruptions are not breaks; they merely tire you more because they are not planned, and because they constantly leave you behind schedule. Fortunately, there is a way out.

The power of split shifts

So, whether you want to admit it or not, you have plenty of time available for everything. The problem is you’re not managing it well or, better yet, you’re not flexible enough to use it to the max!

“Averaged over the entire American population,” writes Vanderkam, “people watch almost as much television as they work. If people don’t exercise, it’s because they don’t want to exercise. Time becomes the scapegoat.” The good news? “Time is elastic. It stretches to accommodate what we need or want to do with it.”

Or, to translate that in more actionable terms via one of Vanderkam main points: “you don’t build the life you want by saving time. You build the life you want, and then time saves itself. Recognizing that is what makes success possible.

Still too theoretical? Here’s how it works in practice. Say that you prefer to eat your lunch with your kids and your husband, but you’re always at work between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. What do you do? Well, since eating something at night does not technically qualify as lunch, you do the only thing you can: you toy around with your work hours. Or, to use one of the most magical phrases heard lately: you split your shift.

Yes, you can do that. You can work while your kids are in kindergarten and also while they’re sleeping, be it in the morning or night. You can arrange with your superiors to go to work before noon and after lunch. In the latter case, you don’t even have to go to work: just ask your boss if you can work the second shift from home.

Your boss will probably say yes because it’s the 21st century and many people do that. And, contrary to popular opinion, working from home isn’t bad, but the best decision you will probably make this year: a study by IBM and BYO discovered that people who work from home experience work-life difficulties only if they work more than 57 hours a week!

So, make your goal to pinpoint the periods of the day during which most of the interruptions happen in your life . Once you’ve figured those out,, just tell your boss that it’s better for both of you if you don’t work during that period. It’s that easy. Remember: bosses want the more efficient versions of people, so yours will agree to anything proposed if you can prove that it helps the company as well. 

Make the most of your time

Playing around with your schedule shouldn’t end with splitting your shift. Vanderkam has many more tips and tricks that can help you hack your workday and make the most of your time. Here are just a few.

No. 1. Start your day with the toughest task

“If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog,” wrote Mark Twain more than a century ago, “you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.” Vanderkam offers an even better reason to start your day with the toughest task. Namely, according to a study by Johnson & Johnson, your energy levels peak around 8 a.m. It’d be stupid to waste them on drinking coffee and gossiping, wouldn’t it?

No. 2. Manage your meetings

There’s a good chance that you don't need to be in many of the meetings you’ll probably go to during any given week. So, start each week by crossing out all of the meetings where your presence is not required; as for the rest – try to shorten them by 10 or 15 minutes. Think of it this way: if you have four 60-minute meetings between the next Monday and Friday, and you shorten each of them by just a quarter of an hour, by the weekend you will have saved yourself a precious hour of your time!

No. 3. Make commitments with your free time

How many times have you worked overtime – because you realized you had a few minutes to spare – and the best idea was to do some of tomorrow’s work? Well, news flash: no matter how much work you do today, there will always be a lot left for tomorrow as well! 

So, why don’t you consciously prevent yourself from spending your free time working? Just make commitments with your free time! Sign up for Spanish or ukulele lessons, or simply make arrangements with your family or friends! A nice restaurant, the movies, a concert – your pick. That way, you won’t even be able to work overtime – and that’s the best thing a mom can force herself into not doing!

No. 4. Plan your week ahead

There’s a reason why people don’t like Mondays: they are not only the start of the workweek, but they are also the slow start of the workweek! A survey done by Accountemps in 2013 discovered that Mondays are less productive by staggering 75% than Tuesdays – which are, by the way, the most productive days of the week!

Now, why is that? For many reasons, of course. The main one, however, might not be the most obvious: you don’t have a plan for the week on Monday, and you just go with the flow.

To change that, make one on Friday, during the last ten minutes of the previous week. Studies have shown that these ten minutes can significantly boost your productivity. And, we don’t need to tell you that being more productive means being less stressful once the workday is over.

No. 5. Find your drive

We started this list with a quote by Mark Twain, let’s end with another one: “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

If you don’t have the drive and the motivation to go to work, no matter what you do, you’ll feel unfulfilled after you leave the office. So, don’t allow yourself to lose another minute in your life doing something you don’t want to.

Find a job you’ll like, and life will suddenly start looking much better than before. You’ll notice it first thing in the morning: as unlikely as it might sound at the moment, you’ll start waking up with an irresistible urge to go to work.

Being mindful of family time

Look back on the past year of your life. Which are the things you remember most fondly? We suppose they are not the meetings and the deadlines and the overtime hours. It’s most probably the few moments you spent with your husband and your kids. Then why not spend more of your time with them – and less at work?

“Fortunately,” writes Vanderkam, “being mindful of family time – making a commitment to be there physically and mentally and enjoy life while doing so – makes memories possible. We control a lot less about our children’s outcomes in life than we think. They are their own people. But one thing parents do shape is whether kids remember their childhoods as happy. Creating a happy home is a conscious choice, as is creating a happy marriage.”

There’s a big difference between being around your family and spending time with your family. Only the latter one counts. So, make it count. Instead of watching TV together with your kids, take them to the playground in summer or to the library – yes, the library – in winter. Buy a few board games and have fun with your whole family. Share at least one meal a day with them – they are, after all, the people you love the most.

We know that it’s difficult to make that meal your lunch – especially if you’re not willing to split your shift. Dinner is also not easily manageable: apparently, only 17% of American families dine together regularly. So, why don’t you go for something untraditional like family breakfast? 

Finally, that husband of yours. Believe it or not, most of the working moms Vanderkam surveyed while writing her book didn’t miss their kids as much as they missed their husbands; or, to be more precise, they missed the adult-time spent with them. 

So why don’t you change that? Why don’t you take your husband on a date once again? Your kids are probably going to bed early, and watching TV is not exactly the most romantic way to spend your free time with your husband. Just plan it better beforehand. And you’ll do it.

Final Notes

“I’m a longtime fan of Laura Vanderkam’s insightful work,” writes Gretchen Rubin in a review of this book, because even though “her recommendations for getting the most out of every day are often counterintuitive [they are] always realistic and manageable.”

“Thanks to her findings,” she adds, “I’ll never look at my weekly calendar the same way again.” And if you are a working mom, there’s a good chance that you’ll say the very same after reading this book as well.

Insightful, empowering, and eternally helpful, “I Know How She Does It” is one of the best books on the subject of work-life balance for women – both in terms of the underlying research and regarding the quality and practical value of the provided advice.

12min Tip

Instead of constantly struggling to save some time and then deciding what to do with it, first decide what you want to do and then commit to doing those things. The time will magically present itself and become available.

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