Laura Vanderkam knows how we can have it all

Takeaway: Laura Vanderkam’s newest book, I Know How She Does It, is great. She studies the detailed time logs of 143 women, who all make six figures a year and have families. The insights she offers in the book are fantastic, and my favorites have to do with the productivity myths we buy into: that we don’t have enough hours in the day, we work crazy hours, it’s impossible to be fully “there” at work and at home, we don’t have time to recharge, and the stories men and women tell themselves about housework.

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes, 16s.

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For her new book I Know How She Does It, Laura Vanderkam conducted an experiment I find absolutely fascinating.

Laura collected the detailed time logs—how a person spends every hour of the day—of over 100 women who make six figures a year, and who also have families. The idea behind Laura’s project was simple: do a deep dive to discover what these women had in common that let them seemingly “have it all.” I find it intriguing that the experiment was incredibly selective: kids and family aside, only 4% of women in the United States make that much a year.

CoverIt’s not even funny how far outside the target demographic for this book I am. But to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I believe you will, too.

There are so many golden nuggets in this book that I had a hard time picking an angle for this article. Ultimately, I picked an idea I think will be applicable to everyone: the false narratives we buy into as we invest in our productivity.

By changing how we think about our time, it’s possible to change how we spend it. As the women in the study went about their weeks, without realizing it, they subscribed to faulty narratives about how they spent their time. These were only unearthed when the women looked back at their time logs. In my opinion, these stories don’t only apply to women who appear on the surface to “have it all.” They’re universal. Each week, as we invest in our productivity, we tend to tell ourselves stories around how we spend our time that simply aren’t true.

For this article, I’ve pulled my five favorite false narratives from I Know How She Does It.

The stories we tell ourselves

1. We don’t have enough time. According to Laura, one of the biggest myths we have about how we spend our time is that we don’t have enough of it. Most of the women she interviewed for I Know How She Does It fell into this trap. We often tell ourselves that we “work full-time so we never see our kids,” “we have too much work so we don’t have time to exercise,” and that we “don’t have time for ourselves.” As Laura told me recently, anyone who tracks their time for a week will find “it’s likely none of these statements are actually true.” If you work for 40 hours a week, and sleep a full eight hours a night, that still leaves you with 72 hours every week to spend meaningfully. Laura said, “Many of these stories were not true and life as a whole was more balanced than they were making it out to be.”

2. We work insane hours. This is my favorite myth Laura debunked. She discovered, “when we feel like we’re working a lot, we put a big number on it.” Plus, when you say you’re working 80 hours a week, it seems to other people that you’re twice as productive, and that the world needs you twice as much. Laura observed, “how many hours people work is something we just don’t think about.” So when the participants in Laura’s experiment paid attention to it, they found that the average number of hours they worked wasn’t 80, 70, or even 60 hours a week. The average of everyone in the study? 44 hours. Not one person worked more than 70 hours a week, and only six (of the 143) logs topped 60 hours. Other studies have found the same: we work fewer hours than we think, even though it may not always feel that way when we’re busy.

Family

3. We can’t be fully ‘there’ at work and at home. The women Laura studied were especially busy and in demand, but they were still present for both their work and home lives. The most common technique she found for how they made it all work was the “split shift.” This involved working two work shifts throughout the day—like from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and then another two or three hours in the evening. The participants who did so were able to leave work at a reasonable hour, be with their husband and kids until the evening, and after the kids went to bed continue to work instead of watching TV or doing housework (which has a marginal return after a certain point). It’s worth noting that the participants watched hardly any TV—they averaged 4.4 hours of it a week, less than the average American watches every day. Although, it’s naturally hard to determine whether they spent their time differently when they were tracking it. The split shift also helps with perceived productivity: when we answer emails in the evening, it may look like we’re working late into the night, when in fact we left work at a reasonable hour to spend time with our family.

4. When we’re busy, we don’t have much time to recharge. Curiously, Laura found that nearly everyone in her study got enough sleep. As she put it to me, “if you have a busy life, making sure you have enough energy to deal with it all is fundamental to making all the pieces fit.” In the study, she found that the women averaged 7.7 hours of sleep a night, and while there were bad nights, no one averaged less than six hours a night. Laura explained, “Sleep is simply a biological function, it is not a testament to how important you are.” The participants also had time for exercise: 91% of the women logged some form of physical activity, and averaged 3.3 hours of exercise per week. As she writes, “anyone can fit in thirty minutes here and there around the margins of their lives.”

Laura Vanderkam
Laura Vanderkam

5. Women and men see housework differently. I’m going to tread lightly with this one—I’m not a woman and I don’t have kids, a spouse, or a ton of housework to do, so Laura is more of an expert on this than me. But it’s worth mentioning because it is so interesting: women and men view housework differently. The main difference, said Laura, is that “professional women, no matter how much they are supporting their children financially, still often compare themselves to an idealized version of a stay-at-home mother.” According to Laura, “men generally don’t have the same narratives about housework than women do,” and no matter how successful a woman is, she curiously still compares herself to a stay-at-home mom. As Laura writes in the book, in families where the mom stays home and the dad brings in the bacon, women spend 25.5 hours per week on housework and men spend 7.6 hours. In situations that are flipped—where the mom works and the dad stays at home—the husband spends 17.9 hours on housework, while his wife still devotes a whopping 14.1 hours to it.

