Skip to main content

Work-life Balance, with Laura Vanderkam

Work-life Balance, with Laura Vanderkam

Episode 4: Work-life Balance, with Laura Vanderkam

Laura Vanderkam spent quite some time studying time diaries of successful professional women and their families in an effort to understand how they balance it all. In her book, “I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Build Lives That Work” she shares her takeaways in a practical manner. She joins us at Ellevate to talk about creativity, writing, and how successful women manage their time to achieve balance.

Episode Transcript

00:13 Sallie Krawcheck: Hey, all. It's Sallie Krawcheck from Ellevate Network. I'm here again with Kristy Wallace. Hey, Kristie.

00:18 Kristy Wallace: Hello, everyone.

00:19 SK: How are you today, Kristy?

00:21 KW: I'm good. I'm trying to get my, "Hey, all," version of Sallie.

00:24 SK: Hey, all.


00:24 KW: Hey, all.


00:25 SK: Where did you grow up?

00:27 KW: In New Jersey.

00:28 SK: New Jersey, it is a...

00:28 KW: A very sexy New Jersey.

00:29 SK: No wonder, you don't have a very good y'all.

00:33 KW: I do not.

00:33 SK: I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and I went to school at University of North Carolina. Where did you go to school?

00:38 KW: Villanova.

00:39 SK: Really?

00:40 KW: Yes, I did.

00:40 SK: Their basketball team is very good this year, right?

00:42 KW: Yes, we are.

00:43 SK: Anyway, that has exactly nothing to do with our topic.

00:46 KW: Nothing.

00:46 SK: Okay. So today, we... I spoke to Laura Vanderkam, who is a time management, work-life balance expert. She's the author of "I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Build Lives That Work." So Kristie, you've got three children.

01:05 KW: I do.

01:06 SK: How old are they?

01:07 KW: One, three, and six.


01:10 SK: One, three, and six.

01:11 KW: So I don't know how I do it.


01:12 SK: They're adorable. They're absolutely adorable.

01:16 KW: I agree. I wholeheartedly agree.

01:19 SK: Talk about productivity. When do you get stuff done, and how do you manage it?

01:24 KW: Yeah. Well, I do get a lot done at night after they go to bed. That's a key time for me. But I'm a morning person. I think a big part of it is, what time you personally are most productive. We know when we've talked to our members, 53%...

01:41 SK: Hold on, so here comes... Dat, dat, dat, dat, dat, dat, the Ellevate Network, weekly poll of our members.

01:49 KW: So 53% of our members are most productive in the morning, between the hours of 7:00 and 10:00 AM, and then, it's really divided after that. And 10% are midday, 11:00 to 1:00. Another 10% are early morning, 4:00 to 7:00; that's probably the category you fall into, Sallie.

02:08 SK: Yeah.

02:10 KW: 8% late afternoon, 4:00 to 6:00, and it goes down from there. But I go with the majority. I'm a morning person, that 7:00 to 10:00 AM time works for me. Before the kids are up, I try to get as much accomplished as I can. It just makes me feel better about going about my day.

02:26 SK: That's good. It's good when you get stuff on the morning. So, I typically sleep pretty well. And about a year after I became involved with the network, so we call it two years ago, I had a bout of terrible insomnia. And I would wake up at 3:00 AM, 3:30 AM, and 4:00 AM, and you're just wide awake, you can't go back to sleep. So I've started to make a habit then of just getting up, grabbing a cup of coffee, and just beginning to write, and write, and write. And I found my ideas were better, my productivity was... About 3:00 in the afternoon, I was completely shot, till I found, for me on the productivity, it's crack of dawn. Do you know the other time? After my evening glass of wine.

03:07 KW: Oh, yes. Wine makes me much more creative.


03:11 SK: Well you know what I think it is, Kristy? I think it takes down the defenses.

03:14 KW: It does.

03:14 SK: Where you're not sort of editing everything, but you just sort of start going. So I don't think this is all what Laura meant for us to talk about, or really at all, what the interview is. But alright, so let's start over. Hear what Laura has to say.


03:48 SK: Alright, Laura. What are the highlights of Laura? Tell us a little bit about your career.

03:54 Laura Vanderkam: Well, I'm a journalist, and speaker, and author of several time management and productivity books. I live outside Philadelphia, and I have four little kids who keep me busy.

04:03 SK: What? Yes, four little kids?

04:05 LV: Four little kids.

04:06 SK: How old are those little kids?

04:08 LV: They are eight, six, four, and 10 months.

04:11 SK: No wonder we didn't have much trouble getting you to come to New York today.


04:15 LV: It's actually good with that, we used to live in New York and left. But when I can get a bunch of meetings lined up on the same day, that's really nice. And I come back in.

04:25 SK: That's great. Tell me about the writing bug. I find writing to be so extraordinarily difficult. How did you decide to be a writer?

