Laura Vanderkam explores how top-earning women juggle family, careers and personal time. For ambitious professional women, she says, the secret to the good life is properly managing your time.
Can a woman really have it all? A good career? A family? A social life? That’s a burning question. But perhaps a more pertinent question is: “Can a woman have what she wants?” Life guru Laura Vanderkam reckons that for hard-working executive women, the key to living the good life lies in managing your time skillfully.
You don’t build the life you want by saving time. You build the life you want, and then time saves itself.Laura Vanderkam
Every week contains 168 hours. No more. No less. While most women inevitably spend many of these hours working and sleeping, Vanderkam believes that even those who work overtime can arrange their schedules to enjoy happy, balanced lives. For example, a woman who works 50 hours per week and sleeps eight hours per night still has 62 hours available to fill each week. Vanderkam urges you to think of the hours you fill each week as tiles in a mosaic. By filling in these tiles creatively, you can build the life you want, piece by piece.
People assume that top-earning professional women must make personal sacrifices to maintain their careers. Vanderkam refutes that idea. The daily time logs of the women who participated in Vanderkam’s “Mosaic Project” – all of whom earn more than $100,000 per year and have one or more children younger than 18 living at home – indicate that their workloads are not unreasonable. For example, few participants worked more than 60-hour weeks. The average was 44 hours per week, compared to average full-time working mothers, who work about 35 hours a week. These successful mothers made ample time for themselves, their social lives and their families. Vanderkam makes “having it all” seem tantalizingly possible. Oh, would that it were so simple!
A decision to take on a new role at work doesn’t spell the end of your personal life, according to Vanderkam. She reminds women that their fear of taking on extra hours may hinder their earning potential; it’s that balance thing. She assures you that you can find the inner strength to set boundaries or to rearrange your office schedule to make space for family responsibilities, exercise and social functions.
If you control your own schedule, says Vanderkam, you have many opportunities to trim inefficient uses of your time and to add meaningful, productive hours to your day. She encourages you to schedule meetings to last 45 minutes rather than an hour. Work in split shifts during the day, take a break in the afternoon when your children are home and return to work while they sleep. Leverage quiet times on the weekend to work a few more hours. And, if it’s practical, work from home, rather than commuting. This might have been the Covid solution, but as offices repopulate, many women may find such opportunities elusive.
Part Time Versus Full Time
Many working mothers opt for part-time jobs. However, if you set your own hours, Vanderkam astutely notes that going part-time may not be worth the salary sacrifice. You could wind up working longer than full-time hours and earning a part-time paycheck. Instead, she suggests that working extra hours may energize you as you make more tangible progress toward your short-term work goals and your career aspirations (although this may intensify your mama guilt).
Many women feel their domestic lives must emulate idealized media versions of the nuclear family. Remember, says Vanderkam, your family is unique. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, so spend the time to think through the unique rhythms and habits of your family and adapt your time together accordingly.
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 mind-set and question assumptions that are making life less good than it could be.Laura Vanderkam
Vanderkam urges you not to let your career or your responsibilities as a mother prevent you from sharing romantic, intimate moments with your partner. This is another instance of her offering obvious advice that may be far easier said than done. Take advantage of leisure time you share, such as sneaking away from your children when they’re watching morning cartoons on weekends, or arranging child care, so you can schedule dates outside the home – provided you can afford child care, of course. Or stay home and spend quality time with one another on weekday nights after your kids go to bed. Make the brief moments that are available more meaningful by giving your family your full and undivided attention, love and affection. Vanderkam may idealize the possibilities somewhat here, given the challenges of working couples with kids, but her point is to seize your moments when you can.
Studies report that women don’t get enough sleep – fewer than six hours a night, in fact. The Mosaic Project paints a different picture. Many top-earning women reported sleeping an average of seven hours and 42 minutes each night and finding time to exercise as well. About 90% of the participants say they sleep seven to nine hours a night, just as leading health experts recommend.
Vanderkam suggests that you can work early in the morning or late in the evening without succumbing to sleep deprivation. To avoid losing too much sleep when you work late evenings, set an alarm to signal when your bedtime is one hour away. When it rings, turn off your computer and relax before attempting to sleep.
The Mosaic Project found that 91% of participants tallied some form of physical activity for an average of about 3.3 hours per week. Participants with larger families exercised most, proving that making time to exercise is a lifestyle choice that even those with considerable family responsibilities can adopt.
A Lofty Perspective
Many of Vanderkam’s strategies seem accessible mostly to women with lots of support and some disposable income. Adopting all of her tips may be out of reach, unless you have the discipline and energy to be switched on for others – your boss, your colleagues, your partner, your children – every moment of every day. A sensible approach might be to regard her work as a menu of worthwhile suggestions and to cherry-pick the ones that align with your means, your family, your possibilities and your priorities.