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How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time

How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several books about time management, including 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You ThinkWhat The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast and the recently released, I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time.

In her recent Jam Session, she talked about some of the myths that surround working women and time management and 10 strategies for making the most of the time you have.

Vanderkam said that if you’re a woman who works, especially if you have children, you’ll probably be busy your entire career. She notes, though, that a full life is a doable life. It’s completely possible to build an amazing career and a fulfilling family life and still have time to sleep.

Rethinking The Narratives About Women, Work And Life

One of the biggest changes women, as whole, need to make, is to rethink the narratives surrounding women and time management. We all like to recite time management horror stories, and to anyone who will listen. (Stuck an airport during a snowstorm while the husband is abroad and the babysitter won’t stay much longer…)

These narratives make working and being a parent seem unsustainable. It turns into the usual story: women can’t have it all, success at work requires harsh trade offs, etc.

But what if that’s not the whole story? Vanderkam felt that the narrative of the working woman time crunch had serious flaws to it.

The Mosaic Project

When Vanderkam went into companies to give talks about time management, she had women keep track of their time for a week. There are 168 hours in a week, and when she looked at their 168 hours, she noticed that even though they were busy, their lives didn’t look that bad. Sure, some traveled, but there were weekends skiing with the kids, family game night, coffee dates with husbands, etc.

She was seeing something different than what was being reported, but she didn’t have numbers to back it up. That’s when she realized that so much of the literature about women and time management is based entirely on anecdotes.

Vanderkam put together what she called The Mosaic Project. She had 1,001 women who earned over $100,000 a year and had children track their time for a week.

Time diaries are more accurate than asking people how they spend their time. Most people don’t really know how much time they devote to things, and they tend to be wrong in systematic ways. We underestimate sleep and overestimate work. People who claim to work more than 75 hours a week were overestimating by about 25 hours. We also tend to overestimate how much time we spend on housework.

Findings From The Mosaic Project:

Women who earn six figures work long, but reasonable hours, usually about 44 on average. Women with demanding jobs and kids still find time to sleep, usually about 54 hours a week which comes out to seven hours and 43 minutes a day. They also found creative strategies to preserve family time and personal time, despite their workloads.

10 Time Management Strategies

1. Keep A Time Log

A time log is like a food diary for time -- it keeps you accountable. Write down what you’re doing as often as you remember and bill your time to different projects, both work and personal.

Try to keep going for one week, since weekends are often a free for all. Remember: there are 60 hours between Friday evening and Sunday evening, and that’s a lot of time to do things. Break time down into categories: work, sleep, personal care, children, spouse/partner, travel. TV

Review your schedule and note what do you like the most about your schedule. Hopefully you like something. Celebrate things that are working. Most women were pleasantly surprised when they reviewed their time logs, especially when they realized they were working reasonable hours and sleeping enough.

Think about what do you want to do more of. Things that are fun, meaningful, etc. And consider what do you want off your plate?

Remember the empty spreadsheet. Time in a blank slate. “I don’t have time” often means “It’s not a priority.” Time is a choice. We are smart women and we have the power to fill our lives with the things that deserve to be there.

2. Move Work Around

• Work “split shifts”. This means leaving office at 5:00 p.m., spending evening with family and doing work after kids go to sleep. If you don’t have kids, this works also for things like hobbies, exercise, etc. It preserves open space for a personal life.

• Work remotely sometimes: Very few people worked from home in Vanderkam's study. Vanderkam says that yes, you do need to see your colleagues, but five days a week may be overkill. Sometimes starting your day working from home, and coming in later, after rush hour, is a great use of time, since avoiding rush hour saves commuting time.

Studies show that men tend to work when and how they want. They don’t ask for permission or tell anyone. They just do it and don’t talk about it. If you’re going to quit anyway because the work/life time crunch seems to be too much, you might as well try to work the way you want to work and see how it goes. You might be pleasantly surprised.

• Think in 168 hours, not 24: It’s a trap to think we need to do the same things every day. Rushing home to make bedtime is a common pressure women put on themselves, because they think a “good” mother doesn’t miss it. Try working late two or three days a week in order to a get a few shorter ones.

• Rethink weekends: Most women in The Mosaic Project worked on weekends. Older children may not need you around all the time. Saturday morning and Sunday night are quite a bit of time to get things done.

• Beware the part time trap: Vanderkam found that in her study, part time workers were working more than 35 hours a week. It’s not helping you if are working full time hours and just getting paid less. Get flexibility in a full time role and try not to take a pay cut.