04:32 LV: I have always loved writing. We have pictures and old stories that I wrote when I was a little girl. And so, that's basically just what I've always done. I freelanced for a bunch of publications in college just to make money, and more or less kept doing that, and started writing books. And time management has been a topic that I've been interested in, and then it's proved that people wanna read about it, so it's been good to keep going on that.

05:00 SK: I wanna tell you about in a second, one thing I'm really fascinated by is the concept of the creative process, and how you come across your ideas, how you tap into that creativity. Do you have a creative process?

05:11 LV: I've been doing it as my job for so long that it's hard to separate it from sort of just what I work. I tend to be fairly disciplined about writing in the morning. My work day generally starts around 8:00 AM, and I sit down at the desk, and try to tackle whatever is the thorniest writing issue for the day, if that's cranking out a draft of something or a chapter of heavy edited something. And then, preserve later time of the day for things like phone calls, and meetings, and lighter edits on stuff.

05:42 SK: And do you work for a certain amount of time, getting a certain amount done? And what is the discipline you impose on yourself in that creative process?

05:49 LV: It's just a work day. I usually work from roughly 8:00 to 5:00 with a few breaks in there. I work out of home office, so I break for lunch to have lunch with my kids in the middle of the day. But I find that if you wanna do it professionally, you really kinda have to treat it like a job, and I wish I was... Had a situation sometimes where I could be like, "I feel the [06:12] ____ strike me at 6:30 PM," but at 6:30 PM, I have four small children around me. It's not gonna happen so...


06:22 SK: So what's the toughest part about writing a book?

06:25 LV: I think figuring out what the topic is going to be and the right packaging for it, 'cause I know you're not supposed to judge a book on its cover or title, but everyone does. And that's how they decide what they wanna read, if it sounds interesting. A good title, a good packaging can make or sink a book. So, once you have the idea, I find the execution is relatively painless. It's a lot of work to do, especially if you're doing original research for it, which I've done for some of my books, and then all the interviews and writing. But if you know what you wanna say, I find it goes fairly quickly.

07:00 SK: So what are the top takeaways and the top tips, because I find time really gets away from me. So what am I doing wrong?

07:07 LV: Well, I recently wrote this book called "I Know How She Does It," that I looked at time diaries from a 1001 days in the lives of women who earn six figures and also who have kids at home. So people who we might think of as the busiest people out there. Big jobs, families. And I found that many of their lives were a lot more balanced than people would think they were. They worked long but reasonable hours and mostly got enough sleep, which I don't think is a coincidence. I think that if you want to have energy for a busy life, then you need to take care of yourself, so that was definitely something that came out of it. But I think probably, the biggest takeaway for me is that these successful women tended to look at the whole of 168 hours in a week. So any given day can be stressful, it can be weighted toward one side or the other of work or life. But when you look at the whole of a week, it tends to come out a lot better.

08:04 SK: And how did they find their way to this? Because this is not what the media tells us is going on, right?

08:10 LV: It is not.

08:10 SK: The media says we're hassled and we're harried and we're miserable and...

08:14 LV: Stressed and tired and whatever. There's a recent headline about...

08:17 SK: Everything bad, right?

08:18 LV: Yes, bad and horrible and terrible. And I think what's going on is that life is stressful and life is wonderful. These things are not existing in contradiction. It's just that time is vast and so both can simultaneously be true. And we have a tendency to try to create a story where only one is true. So these three stressful things happened to me, therefore, life is crazy and unsustainable. But if you can keep the whole picture in your head and see that yes, there can stressful moments and there can be wonderful moments, and we don't need to draw any sort of conclusion from either. Life doesn't have to be lived in epiphanies. And so, people who are really good about their time can see this, and they can see that there are good times around the stressful moments.

09:03 SK: And was this something they needed to negotiate? Negotiate with their work, negotiate with their spouse. How did they find this sense of balance?

09:11 LV: Life is an ongoing negotiation, so I think there were oftentimes, not official negotiations but just daily setting of boundaries and daily setting of what works for me and does not. And over time, if you continue to move closer to the life you want, then you will eventually reach a place where it mostly looks like the life you want. One thing I would say is, I was surprised how many women did not do formal negotiations with their employers. Either it was assumed that a person at their level was running their own show, so they would take whatever flexibility they needed as long as the work that they're held accountable for gets done. And other people just decided it was better in life to ask for forgiveness than permission. And they would work the way they wanted to work and see what would happen.

09:57 SK: Have you looked at this for men as well? Is there research out there that you're aware of, and how is that different between men and women?

10:03 LV: So I have not personally looked at men, but I'm aware of other research that is out there that many professional men naturally work in this way of asking forgiveness rather than permission.


10:14 LV: That the idea of negotiating for a flexible schedule or negotiating for reduced hours, inherent in this idea of negotiation is you're giving something up in order to get what you want. And what are you giving up? Is it pay? Is it prestige? Is it promotion opportunities? I don't know. But generally, men don't wanna give those things up. And so if they're saying, "Well, I'm gonna get the work done, I just want to do a little bit differently, so I'll just try doing it and see what happens. And then I don't have to give any of those things up." Whereas I think women have a tendency to want to play by the rules.

