Podcast | How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time

Laura Vanderkam

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Advancing in your career has tradeoffs: more work and responsibility mean less time and energy for you and your family. But are all your personal sacrifices truly necessary? Probably not, says Laura Vanderkam, author of I Know How She Does It and 168 Hours. In this 30 minute teleclass, Vanderkam will share: how successful women make the most of their time; the underlying strategies that can help you to be more productive; and an overall game plan for giving yourself more time in the day so you can love your career—and personal life, too.


LAURA VANDERKAM is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast and 168 Hours. Her work has appeared in publications including Fast Company, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and four children, and blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.


Buy I Know How She Does It by Laura Vanderkam on BookPeople.com:
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CFW: Welcome to the “Conference for Women Teleclass:  How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time.” Our guest today is Laura Vanderkam, the author of several time management and productivity books including “I Know How She Does It,” “What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast,” and “168 Hours.” In today’s teleclass, Laura will tackle the topic of having it all.

Conventional wisdom says that any woman who wants to advance in a challenging career has to make sacrifices. With such a wide spectrum of priorities and workloads, it is impossible to define life balance for all. What if there was a recipe for giving you more time in your day? Laura will share seven time management strategies that make the difference between just hanging on and possibly feeling like you are having it all. Laura Vanderkam, welcome to the Conference for Women Teleclass.

Laura: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to begin talking about this topic.

CFW: Great.

Laura:  I want to go right ahead and get started on these strategies for feeling like we have enough time for the things we want to do. I think when we get into language like, “Having it all,” and, “Life balance,” and all these are very loaded terms. They can mean different things for different people. I think all of us can agree that we want enough time for the things that are important to us. That’s what I’m going to talk about today.

We mentioned time management strategies. I really hope that these will help people get more out of their time in whatever stage of life they happen to be in. I’m taking these strategies from studying people’s time logs. I recently wrote a book called “I Know How She Does It,” that was based on time logs from 1,001 days in the lives of professional women who also happen to have children at home.

Obviously there’s many ways that one can have a full, personal life but this is certainly one of them. I looked at how they made their schedules work, where everything happened. I interviewed most of these people. These strategies come from them. The first strategy that I want to talk about today is to be mindful of your time. We all have ideas about where the time goes. These ideas may not be based in reality.

It’s important to know is that really where the time goes, or is it not? That’s just an impression I have. The mind is a funny thing. It can play tricks on us. We start to see certain things as typical which may not be typical. We stay late at work twice in the week saying, “I’m always staying late.” Are you? I mean there’s seven days in the week and five you weren’t, two you were. Let’s keep this in perspective.

I had everyone who works with me keep a time log for a week. If you’ve never done this, I highly recommend you do it. You can just use a spreadsheet. You can use a time tracking app. You can use a little notebook to write down what you’re doing. Try to keep going for a week keeping track of where the time really goes. At the end, you can look back and add the major categories up.

How much time do I work? How much time do I sleep? How much time do I spend in the car or washing dishes or hanging out with friends or playing with my kids or exercising or whatever else it is you happen to do in your life? Then, ask yourself a couple of questions about this. First, what do I like most about my schedule? Second, what do I want to have more of with my time?

Third, what do I want to get off my plate? We want to figure out where the time really goes. Then, our second strategy is the look forward. We often spend a lot of time thinking about what we don’t want to do. That has its own pleasures to figure out what we want to get off our plate. I think it’s actually more effective to figure out what we want to do more of with our time. This funny thing happens when we put the stuff in.

Other stuff sort of naturally takes less space. We’re going to make really good lists of what we want to spend more time doing in our lives. Maybe it’s that you want more time for a hobby. Maybe there are things at work you want to spend more time doing. Most people probably don’t want to spend more time at work, but there may be things within the category of work that they want to spend more time on, perhaps, mentoring younger colleagues, meeting more time directly with people who report to you.

It could be networking. It could be reading for work, whatever it is that you want to spend more time doing. Of course, there’s lots of things that we want to do with family and friends. Maybe it’s that we want to start a book club. Maybe it’s that you want to travel to Italy with your spouse, or maybe it’s something very small. You want to spend more time reading on your porch on weekends especially if the weather is getting nicer. These are all things we might want to spend more time doing.

Make a really good, long list of these things. Then, start choosing a few that you think would be good to execute on in the next few months, maybe in the next year or so. You could think about giving yourself a performance review at the end of the year. We’re close to the beginning of 2017 now. The end of the year, think about what you would have liked to have done professionally, at that point.

Those could be some good, professional goals for spending more time on in the next year. You could do this for your personal life too. Think toward the end of the year. If you’re looking back on the year, what would you like to say you have done? Maybe this is the year the Italy trip happens. Even if not, you could say, “I read several books on my porch this summer.” That could be a major highlight of the year if you committed to doing it. Think about the things that we want to spend more time doing. That’s the second strategy.

The third strategy I call putting first things first. I’m borrowing this phrase from one of my favorite productivity books which is “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” by the late Stephen Covey. If you’ve never read it, you really should. It’s got a lot of great advice in it. He talks about people spend all sorts of time on things that are urgent but not important. It is very easy to spend time on things that are right in front of our faces but not those long-term things.

We really need to be thinking about putting in the important stuff first even if it doesn’t have to be done immediately. We want to put first things first. I really do believe that time is a choice. One of the best examples I saw of how time can stretch to accommodate what we choose or need to put into, it came from one of the time logs from “I Know How She Does It.” It was a woman who had a very busy life.

She comes home from a Wednesday night. She’s been out for something and finds that her water heater has broken, and there’s now water all over her basement. Anyone who’s ever had this happen knows that it’s a pretty big mess, lots of water everywhere. Her time log shows her dealing with this problem over the next couple of days. It winds up taking seven hours of her week which if you think about it, it’s kind of like finding an extra hour in the day.

I’m sure if you would have asked her at the start of the week, “Do you have seven hours to read this great book you’ve been wanting to read for age or seven hours to spend more time with people who want you to mentor them at work,” I’m sure she would have said what all of us would have said which is that, “No. I cannot find seven hours to do any of these things. I’m incredibly busy.” Yet when she had to find seven hours because there’s water all over her basement, she finds seven hours to deal with it.

The key to time management is treating our priorities as the equivalent of that broken water heater. We choose to put them in first things first. To get at this mindset that time is a choice, I really like to use some language from one of the busiest people I ever interviewed, a very busy, small business owner who also had a big family too. When I asked how she, “Had it all,” using that phrase, what she put it to me was that every minute she spent was her choice.

Rather than saying, “I don’t have time to do X, Y or Z,” she’d say, “I don’t do X, Y or Z because it’s not a priority.” “I don’t have time,” really means it’s not a priority. If you think about it, that’s accurate language. There’s all kinds of things that we could, in theory, have time to do. It’s just we choose not to sometimes for very good reasons. I mean I could tell you I don’t have time to dust my blinds, but that’s really not true.

If somebody offered to pay me $100,000, I would dust my blinds. I can assure you, I would dust my blinds. That is not going to happen, so we can really acknowledge that it’s not about lacking time to do it. It’s that I don’t want to do it. Sometimes, this language trips us up a little bit. There’s all sorts of things we tell people that we don’t have time to do like, “I don’t have time to read your resume, sweetie, because your career is not a priority to me.”

I don’t think we really want to say that. If it’s true, you kind of need to acknowledge that and say, “Is that true?” “Is that what I want to show, or am I just using this as an excuse?” Using this language puts us back in control of our time. The outcomes may not always be pleasant. There may definitely be consequences. Probably, you should choose to show up at work tomorrow because the consequences are profound for not doing so.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is a choice. Certainly, over the long-run, we do have the power to fill our lives with the things that deserve to be there. That’s sort of the grand notion of this. A practical way to put first things first, I find that we live our lives in weeks. We tend to think of lives in days, but we live them in weeks. A really effective way to put first things first is to think through your weeks before you are in them. A good time to do this is Friday afternoon.

Most of us are not doing much of consequence on Friday afternoon. We are kind of drifting into the weekend. Rather than sitting there checking email again, floating over to social media, you could plan the next week. Make a little list for yourself, a three-category, priority list, career, relationship, self for the next week. Make your top priorities in each, two to three priorities in each. Look out over the next week and see where you can plan them in. That’s how we put first things first.

The fourth strategy is to move time around. The women I studied who had busy, professional lives also had families at home, were masters of what I call work life integration. Some people believe that work should be work, home should be home, never the two should meet. If you think that way, that’s fine. That has its benefits as well. I find that for many people, work life integration means that they can work the long hours that are necessary to advance their career while still enjoying a full, personal life as well.

They keep any hour open for either category and by doing so give themselves more of both instead of sticking to harsh dividing lines between the two. Of the women I studied in the 1,001 days I mentioned, about 3/4 did something personal during their work hours, during their diary week. The flipside of that is also true, about 3/4 did something work-related during what one might think of as personal hours so either evenings, weekends, early mornings. This is really how they made their lives work.

There were a couple of strategies I saw. The first is working what I call a split shift. Instead of staying at work until all the work was done which may never happen in any case, they would leave work at a reasonable hour if they had some control over their time. Leave work at a reasonable hour. Go home, spend the evening with family, do more work at night after the kids went to bed. You can do this even if you don’t have kids.

If you have other things you want to do in your personal life in the evening whether it’s volunteering, hanging out with friends, just relaxing, exercising, whatever it is doing a little bit more work later on. That way, people are trading off what might be TV watching time for work time as opposed to work time for family time. That’s a trade-off a lot more people were willing to make. People don’t do this every night. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s a horrible, dreadful thing.

Usually, it was only like two or three nights a week. By doing that, people were able to work longer hours and see their families too. They also thought in terms of 168 hours, not 24. If you take nothing else from this webinar today, I really hope you’ll remember this teleclass. Think 168 hours, not 24. There are 168 hours in a week, 24 hours in a day.

We think of our lives in days, but there is never going to be enough time in any given day for absolutely everything you want to get to. If you look at the whole of the week, there probably is. Just some numbers for you, if you’re working 40 hours a week and sleeping eight hours a night so it’s 56 hours a week, that leaves 72 hours for other things. That’s quite a bit of time. If you work 50 hours, that leaves 62 hours for other things.

If you work 60 hours, that leaves 52 hours for other things. Even if you’re working way more than full-time hours, you still have quite a bit of time for your personal life. It’s not going to happen on any given day. There’s obviously going to be some very long workdays if you’re working long hours. On other days, it will be there. For particular women who need to work long hours occasionally say, “I’m working late. I’m never seeing my family,” again, “You’re working late two nights. The other nights, you’re home.”

We could just look at the two nights or we could look at the whole week and say, “I’m actually home more often than I’m not.” If you travel for work, again, we can be upset about like, “I’m gone two days this week.” Then if you’re home the other days, maybe you can choose to make the most of that time and keep those two days for traveling in context. Think 168 hours, not 24. Then the last strategy for moving time around within that category of moving time around is to use your mornings.

If there’s something you really want to do in life and you cannot find a good spot for it, I would recommend looking at your early morning hours. This is time you can have to yourself before everyone else wants a piece of you. We sometimes might have more willpower in the morning. People go back and forth on that, the research on that. To me, it’s just a matter of practicality. If you think about something like diets, they’re broken with the spoon going straight into the Haagen Dazs at 7:00 AM.

It’s really something we do more of at 10:00 PM. I think we do have a little bit more willpower, focus, discipline in the morning. That makes it a great time for those things that are important but not urgent, things like nurturing your career, your relationships, yourself. It’s a great time for exercise. Family dinner is out because of your crazy work schedule. Family breakfast might be a good substitute. You want to write a novel, write in the morning.

If you wait until the end of the day to see what time is leftover for writing that great, American novel, I can tell you there will not be time leftover. If you want to do it, do it first. If it has to happen, it has to happen first. Pay yourself first, and you will make progress for whatever it is that you want to do. That’s strategy four, move time around. Strategy five is to build in space. This is just practical. I mean everything takes longer than we think it will.

Building in space means we’re not late and rushing. No one likes to be late and rushing. If you have ten half-hour meetings backed up, back-to-back and one runs over which one inevitably will, you’ll see the rest of them fall like dominoes through the rest of the day. Whereas if you have an open half an hour somewhere, at least after that you can get back on track. Open space also lets us seize opportunity.

If somebody who reports to you wants to come have a conversation about her career, the great idea she has, you really don’t want to be like, “Well I’ve got an eight-minute window at 4:12 PM. Can you come back and talk to me then?” You probably want to have these conversations. It lets you seize opportunities. You can build on space by doing two things. One is when you are looking at your calendar on Friday and planning in those important things for the next week. Just do a quick triage of what’s already there.

You can say, “What do I really not want to do? Let me see if I absolutely have to do it.” It’s possible you don’t. If you’re going to cancel it, it’s better to do it ahead of time. You could also minimize things you can’t kill. Make a meeting take 20 minutes instead of 30. If you’re meeting with someone twice during the week, see if you can meet once. You can delegate things. Ask for help from people or see how you can nurture other people’s talents.

That’s a great way to be considered leadership potential is to show that you can nurture other people’s talents. You could ignore and minimize and outsource at home as well. I think women, in particular, have funny feelings about outsourcing at home either because we’re worried about spending money on buying ourselves time, but our time is worth money. That seems like a pretty good, straight-forward transaction to me.

We also have these narratives of needing to do it all ourselves. I think this is really misguided. Even if you’re not going to pay for help or ask for help, you can always try lowering your standards which can free up an incredible amount of time. I really believe that. Lower your standards, free up time. The sixth strategy I saw people use is to take care of themselves.

Shockingly enough, most of the women I studied, the professional women I studied are getting enough sleep. Believe it or not, the average woman I studied when I looked at professional women with children was sleeping just a little bit under eight hours a day. Not everyone but the vast majority were sleeping a reasonable amount. The average is a little bit under eight hours a day. About 90 percent were exercising.

The average for them was over three hours a week. I don’t think this is a coincidence because building a career, raising family, meaningful things but they take a lot of energy. Most of us get energy by taking care of ourselves, by getting enough sleep, by exercising. Figure out how you can build self-care into your routine. You’ll find a funny thing. They don’t take time, self-care activities. They actually make time.

Build in breaks into your workday. Build in breaks into your week as a whole, through weekends. You’ll find you have a lot more energy for the important things in your life. Finally, the last strategy, the seventh strategy is to use little bits of time for bits of joy. We all wind up with these small bits of time in life that are hard to use well. I know what most of use with these little bits of time. We pull out the phone. We start deleting emails.

Then, we’re looking over at social media, looking at pictures of people on Facebook that we didn’t like in high school anyway. That’s one way to spend your time, but there are other ways to spend time in life even little bits of time. One quick hack here to tell people I recently put the Kindle app on my phone. I realized how often I was pulling out my phone and that if I opened the Kindle app instead of looking at social media, I started making it through books that I had put off for a long time.

Maybe that says a lot about me and my phone habit, but you might find the same thing. You can use five minutes for meditating rather than checking email. One of these things is going to make you be a lot more calm. Get a few more steps in, a quick trip outside. Get a little breather in your day. Anyways, just think of these small things you can do with little bits of time. Choose something other than checking email. I promise you that you will have a lot more joy and meaning in your life.

Just to quickly recap those seven strategies, first we’re going to be mindful of our time. Figure out where the time really goes, see what we like and what we don’t like. Strategy two is to look forward. We want to think about what we want to spend more time doing and how those can fit in our lives. The third strategy is to put first things first. We’re going to plan our weeks before we’re in them realizing that time is a choice and saying, “I don’t have time,” really means it’s not a priority.

We’re going to move time around embracing work life integration to make life work for us. We are going to build in space, ignoring, minimizing and outsourcing things that are not the best use of our time. We are going to take care of ourselves making sure that we do enough that adds to our energy levels, so we have enough energy for the important things in our life. Finally, we’re going to use bits of time for bits of joy. Even these small spaces of time can be moving us toward the lives we want.

CFW: Laura, thank you. That was wonderful. We have several questions. First, I want to remind our listeners that today’s teleclass will be available as a podcast. If you want to review this once more, the podcast will be available on your conference website. If you registered through Eventbrite, you’ll receive an email telling you when the podcast is available.

