I have a love-hate relationship with time management books. It seems that I either get useful take-aways from the volume, and become somewhat of a mini-evangelist for it, or I find it so detestable that I want to burn the book (and I’m a big intellectual freedom person, so that’s saying something).
I definitely lean toward the evangelism side of the spectrum with Laura Vanderkam’s “I Know How She Does It,” although she herself does NOT put herself out there as a guru. She’s a journalist, who has created a small cottage industry for herself writing about how people handle two of life’s most precious commodities - time and money - but she always does it from the perspective of “I talked to these people and this is what they told me they did.” She’s not selling a system or a program, and this may be one of the nicest things about the book.
Vanderkam ups the ante in “I Know How She Does It,” in terms of how she gathered her information. She asked hundreds of women earning at least $100,000 a year who had at least one child under age 18 at home to fill out detailed timelogs, which tracked their activities in 30-minute increments. Vanderkam ultimately ended up with 1,001 days worth of information, and the data ended up yielding some provocative insights about how professional women with children and family responsibilities actually spend their time.
The good, the bad and the timely
Vanderkam’s interpretations of the data from the timelogs tends to be upbeat and solution focused. She opens the book with a story of her own challenges with work/life balance (including her entire family getting locked out of the house while she is away on a work trip), and says that she could focus on a “Recitation of Dark Moments” in this book, but she is choosing not to.
“In this book, I want to tell a different story,” she writes. “Looking for lessons and the necessity of big life changes in dark moments profoundly limits our lives.”
Later in the book, she offers a trip to Cape May (which involved a sick kid and a horrible traffic jam) as an example of making the best of time together as a family, so she clearly tries to practice what she advocates for others.
Vanderkam uses the metaphor of making a mosaic throughout the book to describe how women arranged their time, and refers to individual time blocks as “tiles.” It’s an interesting mental model for time management, and I appreciated the way it introduced the idea of making artful choices, then rearranging them to provide an even more beautiful result.
The book is organized into chapters on managing one’s time at work, taking time for career development, simplifying home routines, engaging in nurturing or self-care activities, and many others. It’s heartening to see that Vanderkam includes plenty of information on organizing one’s home and personal life, recognizing that the need to make choices about time hardly stops at the end of the work day.
Vanderkam uses the metaphor of mosaic-making to illustrate the choices involved in positive time management decisions.
(Speaking of work days, Vanderkam busts the myth of professionals needing to work the equivalent of double shifts on the job in order to succeed. Her timelog research, as well as other statistics she draws upon, reveals that very few people work more than 55 to 70 hours a week, even if the person insists that they are working more. Women with heavy work responsibilities do often work “split shifts,” where they will cut out of the office in time to participate in evening activities with their kids, then spend a few hours after their children’s bedtimes finishing out their workday from home. Others compensate by staying at the office late a couple of days a week or coming for a few hours on the weekend.)
Throughout the chapters, Vanderkam’s focus is how her professionals organize their WEEKS, not their DAYS. She argues that there is no such thing as a “typical” day, and that it’s much easier to see time-management strategies played out over 168 hours, as opposed to 24. The book is peppered with timelogs from various women that she writes about -- and a few of them provide a second log after tweaking their schedules or making other choices to improve their living situation.
One of the ways in which her journalist training shines through in this book is the way in which she challenges assumptions, both using the data from her timelog survey and quoting statistics that shatter the common attitude that a working woman with kids “can’t have it all” (whatever “all” means to that particular person). She shares information over and over again that indicates that women leading the happiest (by their own definition) lives have made choices that don’t always meet social expectations. Rather, they’ve created situations in relation to their work day, their commute, their child care setting and other choices that work FOR THEM.
So, what about the rest of us?
One of the biggest criticisms of “I Know How She Does It” is that Vanderkam selected women with a relatively high income level. It’s easy to say, “Of course THEY can do it -- they can pay their way out of the problems I face!” On the other hand, A lot of the solutions to work/life crunches that Vanderkam’s loggers come up with (shortening their commute, blending family time with workout time, etc.) don’t have a lot to do with money, and more (again) with questioning the frequently very artificial boundaries we keep around family, personal, and work time.
It seems clear to me that Vanderkam intended her time loggers to be “aspirational peers” for her readers. I do think it would be interesting to collect timelogs from a group of working women making half or a third of what these professionals made, and seeing what the differences in the data were.
My only other complaint about this book is that looking at the timelogs got tiresome after a while. It requires the reader to turn the book sideways for a few pages, every few pages, and she includes the ENTIRE log, so you’re faced with reviewing 336 cells of information in a grid format. What would have made this more interesting for me is color-coding the ways women spent their time, although admittedly this would have created some creative color blending for certain women!
The take-away: “I Know How She Does It” is a great book for starting conversations about how to better spend one’s time and get more pleasure and satisfaction out of life. It’s especially useful if you’re just starting to grow your career, begin a family, or embark on any other life-changing decision. And it’s so packed with alternatives provided by the timelogs that even people who are settled and happy in their daily routine might pick up an idea or two to try.
Overall, I really enjoyed the book because of its focus on changing things that needed to be changed, and the focus on creating a life that one truly feels good about. As Vanderkam writes, “In life, you can be unhappy or you can change things. And even if there are things you can’t change, you can often change your mindset and question assumptions that are making life less good than it could be.”
~ Liz Massey, Managing Editor, ASU Alumni Association