10:45 SK: I was gonna say we play by the rules, right?

10:46 LV: We play by the rules. We are good girls, we wanna go in and have an official, "It is okay to work like this and I will pay the price for whatever it is." But sometimes, you don't have to pay the price so maybe it's worth trying.

11:00 SK: I think I saw some recent research about that that show men had more flexibility than people think they do. And they just don't talk about it.

11:07 LV: They just don't talk about it. Now, from a social justice perspective, I really wish they would talk about it and I wish that people could talk about it, because what this relies on is people being bold and confident and deciding that they are empowered enough to work as they wish. And not all people feel that way, and I worry that too many women don't feel that way. So from a social justice perspective, I wish people would talk about it. However, from an individual perspective, any given woman looking at this might try not talking about it.

11:35 SK: How about looking at this from in the course of one's career. 'Cause I can certainly see at you're 40X years old, you're 50X years old, you're 60X years old, you've got that very solid base beneath you. What about if you're 25 or 30?

11:48 LV: Well, I do think that when you are building a career, you probably have to lean in a bit as it were, to use that phrase. And certainly, many of the women that I studied spoke of early in their year, earlier in their careers, they probably put in longer hours, and it was less of a priority to have a balanced life. And one of the reasons they had put in that time is that, so that they could have more balanced lives later on. But the thing that I think a lot of women don't think about is that if you do put in the time, and put in the effort to get yourself to these positions of authority, you often wind up with more flexibility, more autonomy, and the resources to make your life easier. So the big job is often the one that allows you the balanced life, in a way that a job that might seemingly be more family-friendly on the surface does not.

12:37 SK: I actually agree with that, and I found that. What do you say to somebody who's listening to this, and says, "Whatever. I just don't have enough time."


12:46 SK: That sounds super but really.

12:49 LV: "But I don't have enough time." Well, my favorite phrase when people say, "I don't have enough time," is that it often means it's not really a priority. And that maybe true. If so, let's own that truth. Whatever it is that you're saying you don't have time for, it may not be a priority in your life right now, and that maybe absolutely okay, and we should be alright with our choices, and I am in support of that. However, if it is not true, that is not a priority, then maybe it's time to re-examine where the time goes, what you're doing with it, if you are allocating it in a way that fits with your values. And with that, I would tell people, "Don't just look at the day. There aren't enough hours in a day to get to everything you want to get to. But we don't live our life in 24-hour days." Generally, we live our life more in the cycle of weeks. I mean, Tuesday and Saturday, both occur just as often, and have the same number of hours, but people look very different on those two days.

13:46 LV: So think of life in terms of weeks, and then you don't wind up in these same traps. One you often get is like, "Well, I know my team would like me to take them out to happy hour, but I'm a working parent. I have to get home to my kids. I'd feel so guilty if I took them out to drinks." Well, they probably don't want you to take them out every single night, right? No one wants to hang out with their colleagues every single night. If you look at the whole week, you take your team out once a week. You're the kind of parent who's home six nights a week. You're the kind of manager who's also investing in your relationships at work, too. It's a win-win as opposed to this 24-hour trap where they're pitted against each other.

14:23 SK: So if I'm listening, what do I do? Do I start tracking my week now? What do I do?

14:29 LV: I believe that tracking your time is an excellent idea. So if somebody would like to do that, if they're listening to this, I would hardly support that. You can use any of a million time tracking apps or I always just use a spreadsheet because I find it very basic and easy. But just write down what you're doing as often as you remember, much detail as you think will be helpful for you. Try to keep going for an entire week, an entire 168 hours, because often, we have a reasonable sense of where work days go. Weekends are a little bit more nebulous. And I'm not saying that you need to use every single minute in some Protestant work ethic-approved activity, but I think it's helpful to know where the time really goes because then, you can make different choices if you want or at least you can stop telling yourself stories that aren't true. And I think a lot of people have these stories about time like, "If I work full time, I'll never see my children." It has the word full in it. Clearly, there must be no other time available. And yet, when you look at it, you work 40 hours a week. You sleep eight hours a night. That would leave 72 hours for other things. So probably, you're seeing your family at some point in there.

15:35 SK: So is the real problem here that we just glorify busy, is this an American cultural issue?

15:42 LV: I do think we glorify busy. There was a fascinating article in Nature recently, that they quoted somebody who had written about the Parisian intellectuals in the 1850s, walking a Turtle on a leash through an arcade, because they wanted to show how much leisure time they had. That was the status symbol, right? Of course now, we're like, "I'm busy." It's a way of saying, "I'm important." Right? That the world is demanding so much of me, like the world cannot keep spinning in its orbit without me, whereas it probably can. So yes, I think busy is a way that we just talk to each other and say, "Life is good. Life is busy."


Continue learning with this Ellevate Playbook: