Book Review: I know how she does it

Today’s book review is of I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, by Laura Vanderkam.

Those of my readers who know me in real life will know that I have recently started a new job (hence the lack of blog posts here). As always happens in a new job, the start-up costs in terms of time, to get on top of things, can be a bit daunting, so I’ve been thinking quite a lot about time management. I only had time to read this book because of a prearranged holiday shortly after I started.

Laura Vanderkam writes about productivity. For this book, she found women with children who were earning more than $100,000 a year, and asked them to keep a detailed journal of their time for a week. The insights from those 1,001 days (each 24 hours long) are fascinating.

Part of her objective was to see if the lives of women like this were worth aiming for. Many young women hear stories of successful women, and conclude that their lives are too full of work to be worth aiming for.

When it comes to questions of having it all, though, and the big jobs most cultural commentary involves, we assume a different reality. Sure the average person doesn’t work that much, but doctors, lawyers, consultants, people at tech companies, those in finance, and those in the upper rungs of corporations, making six figures a year? They must work extremely long hours.

Is that really true? The title of Vanderkam’s book is a deliberate reference to I Don’t Know How She Does It, by Allison Pearson, which famously includes a scene of the heroine “distressing” a shop bought pie so her child will be able to pretend it is home-made at school the next day. The senior woman in that book doesn’t seem to have a very enjoyable life.

Vanderkam concludes that while it was easy to find horrendous anecdotes of ludicrous levels of juggling (such as the woman who had one half hour entry in a diary entitled “check on work/[son] play outside/read book while watching/wash/hang/fold laundry”), the vast majority of her subjects, including that one, managed to fit a lot of time for themselves and their families in their 168 hours for the week. The highest number of hours in a week worked by any of her subjects was 69 hours. One woman who worked at a hedge fund worked 44.75 hours. Only 6 percent worked more than 60 hours in the week they logged.

Most people who think they work long hours take quite a lot of breaks during those hours, to have lunch, stuff around on the internet, or do something personal. Vanderkam quotes research showing that all those people you hear talking about their 80 hour weeks probably aren’t actually working them. After a while, you get diminishing returns from work, and most people instinctively recognise that and take more frequent breaks (often without noticing).

One of the good things for women working in “big jobs” – at least in Vanderkam’s sample – is that it gives them more control over their time.

If you take charge of your time, it is completely possible to work fifty or fifty-five hours a week – the point that makes people eligible for the biggest and highest-earning jobs – and still enjoy a full personal life as well.

Most (75 percent) of Vanderkam’s sample did something personal during core work hours. They volunteered at schools, they went shopping and exercised. Of course that meant they did some work during non core work hours. But for most of them, the tradeoff was worth it.

The longest section in the book is about work time – both how much time people spend doing work, and strategies to manage work that enable other parts of life to happen as well. Other chapters cover home and self – ways of managing the time you have at home, and time for yourself, to improve it. There is some philosophy here – Vanderkam’s view is

I believe that since life is lived in hours, the proper stewardship of time is the key to making any sort of pleasure happen. When you start being aware of where time is, and where it goes, you can master the tiles to create a mosaic containing more joy than most people think is possible.

Strategies Vanderkam suggests include:

  • Learn to estimate – be realistic about how long something is actually going to take. Most successful workers apply this at work, but forget to do the same thing at home – the example in the book which will be familiar to many parents is bedtime. How long does it really take?
  • Use travel time – nearly everyone commutes in some way (even if you work at home, you probably travel to meetings). How do you use that time? Exercising or reading (or listening to something interesting, if in a car) can make the commute much more enjoyable. And if you fly to places, then plan for how to enjoy the flight. A friend of mine used to pick a movie every fortnight from the inflight entertainment, and watch it gradually during her weekly Sydney to Melbourne commute.
  • Use unexpected moments – this is the test of the time management master. Do you know what you would do if you suddenly had a spare 15 minutes or half an hour? there are a whole lot of good suggestions, including my favourite, which is planning some fun events for the weekend.
  • Look at the whole mosaic – understanding how you spend all of your time (not just today or even this week) helps you work out whether you are spending it as well as you possibly can.
Find more time to enjoy the sunsets

Find more time to enjoy the sunsets

I like to think I manage my time pretty well. But I still learned from this book. And I was inspired to track my time for a week myself, to see how I compared. That tracking has brought me back to this blog – I’ve neglected it for too long with my new job.

Whenever I show new acquaintances actuarialeye, they always ask me how I find the time. My answer is always that it doesn’t take as much time as you think. It takes me one to two hours to write each blog post, and I generally average (unless I’m really busy) a post every week or two. Reading this book has reminded me that an hour or two out of 168 in a week is not a huge commitment of time – and I enjoy it – using writing to help me shape my views about the world and my professional life.


  3 comments for “Book Review: I know how she does it

  1. Iain Bulcraig
    July 27, 2015 at 8:49 am

    Jennifer – nice to have you back updating here and some interesting things to think about above. I strongly value the idea of trying to fit in working hours when it suits your own life rather than being a slave to meetings booked in diaries at inappropriate times – not sure all international jobs cater well for this though.

  2. Jenny Lyon
    July 27, 2015 at 11:03 am

    Thanks for the review Jennifer. I fully agree that understanding how you use your time and thinking about how you can fit in the “things you want to do” around the “things you have to do” really helps you focus on the right things and hopefully makes you feeling satisfied that you are the one controlling your life.

  3. Julia Lessing
    July 27, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    Thanks for a great review and some wise comments, Jennifer. It’s so easy to get caught up being “flat out” with our “big jobs” that we can forget that we usually have a lot of choice about how we allocate and spend our time.

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