On the surface, if I were the type to judge a book by its cover (Me? No way!), Laura Vanderkam’s book “I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time” seems like it may skew towards tips and tricks for maximizing productivity at work to reach our career goals faster. Sure, Vanderkam shares some insights and suggestions around this topic; but similar to her other book which I devoured as an audiobook in 2.5 subway rides, “What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast,” it’s really about living a fuller life (whatever that means for each of us), while challenging the popular and headline-worthy narrative of a working mother’s frazzled, unsatisfying, overworked, and under-slept life.
While Vanderkam certainly does not claim tough days don’t exist (she shares her own humourous anecdotes, including one featuring a fun family day trip turned upside down due to a throwing up child, a dessert-stealing seagull, and a four-hour traffic jam with 3 young children!), she does assert that a “conscious decision to hunt for the positive can help combat the common tendency to focus on dark moments, the sort that lead us to stormy conclusions about whether life with a big career and a family is doable. Sometimes things look bleak, but life is not all black-and-white.”
When recalling that day trip now, she applies her own advice and focuses on the delightful moments – including the sunshine/beach combination and some fun family conversation– instead of the disastrous ones. “Happiness is a choice,” she writes. In other words, she’s big on gratitude and lives a happy life as a result (though not void of its own challenges like the rest of us, I’m sure).
The conclusions Vanderkam draws and insights she shares are not based on her opinion, of course. She was disappointed in the research out there already on time use. Mostly, this research is gathered by phone surveys which Vanderkam feels is less than ideal for two main reasons: 1) people are unskilled at estimating the time they spend on certain tasks; and 2) people will naturally overestimate the time they work and underestimate the time they sleep or spend on leisure activities, due to the “Busy Olympics” type of culture we live in, where Busy = Important. I tend to agree with this over/underestimating phenomenon, and I try to be mindful of avoiding it myself. Personally, I am happy to shout from the rooftops when I’ve had a great sleep!
So, she gathered data herself – half-hour by half-hour time logs from mothers with “big careers” and has used that information to share tips and advice to live “the good life” with these ideas touching upon work, relationships, family, and, self-care. (Maybe it was the lens through which I was reading it, maybe not – but it did feel extra heavy on the self-care part, which is probably why I found it so compelling and valuable!)
I shared some tips that I could immediately relate to in a blog post on LinkedIn last week; but I have found so much value in her content, and I’m excited to share more.
So here goes…5 more pieces of wisdom for anyone, like me, who chooses to subscribe to the idea that while life is harried sometimes, it can also be blissful – sometimes in the same half-hour. And, even with careers and family, we can find ways to add even more joy to our lives.
IDEA #1: “The best way to find time for leisure is simply to claim it – to let the dishes sit in the sink while you read the paper on the porch, to take time for that art project or photo book despite whatever might be lurking in your inbox.”
Of course, she’s not suggesting that the dishes pile up forever; but if the sun is shining and the kids are playing outside in the backyard, why shouldn’t I be out there too, enjoying their laughter, and reading a novel? Or it could be the perfect time to duck out for a bike ride, run, walk, or manicure, while my husband is home, and give him the opportunity to have time to himself when I return. If I don’t claim that time, I have no one to blame but myself.
Of course, this isn’t always possible and I realize everyone’s situation is different – certainly mine was a few years ago when I was nursing, diapering, and truly craving sleep. There are many single parents out there, and parents with children with special needs or serious illnesses, and people caring for elderly parents. But I suspect those who make time for themselves have grown very comfortable with asking for help – with little or no guilt – because they realize how important self-care is to their overall health and well-being. And when they are good to themselves, they then have energy to take care of others.
IDEA #2: “Think through your leisure time. People are generally good about setting work goals, but we’re not as good about personal ones. Planning a few fun events [for an upcoming weekend] gives you something to look forward to.”
I love this one! Vanderkam talks about the idea of a “List of 100 Dreams,” for which she credits Caroline Ceniza-Levine. I haven’t started such a lofty list yet, but I do have a Spring/Summer Family Fun List in progress (to be shared in a future blog). With resources like toronto4kids.com, it’s not hard to find great things to do in and around the city. I especially like free or cheap outings, including some of our city’s great parks and scenery, and family bike rides.
As Vanderkam so accurately states: “Time passes whether we choose what to do with it or not. Creating memories is often about creating opportunities for memories, and sitting on the couch in front of the TV creates fewer opportunities than using the same time for a “beach and marshmallow roast,” as one woman wrote on her log.” For me, it’s not about scheduling every hour of the weekend; it’s about taking advantage of our great city and surrounding areas, and the abundance of activities and destinations nearby, and planning out good times, with a healthy dose of down time too. Sure, there will be tantrums and traffic jams along the way, but it’s my choice if those become my focus instead of the giggles and adventures. And I’m all for sprinkling in a few lazy Netflix afternoons, especially if the week has been extra packed.
IDEA #3: Vanderkam suggests structuring to-do lists with three side-by-side categories: 1) Work/career; 2) Family/relationships; and 3) Self. “Such a set-up reminds you that there should be at least something on all three sublists.”
I can see myself making this type of list on Sunday nights, featuring specific work initiatives (i.e. finishing an analysis and presentation), fitness goals (realistic ones!), plans with my husband, friends, and family, and, of course, goals related to my blogging. So simple but likely so effective.
IDEA #4: “You should match your most important work to your most productive hours.”
This one sounds simple, but for some reason, for me it’s not. Often I feel super productive at work in the morning, and sometimes I get a burst of energy at 4:00 p.m. I do know that blogging ideas flow really well at night for me – but I’m also trying to go to sleep at a decent hour so I can be up early and exercise some mornings. A paradox indeed! And, as hard as it is to admit, I can be a bit of a procrastinator, especially if I’m tackling something at work that I’m not 100% comfortable with. Side note: I’m working on this challenge. Next on the reading list: Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. In any case, I think Vanderkam is absolutely right; and I’m probably like the majority of people who are most fruitful in the morning, so I’m going to do more of what I did the other day at work (which was very effective!) and lock myself in a small meeting room and force myself to focus on my most important task!
IDEA #5: “The human brain easily wanders and it wanders more to worries than to happy musings on what a blessed life you have. Such ruminations steal happiness. If a child wants to snuggle with you, it is madness to ponder the laundry that needs to be done and all the work necessary to get everyone out the door. You can think of that later. Nothing need exist but those little pyjama-clad arms wrapped around your neck.”
She’s right. That is madness. And I’ve probably exhibited such madness in the past, but I will certainly do my best to stay sane in the future!
So there you have it…a fuller life is waiting!
And by the way, if I did judge this book by its cover, my hypothesis was immediately debunked on the first page anyway, when Vanderkam reminds us that “the berry season is short.”A dead giveaway that this would be a book about life, not just work.