3. Look Forward

Try creating a list of 100 dreams and write next year’s performance review now. If we know where we’re going then it’s easier to get there. What do you want to have accomplished by the end of the year? Pick three to five things.

The 100 dreams is an unedited list of anything you want to have more of in life, both professional and personal. It can be abstract, bucket list type things as well as small dreams, like vacations and outings.

4. Be Strategically Seen

This means investing time in relationships at work. Sometimes, even when we work hard and our teams are productive, it may seem like people just don’t like you. And it may be that they just don’t know you.

Business is never just business Working parents can still go to happy hours. Give yourself a budget of three events a month, which is only 10% of your evenings. That 10% can go a long way. People will trust you more when you spend time with them.

Also, invest in relationships during the day. We take breaks all the time at work. Instead of falling down unproductive, internet rabbit holes, make a real break for lunch with a colleague or get a coffee together.

Get more out of business travel. Fill it with social activities, extra meetings, and meet with  people individually. When you’re at conferences, make sure you connect with people there. Conferences are not about the panels, they are about the people.

5. Build In Space

There’s no point in being productive to ends that don’t matter. You can run around all day long and not get anywhere. Don’t fear open space. And don’t think you have to fill it.

Open time leaves space for opportunities. If a new client wants to talk, you can give that person your full attention without worrying about being double-booked.

6.  Be There At Home

Home life deserves the same mindfulness as your working life. There is a huge space between planning nothing and planning every waking minute. Even just thinking about it on your way home is a lot more constructive than coming home and flopping onto the couch.

Maybe you want to go for a family walk? Try a new recipe with your partner? Get books from the library? You don’t want to sleepwalk through personal life. When we get home we are tired. We think we want to do nothing. But you can never do “nothing”. You’ll end up doing something you would choose not to do if you were being more mindful.

When we are in do nothing mode we tend to fill our time with leisure activities that are not particularly restorative. Like surfing the web or watching bad TV. Favorite shows are perfectly okay, especially if you watch them with a child or partner and you bond over them. You don’t want to spend a whole evening watching TV you didn’t mean to watch.

7. Let It Go

Housework, errands, packing lunches. There are stories we tell ourselves about what a good wife, mom, home manager does . Some of these stories are true. Remember, though, that we can make life harder or we can make life easier. If you are making life harder because of a deeply held value, great. If you cook from scratch every night because it is important to you personally, then do it. If you are doing it because you assume it’s what a “good” mother does, rethink it.

Also: cleaning after the kids go to sleep. Why do the toys have to be picked up? They’re just coming out again in the morning, and you will never get that time back. That is time you could use to relax. You could read or hang out with your partner. There is no 11:00 p.m. home inspection where someone is going to come around and give you points if the toys are picked up. If you deeply believe that that is the only way you can go to sleep, then do it, but if you’ve absorbed this story that a house must be picked up at the end of the day, let it go.

The women in the study who had the most time in their lives for personal time often let kids wear whatever they wanted to school, pack their own lunches or bring money for school lunch.

8. Get As Much Help As You Need

There is a myth out there that using child care is a bad thing. Because of this, parents want to get away with as little of it as possible. You are better off getting the help you need and being more relaxed at work and by extension, at home.

There is another myth that women who work full time never see their kids. That’s simply not true. Working mothers spend a lot of time with their kids. Sometimes it’s in the morning, sometimes it's on the weekends, but when you plot it out in a time log,  it’s likely more than you realize.

9. Nurture Yourself

In The Mosaic Project, the women slept about eight hours a day. Also, people exercised about 3.3. hours a week. Self care such as sleep and exercise is what enables women to have their busy lives. It gives you the energy to be focused and productive.

The truth, also, sets us free. Have we ever actually hurt someone by our decision to exercise or get adequate sleep? Often the answer is “no.”

10. Look At The Whole Mosaic

There will be good moments and bad moments. The rhetoric of women, time and work is often that so many stressful things happen in succession that there’s no way you can have it all and we should just quit.

There can be stressful days in the middle of a very good life. See them in context. If you have a bad night of sleep, vow to do better the next day. If you had a long day at work and missed something in your personal life, try to do better the next day. If you look at the big picture, you will see a lot more joy in your life.

Community Discussion
Rebecca Hall, CFP, APMA, ChFC, CASL
Rebecca Hall, CFP, APMA, ChFC, CASL

Great article - it helps put things in perspective. I did split shifts when my kids were younger, minimizing my time in the office to only being there for in person meetings, I did most of my work at home after they went to bed. It helped me maximize the time I spent with them. I still do some of it now with High School age kids so I never miss a sporting event, music concert or ceremony.

Wednesday, Aug 30 9:26 AM EDT