Book Review: I Know How She Does It, Laura Vanderkam, 2015

I’m a regular reader of Laura’s blog and have read several of her other books and was therefore looking forward to reading her newest book I Know How She Does It .

The book is essentially an analysis of time logs of successful women and a discussion of successful strategies for living a fulfilling life. Time tracking is a very effective way of seeing where your time goes; during the day you record what you did with your time in 30 minute blocks. Laura defined successful women as those who earned over $100,000/year and had at least one child under 18 living at home with them. The book is therefore ideally geared towards women in this particular situation, but several of the insights are applicable to everyone. We are definitely talking about first-world problems here.

The target audience for this book is women like me who are driven in their careers and who also have a family life. Many of us want “to have it all” and are frustrated by the old scripts that tell us that “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”, that you can be a good mother or a good employee, but not both, or that you should maintain strict separation between home and work life if you want to succeed. These narratives aren’t helpful and perhaps aren’t really true. They also induce a lot of guilt in women that doesn’t seem to be a hang-up that men have.

One of the take away messages from reading Laura’s book that I liked was that instead of talking about work-life balance or work-life blend, Laura is using the metaphor of a mosaic for how you spend your time. I really like this way of thinking about time because it allows you to see that fitting in the pieces of your life is like solving a puzzle, but it is a puzzle that is flexible and allows you to come up with your own final image and way of fitting the tiles of your life together. I think that these ideas of flexibility and autonomy are really key realizations to take away from this book. Many women I think get stuck in a false narrative that work happens from 9-5 p.m. and that the rest of your life has to be squeezed into the margins. This really isn’t sustainable or realistic, especially if you are a knowledge worker. She also spends some time debunking the myth that going part-time or “leaning out” always relieves these pressures.

Another thing that was fascinating about the book was that you get to see how other successful women are spending their time. Looking at other women’s time logs is rather voyeuristic, but can lead to the generation of new ideas or strategies to try out in your own life. I also like Laura’s approach to thinking about time on the scale of 168 hours (1 week) as opposed to getting bogged down in the daily crunch. While particular days may be work heavy, others are full of time spent with family; if we were only to look at things on a daily basis we would have a very skewed view of reality. We live in a society that brags about overwork and sees it as a badge of honour, but the average hours worked per week by the women in Laura’s sample was 35.

In Chapter 3 Laura discusses some strategies that successful women use in order to live full lives. These include split shifts, telecommuting, planning based on weeks not days, and retooling weekends. While these are ideas that have been bandied about before, Laura provides examples of how real women use each of these strategies effectively to make their lives easier.

Chapter 4 is focused on strategies that can be used to consciously design a better work life. These include obvious things like planning ahead, focusing on real work with maximal payoffs rather than merely keeping active with “busy work”, surrounding yourself with good people, and building in slack to your schedule. Laura also recognizes that some workplaces are still suck in the mentality that if a worker is burning the midnight oil then they must be a loyal, committed, hard worker. In my experience this often means that the worker doesn’t manage their time or projects effectively and has been slacking off during some of their work hours by using social media, web surfing, or playing MineSweeper. She makes the argument to be “strategically seen” at work given these preconceived notions of what it means to be a hard worker (i.e. face time is all important).

In Chapter 5, Laura offers some tips on the home front, with a focus on parenting and encouragement to re-examine mornings, evenings, family meals, and to take time to play and really be present when you are spending time with your kids. The section on outsourcing was incredibly funny to read. Several women in the study had hired housekeeping services, but then would frantically pre-clean before the cleaning crew arrived. She also makes the important point that child-care is not one size fits all and that what works for your co-workers may not work for your situation.

Often the thing that falls by the wayside during this work/life two step is self-care. Encouragingly, Laura found that during the course of a week, most women were getting enough sleep and were pretty good about exercising. Sometimes finding “extra” time is all about really examining how you are currently spending your 168 hours per week. Blinding browsing Pinterest or checking email represents “found time” that you could get back if you became more conscious of these automatic habits that have no real payoff.

Chapter 9 is all about mastering the tiles of the mosaic and offers recommendations like learning to better estimate how long things will actually take you to do, using travel time, multitasking when possible, taking advantage of unexpected free time, and taking a step back every once and a while to look at the whole picture.

There is a lot of creativity on display here in the tips and tricks that have been gleaned from other women’s schedules and there are a lot of practical things for you to try in your own work/family/personal life. I especially liked Laura’s focus on flexibility, breaking outdated rules and ways of thinking about work and home life, and the metaphor of the mosaic. The book will be most useful and will speak to working moms with children at home, but is a valuable read for anyone looking to fit all of the pieces of their life together in a format that makes them happy and fulfilled.

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