Now, if we could, I’d like to jump into questions. I was really surprised that professional women you interviewed and studied got as much sleep as they did. So often people say, “I got four hours of sleep.” “I got five hours of sleep.” “I never get any sleep.” Why is it that that is something that people seem to have an inaccurate perception of?

Laura:  This is probably the biggest gap between perception and reality in life. I am not denying that people have bad nights. They totally happen particularly if you have work responsibilities. Small kids can always be a source of bad nights. Because bad nights feel so bad, they stick out in the mind. Then, they become typical even if they are not exactly typical.

We have a tendency to recall our worst nights as typical. If somebody asked you how much you sleep, you’re not adding up how much you slept over the last week and then dividing by seven to come up with a number. It’s whatever number sort of comes to mind. We always think of weekdays as typical even though weekends are about 28 percent of our time. We don’t even build that into our equation.

People will think about the day that they got up at the time they intended to as opposed to the day that they hit snooze three times. They won’t build in extra sleep that occurred like falling asleep on the couch at night while watching a show. That won’t enter into people’s pictures of their time. It’s also the busiest weeks that we tend to think of as typical, and those weeks might feature less sleep. Then, over time, our bodies tend to catch it up. All this adds up into this gap between perception and realities.

Surveys that ask Americans how much you sleep on a typical night will find people saying something like seven hours. The American Time Use Survey which asks people how they spent the previous 24 hours and has them talk through the previous 24 hours finds that the average American sleeps over eight hours a day. That’s quite a gap. Even for very busy women, this gap turns out to be there.

When I had people keep a time diary, it wasn’t how much they thought they slept on a typical night. It was how much they actually slept in the seven days that were constituting that week. In these seven days that were that week, the picture tended to be a little better than what they were picturing in their minds. I think it’s good news. I mean I love the notion that, in fact, you can build a big career and have a family and get enough sleep. These things are not incompatible at all. A lot of people think they are incompatible, but it turns out they’re not.

CFW: It’s really surprising, actually. You have spoken with so many women throughout your research. I’m wondering if you could give us a really ingenious example that jumps out at you of a woman who manages her time extremely well.

Laura: I think that some people who did it very well were good about building time into their lives for things that were important to them. People who were good at exercise, for instance, did tend to do it in the morning. If you’ve got a busy life, that’s the time that you can do it. You’ll only have to shower once, get to bed on time. You can get up in the morning and make it happen. Then, you don’t have to argue with yourself for the rest of the day.

One thing I actually thought was particularly brilliant and sort of counterintuitive, a lot of us tell ourselves, “I’m not the kind of person who can leave for an hour at lunch to exercise every day.” Then one woman who was tracking her time for me decided, “You know what? Screw it. I’m going to become the kind of person who can leave for an hour at lunch every day to exercise.”

She used whatever workplace capital she had to make that happen. She said, “A funny thing happened. I was technically away from my desk for a longer time than I had been before. I was going to this boot camp like four days a week during lunch instead of sitting there with my salad in front of my desk, but I had my best year ever.” She’d come back at 1:00 PM and could actually focus for the rest of the day.

She kept going until 5:00 PM getting stuff done. Whereas most of us, we have this idea, “Look at me. I’m working through lunch.” Then around 2:30 PM, you fall down this internet rabbit hole where you can’t concentrate. You’re checking social media and checking headlines. The next thing you know, you’re over at Nordstrom because there’s a sale on boots, even lose 30 minutes.

You can lose 45 minutes this way easily. What’s happening is that your brain needed a break. You didn’t give it a real break, so it took a fake one. It’s so much better to just acknowledge that you’re going to need a break and proactively choose something helpful to your life as that break and make that happen in your life.

CFW: It’s kind of recess for grownups.

Laura: Recess for grownups. I am a big fan of recess for grownups. We are not machines. I mean even machines have downtime. If you’ve ever worked in a factory or something, they have a very good schedule of when the machines are down in order to be maintained. Why would we think that human beings would be any different?

CFW: I want to go back to the broken water heater story. I think everybody can relate to that one. How do we make time for our priorities as we would if we had a broken water heater? How do you take something that’s not a calamity and make it a priority?

