While achieving work-life balance is tricky, a new book finds that high-earning women are actually using their time creatively and well — and that they’re spending a lot of enjoyable time with their families.
When it comes to successful working mothers, the popular narrative has it that big jobs equal big problems. Here’s how that particular story goes: When a mother tries to juggle a demanding job and a family at the same time, something has to give — and it’s usually the family. She’ll end up crazy! Frazzled! Pressed for time!
While the work-life balance is certainly a tricky thing to achieve, a refreshing new book by Laura Vanderkam, “I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time,” finds that high-earning women are actually using their time creatively and well — and that they’re spending a lot of enjoyable time with their families.
While women who earn this amount comprise less than 4 percent of employed American women, Vanderkam’s respondents came from a variety of industries, including finance, law, medicine, accounting, consulting, tech, etc. — and they were all mothers, with at least one child under the age of 18 living at home.
What she found was surprisingly positive. For one thing, while the women had periods of time where their schedules were crazy, overall they worked an average of 44 hours per week (she also found that very few people work consistently more than 60 hours per week — even if they claim they do).
So why is a big job a big deal? Vanderkam makes it clear that it’s not everyone’s desire or motivation — but she does point out that women “massively limit” their earning power when they automatically rule out “big” jobs that, as she found, might only require a few more hours of work than a job that paid considerably less. “One reason many women don’t choose high-paying fields is a perception you’ll work crazy hours and have no control over your life,” she writes. “From these time logs, I learned this was not true, though I also found that another objection I heard — it’s easy to have it all if you earn six figures, because you can just outsource anything! — wasn’t automatically true, either.”
“It’s OK to know that the usual work-life balance narrative — that you’re probably overworked, and achieving the good life means figuring out ways to work less — is not the only story out there.”
Here are a few of her take-aways for a more pleasant life at work and at home:
Early does it. A study associated with Johnson & Johnson found that people’s energy levels peak at 8 a.m. and really start to flag after 3 p.m., so if you know you’ve got an intense project to do at work, do it first thing in the morning and save the easier tasks and the busywork for later in the day.
Be ruthless with your schedule. The easiest way to free up an hour a day is to look at your schedule and see if there’s a recurring meeting or conference call that does not require your presence. “When do you not add value? What recurring meetings could happen less frequently?” she writes. “Figure out if you could send someone else in your place or possibly even cancel the meeting altogether.”
The 4 p.m. triage. Many of the women Vanderkam studied worked an informal “split shift” — leaving work at 5 to go home and spend time with their families, and then perhaps picking up an hour or two of work after their kids had gone to bed. Knowing that they had to leave at 5 kept the women focused. “An hour before you aim to leave, revisit your to-do list,” she writes. “Pretend an evil villain has informed you he will steal your phone and laptop at 5 p.m., and keep them till the next morning. Knowing that, what would you still do? What wouldn’t you do? With a hard stop at quitting time, it turns out a lot of things can wait.”
Embrace the slack. Vanderkam still uses a paper calendar — so she can see when the little squares that represent each day have become too full. Guard your time carefully to avoid becoming overloaded and overwhelmed. “Saying yes to big things, like a new job, is sometimes wise,” she writes. “It’s saying yes to too many little things that forces one’s hand.”
Rethink weekday evenings. After your evening commute, it’s all too easy to start seeing your evenings as simply a rushed, joyless progression of dinner, bath time and bedtime for kids — but it doesn’t have to be that way. “Another secret of happier parenting is to realize that you will always be tired. So what?” she writes. “I can be tired lying on the couch while the children whine, or I can be tired driving them to a nearby creek where they can distract themselves from the whining by tossing pebbles in the water. At least in the latter case I’m outside in the fresh air.”
Pick a meal, any meal. A lot has been written about the sanctity of the family dinner, and it’s true — it’s lovely and important for a family to share a meal together and talk about their day. But mornings also count, and if dinner isn’t in the cards for your work schedule, breakfast can be its own little preschool, prework ritual, too.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s a cliché because it’s true. Whether you outsource housecleaning or not, learn to accept limits. As Vanderkam puts it, “You’ll never get to the bottom of your inbox” — and your house is never going to stay absolutely pristine and perfect, and your laundry will never all be done, either. So lower your expectations, make peace with it and don’t let the never-ending busywork of a home steal all your free hours. As Vanderkam puts it: “The laundry can wait. Contentment can’t.”