This Author Argues Women Can Have It All

Photographed by Claire Pepper.
Author Laura Vanderkam heard all the horror stories about working moms. They made her wonder: Did the front-page articles about women quitting jobs as lawyers because they never saw their kids really represent most women’s experiences? Were the young women opting out of certain fields because they didn’t think they’d have time for families making the right decisions? Vanderkam, the author of What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, wanted to see how women who had demanding jobs and families really spent their time. For her new book, I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, Vanderkam asked hundreds of women who could be defined as “having it all” (working mothers with jobs that paid more than $100,000 a year) to fill out a time log for one week of their lives. These logs detail how working mothers fill up all 168 hours of the week, from time spent working, driving, sleeping, and doing household chores, to watching TV and hanging out with their kids. According to Vanderkam, most studies about time usage ask people to recall and estimate how they spent their time, a method which leads to pretty inaccurate results (people often inflate the number of hours they spend at work, and underreport the hours they sleep or do leisure activities). Vanderkam’s method, you fill out the time log as your day goes, provides a more accurate picture, and the results she found are surprising. The book analyzes 1,001 hours total, giving specific anecdotes to show how many women are finding ways to have it all. We spoke with Vanderkam this week to ask about the results of her time-log project and what they mean for young women who want to be successful in all areas of their lives.
Courtesy of Portfolio.
What was your motivation to write the book, and who did you write it for?
"I wrote this book to counter the cultural narrative that any woman who wants to combine a demanding career with a family is going to be a harried wreck. Many women do just fine with the juggle. There are stressful moments, to be sure, but there are also wonderful moments, and I think those deserve to be talked about as well. I focused on mothers who earned more than $100,000 to get at the idea of “big jobs” — the sorts that people seem to think are incompatible with a rich family life (at least for women). There are plenty of useful tips in here for people with families, and people whose jobs require long hours, but I also think that anyone who wants to go all in on both the professional and personal fronts in life — whatever you’re making, and whether you have kids or not — will find strategies for how to make it all fit." Do you think the phrase “Having it All” is damaging to women? Why has it come to be so controversial?
"I know that phrase has a lot of baggage, though I don’t mind it personally. I think I have it all! I have a career I love and a family I love, too. I have enough time for my personal pursuits and enough time to sleep. Now if you wanted to add in 30 hours of TV a week, a spotless house, an organic farm in the backyard that produced all our produce, the ability to coach six sports teams, etc., I might not have it all. It’s all about the definition. I confine the definition to what is most important to me."
Is the secret to success really time management?
"It’s part of it. We live our life in hours, so what we do with our lives will be a function of how we spend our hours. There are other things involved too (a nice dollop of luck is good) but being mindful about time is certainly helpful, especially if you want to succeed at work and at home." You write about people who say that they work longer hours than they really do, and who focus on those hours more than the time they spend, say baking a birthday cake. Why do you think as a society we focus so much on this “busy-ness”?
"I think that saying 'I’m busy' is a socially acceptable way to say 'I am important.' Whether on the work or home front, it shows that we’re in demand. Saying you get enough sleep is admitting that the world goes on without you. What fun is that?" Do you think that a woman who wants to spend time with her family and have free time could do that with any job? Or should women consider certain fields?
"I wouldn’t write off any field from the beginning. There are pockets of flexibility in most industries. Some companies are better than others and some managers are better than others, and with some good detective work, you can probably find that out. Maybe a year-long mission to Mars wouldn’t allow for a good work/life balance, but most regular jobs do, particularly if you’re careful about how you structure your time. If you work 60 hours a week and sleep eight hours a night, that would still leave 52 hours for other things. That’s not a small quantity of time."
What’s the first thing you recommend a woman do to start managing her time when her schedule feels completely out of her control?
"If you want to spend your time better, you need to know how you’re spending it now. The best way to figure that out is to keep a time log. You can use a spreadsheet (that’s what I do) or a pen and a pretty little notebook, or a time-tracking app (there are hundreds of options). Write down what you’re doing as often as you remember, and in as much detail as you think will be helpful. I encourage people to keep going for a week, because we live our lives in weeks, so that gives the most holistic picture. Once you’ve kept track of your time, tally up different categories (work, sleep, family time, TV, housework, etc.) Ask what you like most about your schedule — hopefully something! That’s worth celebrating. Ask what you’d like to do more of with your time. Fitting in those important, meaningful things first will naturally make the other stuff take less time. Recent studies show that millennials are changing office environments by being more results-focused and believing less in “face-time” and busy work at the office. Do you think those kinds of changes are going to help with work/life balance as offices become more and more run by this generation?
I do. Already, lots of people have flexibility. About three-quarters of the women in my study did something personal during traditional work hours. Lots of work can be moved around on dimensions of time and place. Not all work to be sure (medical procedures come to mind). But a lot of work. As millennials expect flexibility as the opening bid, not a perk to be earned, that will change the way people work even more. And I think that’s a good thing. I have near complete work/life integration, and it’s what makes my life possible. I go to a preschool event at 1 p.m., and I work at night after the kids go to bed. Anything else about the book or the data you collected that you want young women in particular to know or pay attention to?
Keep the horror stories in perspective. The women in my study worked 44 hours per week on average, and slept 54 hours a week (that’s almost eight hours a day!) There are 168 hours in a week. So if you do the math, 44 hours of work and 54 hours of sleep leaves 70 hours for other things. That’s a lot of time. You can have a full personal life. It may require some creativity with timing — and that’s why I share so many strategies in this book — but it can be done. Don’t think that you have to choose.

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