By Phoebe Farag Mikhail

Read to the end to find out how to enter the giveaway for a copy of Laura Vanderkam’s book, I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time.

The opening scene of the movie adaptation captures it all: Kate Reddy (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) takes a store-bought pie out of its container and musses it up so that it looks homemade before taking it to her daughter’s school event. Allison Pearson’s novel, I Don’t Know How She Does It, chronicles Kate Reddy’s whirlwind and often humorous struggles to excel at her jet-setting career while balancing family life. This novel has fed into a common narrative for working women (in the West, at least) – that women simply can’t “have it all.” They must choose between work and family if they want to succeed at either one.  Laura Vanderkam’s book with the tongue in cheek title, I Know How She Does It, flips this narrative on its head by researching the lives of professional women with families. She discovers, through studying the time logs of over 140 women, all mothers and all working at jobs bringing in at least $100,000 per year, that many women actually do manage to make fulfilling careers and a full, connected family life work for them. 

Vanderkam’s positive viewpoint is absolutely refreshing in a conversation that is often filled with doom and gloom. She begins by setting us up for the reality:

…[N]o one gets a perfect life. Not people who stay home with their children, not those who are married or not married, not those who have kids or don’t have kids. I want to push back against this expectation of a stress-free life, because it keeps us from seeing the sweet moments that already exist.

Approaching the way we spend our time from this perspective allows us to see not just the days we report to work after sleepless nights with sick children, but the days we start with warm hugs and snuggles with our children in bed, continue on to productivity and accomplishment at work, and finish with leisure time that actually refreshes us rather than stresses us.

I Know How She Does It shares how to do the latter with examples from these women’s lives and their actual time logs of how they spent their time, in 30 minute increments, for two weeks. She gleans from these stories lessons and strategies that I have found useful, despite not working full time and making more than $100,000 per year. This isn’t a book for the many women who are not making $100,000, raising children and struggling with economic instability, shift work, inflexible employers, and other challenges. Vanderkam never claims to write it for this audience, although some of her advice does apply.

Many families in the US unfortunately do not have the resources or the support to make ends meet, let alone “have it all.” In 2014, a McDonald’s employee was arrested for allowing her 9 year old daughter to play in the park during her shift. The lack of affordable, quality child care is part of the problem, and the inability for many shift workers to predict their own schedules and arrange for child care is another. We do need to work together to make it easier for all of us to work and take good care of our families at the same time. MomsRising is one organization that focuses on the policy changes necessary for doing so, and I want to spend more time supporting their work towards making America more family friendly. The question of “how” brings me back to Vanderkam’s advice: “You don’t build the life you want by saving time. You build the life you want, and then time saves itself.” The life I want includes advocating for the rights of others, and Vanderkam’s strategy to “Use Bits of Time” helps me do some of that work. I scan my email purposefully to sign and share petitions that MomsRising prepares, and have even called Members of Congress in the car to voice my concerns while waiting for my kids to get inside and put on their seat belts.

The “using bits of time” strategy (which advises staying away from your email inbox on your phone) has allowed me to finish reading multiple books and articles. I use the Pocket app to save articles on the internet that I want to read and read them on my phone rather than scrolling through email or Facebook. Like Vanderkam, I also use the Kindle Reading app on my phone (when not using my Kindle Voyage ereader) to continue reading ebooks, especially if I have forgotten to bring a hard copy with me.

Vanderkam covers strategies for work as well as home life. A work related strategy that resonated with me is investing in people. The idea of investing extra time mentoring younger colleagues seems counter-intuitive in a book about saving time for what matters, but this is the kind of time investment that matters for the long term. “…[M]entoring is not a charitable act.” She writes. “None of us has fully arrived that we cannot be helped by other people … if you are going to choose a season of life to mentor people, it’s more effective to do this early in your career, because the people you mentor as you’re also fairly new in your career may wind up being the most helpful.”

Vanderkam has summarized some of her main ideas in a recent TED talk that can be accessed here, but I recommend reading her book for many inspiring examples and very useful strategies for balancing career and family life. Another book on this topic that I recommend, especially for people who work from home, is Time Management Mama, a short and useful book written by two entrepreneurial moms who founded the sites Brilliant Business Moms and Small Business Sarah.

“Having it all” does not mean doing it all. In Pearson’s novel, Kate Reddy struggled with “having it all” because she was working so hard to live up to too many external expectations she had internalized. This is a common struggle for many women, and Vanderkam advocates for “letting go of the script.” She profiles one women, for example, who rushed home from work so that she could make it to her daughters’ bedtime. She finally decided that she would “let go of the script” that she had to be home by bedtime (which her husband took care of) and instead focused her energy on spending the mornings with her daughters, having breakfast with them, and then having special afternoons with them on Fridays when she leaves early. For any man and woman to “have it all,” he and she must first decide what makes him or her content, and do those things. “Having it all” should mean having the life one is content with at the present time, without concern for others’ expectations.

While Vanderkam advocates for women to invest in their careers even while their children are young, her advice is not for everyone. Having it all, but not doing it all, could mean that during the season of raising young children (or teenagers), staying at home or staying in a less demanding job or more flexible job might be the best choice for a parent. Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker of the House in the US, did not start her successful and visible political career until the youngest of her five children went to college. Ann Marie Slaughter, the Princeton professor who kicked off the national conversation in 2013 with her article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” already had a successful (and flexible) career in academia when she went off to her “dream job” at the State Department. I would argue that taking that job was not about “having it all,” but doing too much at the same time.

Kate Reddy struggled with “having it all” because she was working so hard to live up to too many external expectations she had internalized. The most enlightening part of I Don’t Know How She Does It comes when Kate, at the height of feeling overwhelmed by her life, slips into an old Welsh cathedral for a few moments of quiet:

I love this place. The ancient chill that fills your lungs when you push open the door—the trapped breath of saints, I always think … I have seen grander cathedrals since, of course: Notre Dame, Seville, St. Paul’s. But the greatness of this church lies in its smallness, barely bigger than a barn, really…. St. David’s is one of the few places that bids me be still. And here in the nave I realize that, stillness is an unaccustomed, even an uncomfortable sensation. The cathedral is timeless and my life … my life is nothing but time. Rich has taken Emily and Ben to explore the gift shop. Left alone, I find my mouth forming words no one can hear: Help me.

This leads me to the best time management advice I have ever gotten – from my mom, who worked full time while raising five children. Her advice for balancing work and life is to take time every morning to pray the morning prayer, trusting that God will help us do everything we need to do for the day. My friend Nelly Mata, who works in a microbiology lab and has two children, echoes this advice: “take one day at a time.” Dr. Janette Basta, a pediatrician who runs a private practice with her husband and has two children as well, advises to “always remember that you are not alone. God is in your heart and closer than you ever think to help and guide you.”

What is the best advice you have read or received for making the most of your time? Share it in the comments below and then subscribe to my email newsletter to be entered into the giveaway for a copy of I Know How She Does It by Laura Vanderkam. The giveaway closes on July 19, 2017 at 11:59 pm EST. US addresses only.

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