The stressed-out, hair-pulling, kitchen-disaster, screaming-children, sleep-deprived but otherwise successful professional working mom has ventured into trope territory. If you’ve seen the “I Don’t Know How She Does It” film or read the Allison Pearson novel, you know.
But Laura Vanderkam, author of the new time-management book for women, “I Know How She Does It” (see what she did there?) says that depiction is fiction and that she has the data to prove it. She also has advice for other professional women on how they can make the most of their time — and still have a good life.
For her book, subtitled “How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time,” Vanderkam surveyed 143 women who earned more than $100,000 a year and had at least one child under age 18 living at home and asked them to fill out a week-long log of how they spent their time, in 30-minute intervals. Then she calculated how much time the women worked, slept, spent on leisure time and exercised. (You can get a template to keep your own time-management log at LauraVanderkam.com.)
While these women did put in more hours on the job than working mothers on average, they didn’t work all the time. And they got plenty of sleep and more exercise than most Americans.
Here’s my conversation with Vanderkam, 36, who has four kids, is married to a management consultant and works from home near Philadelphia, Pa. — generally around 50 hours a week:
Next Avenue: A few years ago, The Atlantic’s cover story by Anne-Marie Slaughter called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” stirred up a lot of discussion. Do you think women can have it all?
Vanderkam: I absolutely think they can have it all if you define that by focusing on the basics: having a career, enjoying a happy family and making time for pursuits. Plenty of women and men have it all.
But is it possible to do all that and watch 30 hours of TV a week and clean your house from top to bottom and coach sports teams and have an organic farm providing all your produce needs? Probably not.
You talk in the book about becoming a “mosaic maker” and say that “having a full life is possible if you place the tiles right.” What do you mean and how can women do that?
When I started having people keep track of time, I gave them spreadsheets with half-hour by half-hour blocks for a week. The first time I did this myself it did seem funny to me to shoehorn my life into cells on a grid. But when I switched my mind-set, I found that it looks like a mosaic. I could set the tiles of what I wanted in my life to create an image of what I wanted out of my life.
The interesting thing from what I found in my study is that the women tended to move around their tiles of work and life in interesting ways. Many don’t confine work to their “work hours” and life to their “life hours.” There’s a lot of overlap: about three-quarters of the people did work outside their normal work hours and personal stuff during what appeared to be their core work time. They would read to their preschooler’s class during the day and make up the time at night.
But you don’t believe in using every minute of the day, right?
I don’t. I have a few priorities for work and for my personal time, but not a minute-by-minute schedule. The reason to be mindful of your schedule is it helps you have more fun. If you don’t, it’s easy to let the hours disappear to meaningless leisure time, puttering around the house or watching TV you didn’t mean to watch. The better thing to do is to say to yourself: ‘Where is my leisure time and what do I want to do it with it?’ This can be the difference between getting together with friends and not.
What did the time-block surveys show you?
That often, these women’s workweeks are more manageable than you might imagine and they got more sleep than the impression people give of their lives. Life is not as harried as it’s often portrayed. I was gratified to see that turned out to be the case.
In fact, you write that “high-earning women have more balanced lives than the popular narrative conveys.”
We assume that if women have a big job, they never see their families or if they do, they never sleep or if they sleep, they must do nothing else. That’s the image from the “I Don’t Know How She Does It” book and movie. That life is a harried death march. And that’s not the case.
We like to tell stories of our stressful moments because they’re darkly entertaining, but the reality is they’re not often the case.
But these women truly are putting in a lot of hours at work.