Laura: There’s a couple ways to do this. I mean the first and biggest thing is just the mindset which is that you deserve to have it happen in your life. I mean everyone will always want you to do whatever they want to do. It’s about looking out for your interests and your long-term goals and creating the life you want.

If you have a very clear picture on that, then it becomes easier to center yourself on these long-term goals that create that life. Beyond that, it is partly about planning. Often when we don’t think through how we’re going to spend time, time still passes. Then it’s not going to magically occur to us at the end of the day of, “I was supposed to write three hours on my novel in the course of the past two days. Well, it’s 10:00 PM. It’s not going to happen now.”

You have to think about your schedule and think about where the time might be and put it on your calendar and then move various logistical things to make it work. Again, that’s why for many people, doing stuff at the start of the day and possibly even the start of the week is what makes it happen. I have a friend who had been trying for, let’s just say, a while to get some bigger magazine stories out there and hopefully have it turn into a book.

She had this bright idea that she was going to take Friday afternoon to do that which seemed like a good idea. Again, Friday afternoon, that’s not a time that’s generally spoken for. All the undone tasks for the week that she still had on her plate would stack up. At 3:00 PM on Friday, she was trying to get through all these things. By the time she’s done, it’s like 5:00 PM. She’s not going to start anything new at 5:00 PM on Friday. Let’s be honest with ourselves.

What she decided to do is carve out Monday morning for these professional priorities of hers and do it before anything else got started for the week. Just a couple weeks of doing that got the stuff she wanted out there. She got assignments to write the stories she wanted. Literally within a year, she had a book proposal that sold for the book she wanted to write. She’s the same person, same work habits, same schedule. It’s just she moved the stuff she wanted to do from the end of the week to the start of the week. Then, it happened.

CFW: That’s fascinating. I love your advice to plan adventures. Can you tell us more about your list of 100 dreams and how we can use that?

Laura: I have this exercise that I have people do. I got this from a [career coach] many years ago. The list of 100 dreams is anything you want to do or have more of in your life. It’s kind of like a bucket list, only most people aren’t ambitious enough to put 100 items on their bucket list. They get bored at some point in there and then drift off. The genius of doing 100 things is you have to keep coming back to it, and you have to keep thinking.

You really start scraping the bottom of the barrel by the end of it. I mean the first one is all this stuff like travel to Italy. By the end, you’re sort of saying, “I’d like a really good mug for my coffee in the morning.” The stuff by the end is, of course, extremely doable. You can make that mug thing happen today. Beyond that, you really start thinking broadly about what you might want to do or have in your life.

I find that one of the things of time being elastic that it stretches to accommodate what we choose to put in it, the thing with that water heater is if we have something that is compelling in our lives, we find space for it. If you are telling yourself, “I have no leisure time,” and you’re not thinking about what I’d want to do with my time, that’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you have said, “I would really like to take a cooking class,” and then you decide, “This year, I’m going to take that cooking class,” and then you start looking around.

You find the cooking school, and you see that the cooking class is on Tuesday night. You find a friend who’s going to take it with you, and then you sign up for it. It’s amazing. You will probably find the space on Tuesday night to make that cooking class happen once you’ve paid for it and signed up and your friend is there. You may have told yourself, “I have no time for things like that.” Once it’s there, you tend to make the time for it. I think this is a good exercise for having more fun stuff in our lives just by figuring out what that stuff is. Then, we become motivated to put it in our lives.

CFW: That’s great. We are out of time. I know people have a lot more questions. I sure do. How can people best reach you, Laura?

Laura: I run a blog that’s just my name, LauraVanderkam.com. I write about all sorts of time management and productivity and career and family and things like that there. I would love to have people reach out to me through that. You can also find me on social media, Twitter at LVanderkam. Facebook, I’m LauraVanderkamAuthor. I love to hear from people and continue this conversation.

CFW: Wonderful. That is all we have time for today. A reminder that today’s teleclass will be available as a podcast on your conference website. You’ll receive an email through Eventbrite telling you when the podcast is available. Our thanks to Laura Vanderkam and thank you for listening.

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