Laura has been an advocate for keeping a time log for many years. She even wrote a book on the topic: 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. The insights you’ll gain from keeping a time log can be immense—and it may even reveal the truth about some myths you believed. As Laura told me, “I’m a firm believer in examining the stories we tell ourselves—after all, we shouldn’t be making decisions with faulty evidence.”

Keeping a time log is a pain, and it is tedious in practice. But it’s worth the effort. As the women in the study quickly discovered, the time and attention you invest into maintaining a time log will pay for itself many times over.

  • Nick

    Do you have any advice on how to get started with even a simple time log? I’m curious at what information I could glean from it

    • Gianni Cara

      If you want a detailed time log, you can use Toggl. It requires you to input data, but it’s worth the effort. I also recommend Rescuetime, which works behind the scenes for you and gives you a good idea of where you are spending your time.

    • Srinath Narasimhan

      You could really use an Excel workbook, Nick. Works like a charm if you know the basics of excel. You will have to spend a ton of time categorizing and re-categorizing on Rescue time, atleast the free version.

  • Ann Abbitz

    As a former nurse, I can tell you the hours we worked in the ER were really insane! And add to the fact that you may have to go into work whenever needed, and NOT jut on your scheduled hours….but, you have to prioritize. I now do medical billing from home, due to injury and I can’t do physical work anymore, but the women NEED to realize that the kids will grow up….and quickly. I was very lucky in the fact that I was able to switch over to a doctors’ office and spend time with the kids when they were young. This is a good idea for anyone who says there aren’t enough hours in a day…..do a log for a month and see where all these hours go. Your eyes will be opened. (And this can go for the dads too!) :)

  • Trey Stevens

    Very interesting. And I do know of several women who do make 6 figures , but they are good about making time for family. I guess it just depends on what’s more important. And making a list like this would be an interesting thing to try out, but I would imagine starting it would be difficult, as I assume you have to take down the time for everything.

  • Christian

    I’ll play the devils’ advocate and say from my point of view…any housework I do, just gets redone. I honestly think they’re just slightly manic and OCD with this stuff. Same with my dad too….they’d thank us for “helping” out, but turn around and do it their way….so what are you gonna do? my mother even checked after the maid left when she came twice a week…..

  • Joanna Muench

    I agree with your primary point in this blog, that keeping a time diary and being aware of how you are spending your time can be useful. It’s something I have done a deeper dive into a few times in the last decade. Mostly to find that I place a high value on the areas where I’m spending my time (for instance cooking healthy meals), but it has also led to some changes (trying to combine exercise and commuting).

    As a well-compensated working mother myself, however, I question drawing too many conclusions from a study of high-income working women. Their positions offer them flexibility that most working parents simply don’t have.

    Ability to work flex-time. This is huge, and very uncommon in the United States. Far more common are demands to work fixed hours, possibly at an employers whim (just-in-time staffing). Even if you are lucky to work a standard 40-hour work week, trying to fit in exercise in a standard 8-5 pm job with a commute makes me questions Laura’s statement ‘anyone can fit in thirty minutes here and there around the margins of their lives.’

    Enough income to outsource childcare and housework. You don’t seem to be a strong proponent of housework, so I won’t go into this in depth, but when you aren’t living on your own there are some complicated issues surrounding how tidy and clean a house is.

    Flexibility in commuting. Depending on where you live, a commute can suck up 10 or more hours a day. But for most people, affording a house close to their job or changing jobs isn’t a possibility. Public transportation can be a plus or a minus for time here.

    In general your analyses of productivity techniques assume a great deal of time flexibility, and some pretty idealized situations. Have you considered testing techniques in situations more common to the majority of workers, who have fixed hours, commutes, not to mention time-constrained obligations to family, friends and community?

    • Mark Glenn

      Assuming you’re speaking of anyone living in the states…..where in the world does commuting to work take up to 10 hours a day? That doesn’t seem to be an ideal situation for anyone, whether high-income or not.

      • Joanna Muench

        Corrected to be 10 hours a week. I think the worst I’ve heard of in the states is 4 hours a day.

        • Alex

          In the Bay Area in California, lots of people commute to jobs in other cities.

          If traffic is especially bad, or if you hit rush hour, the commute one way can take 2-4 hours.

          My dad’s commute is about 16 hours a week. He goes to work early and leaves late to avoid rush hour.

  • Shay

    I’m still in college myself but this gave me a few interesting thoughts. I often oscillate between procrastination and hyper productivity and I fear this cycle has led to many terrible habits. For instance, the viewpoint that: “Some procrastinators fear that if they start working at their full capacity, they will turn into workaholics. Since we procrastinate compulsively, we assume that will also [work] compulsively.”–UNC. I have the feeling these working women who were time logged in the book aren’t procrastinators in the least bit. Meanwhile, I’m over here, still in college thinking that: “Oh. I can’t work THAT many hours, get enough sleep, have time for myself, separate work and life, and do household chores.” Well. This blog has certainly been enlightening about how non-compulsive and full one’s life can be with discipline.

  • Jason Smith

    Good post. Something to think about, whether you’re a man or a woman….we all do feel at times that there aren’t enough hours, but in reality, it’s probably just all due to stress of everyday life.. Definitely something I would be willing to try.

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