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Have it All By Focusing on What Matters Most

17 April 2018

Barbara read I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time and learned Laura Vanderkam’s research shows some women are having it all by making good choices and shifting their perspectives.

Tags: balance, barbara read, time management and prioritization, women and leadership

According to Vanderkam, having it all means having a good paying, interesting job; enough time with your family; sufficient sleep, exercise, and personal time. She hypothesized that more women might be achieving this than we realize so decided to study week-long time logs, divided into 30-minute increments, of 143 women who made a $100,000 or more and had at least one child living at home under the age of 18. A few had four young children. Some had a partner, others were single mothers.

Vanderkam says our societal theme song is that you can’t have it all, but she argues you can have more than you think is possible if you have high energy, great organizational skills, a willingness to be flexible, the ability to focus whenever you have a free five minutes, and the determination to concentrate on the positive happenings in your life. I’ll confess that I read this list and found myself rolling my eyes and a bit overwhelmed by the requirements, but I still think it may be useful to consider her recommendations.

Vanderkam says both men and women think they work more hours than they actually do because that is what is culturally acceptable right now. When asked, “How are you?” most people used to say, “Fine.” Now they say, “Busy.” It is the only acceptable, prestigious answer. It sends the message that I am significant and don’t ask me to do anything else. Her research shows that in most cases it is a lie, particularly if people are claiming 80-hour workweeks. People like to tell stories about how hard they work and how little sleep they get, thinking this makes them seem important, but she says no one wins in the “Misery Olympics.”

The women she studied often thought they worked longer hours than they actually did because they remembered the roughest 24 hour periods—the unexpected need to stay late at work, the days when the nanny got sick, the times their partner was late to take his/her shift—and they’d generalize that that is how life was, but when they started keeping detailed logs, they noticed that often four days out of seven went well or if one week was hectic, the next one was less so. (One of our team members, Janie Kast, blogged about the insights she gained from her own timing-tracking experiment.)

Vanderkam gave a great example to help people shift their perspective: “The human brain is structured for loss aversion, and so negative moments stand out more starkly than positive moments, particularly if they fit a popular thesis. We lament the softball game missed due to a late flight, and start down the road of soul searching and the need to limit hours at work or perhaps resign, but we don’t rend our garments over the softball game missed because another kid had a swim meet at the exact same time. No one ever draws the conclusion from that hard-choice moment that you need to get rid of the other kid.”

Based on this, her recommendation is to not think about each 24 hours as a standalone day, but rather to view the whole week as a mosaic of 168 hours on which you can move pieces around and not make broad generalizations about the quality of your life based on your worse days.

In addition to suggesting shifts in perspective, she also had some tactical advice for women on how to get more personal and family time:

  • If you think that the norm is that everyone has to stay late at work to prove they are dedicated and not slacking, try an experiment. Leave at a reasonable time a couple of days and see if anything bad happens. Then start leaving at that time regularly but stay late every now and then so that people aren’t sure when you are or aren’t there.
  • Whatever needs to be done doesn’t have to be done every day of the week to count. Four times a week of reading to your children at bedtime, exercising a few days a week, and getting a full 8 hours of sleep some nights are great accomplishments in a full week. We tend to concentrate on what we didn’t do rather than take credit for what we did.
  • If you use daycare, and it is 40 minutes away in heavy traffic, try hard to find a closer one.
  • Get a nanny, au pair, sitter, and back up sitters so you have a plan for when one of them gets sick or has reached the maximum number of hours they can work in day. Ask any of them to fold laundry during naptime and run errands if they have just one child to take care of.
  • Hire house cleaners and don’t clean the house before they come.
  • Don’t make your kids lunches. If they are old enough, you can teach them to make their own or buy at school. If you want them to feel your love every day, put a note in their backpacks.

While I like almost all the recommedations in the book, I don’t know if I would have had the stamina to pull off the juggling act she recommends when I had young children. However, I did feel accomplished and proud that I started graduate school when they were 2 and 5 and got up at 4:00 am to study. I finished my master’s degree when they were 8 and 10, and began part time college teaching. I went back to work fulltime when they were 16 and 18, and stayed at that job for 22 years. When I look back on those years, I feel I had it all as she described, just not all at one time.

Since I didn’t work fulltime when my children were young, I am glad to be able to recommend this book to my clients who have to balance more than I did during those years.


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