Episode 67: How to Make the Most of Your Time

Why are we so apt to blame work for hard choices when there are other reasons that we have to make choices as well? I think it’s because we’re still not entirely comfortable with women achieving professionally.
— Laura Vanderkam

Show Transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, my guest says women have bought in to a story – a dark tale that says we can’t have senior jobs and a thriving family life. We just don’t have time to make it all work. But she says beware of scaling back…

“So in particular if people are thinking about taking an eighty percent schedule I would caution against that because it is quite possible to slack for twenty percent of the time and still get paid for it.”

Coming up, how women with big jobs manage their time – and what the rest of us can learn from that.

During the fourth episode of The Broad Experience I met someone regular listeners have come to know. Financial Times columnist Mrs. Moneypenny believes women can achieve whatever they want – it all comes down to choices…

“Whatever your ambition it is very unlikely you will achieve it if you don’t put some time into it. There are 168 hours in the week (there’s a great book in the States actually called 168 Hours that I highly commend to you) – you need, as an ambitious person, let alone an ambitious woman, to take that 168 hours and use it wisely.”

The author of that book, 168 Hours, is Laura Vanderkam. She’s become a well known writer on time management and productivity. She has a new book out and it’s all about women. It’s called I Know How She Does ItHow Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time.

I started our interview saying women do seem to have more trouble than men managing their time.

“Well I think that it's more a question of expectations. I think that men are not as bothered by this idea that they are both working and having a family life as well because they are expected to work. It is not seen as something transgressive that they are doing that they need to justify, and because of it I think there may be a little bit less guilt associated with that and hence less sort of angsty writing about it as well.”

And that angsty writing she says – it has a negative influence on women.

AM-T: “At the beginning you essentially say women have been fed this narrative about what’s achievable as a working mother and that narrative is actually hurting us. Can you expand on that a bit?”

“Certainly. I think that we've been told that in order to make the pieces of life fit together we need to lower our professional ambitions because it is the job with less responsibility and at least in our mind fewer hours that will make a full family life possible. But I would argue that that's actually not the case. I would hope that young women would not fear the big job because often it is the big job that will give you more autonomy. It will give you more flexibility, and it will also give you more resources, which you can use to hire help to make the rest of your life work.

So when women choose not to go after the big job because of the perception that it will require you to work around the clock and never see your family, they cut themselves off from very high earning professions and the reality is that many times these jobs don't actually require that many extra hours on the margin. So the average woman in my study worked forty-four hours a week. If you look at the average mother with a full time job it's somewhere between 35 and 37 hours a week depending on the age of her children. So you know, the difference between thirty seven hours a week and forty four hours a week…It's not nothing but it's not you know an order of magnitude different either. So if you knew that the difference between earning less than forty thousand dollars a year, which is what the average woman with a full time job earns, versus earning six figures a year is possibly seven hours a week. Well that suggests there are quite high returns to those few extra hours on the margins, and especially since the women in my project were often able to move work around in ways that kept it from interfering with family life in the way you might imagine it would. They had far more balanced lives I think than people imagine and in many cases I think than women with jobs that at least on the surface seem more family friendly.”

Laura is married with four kids herself. Her youngest was born earlier this year, and he isn’t sleeping well at the moment. She’s always been intrigued by how other women with children build careers and family lives and maintain their equanimity. She chose to focus solely on mothers for this book because she says it’s mothers who get all the media attention – and high earning mothers in particular. All those ‘can’t have it all’ stories are about them because in theory they’re juggling so much. She wanted to drill down and look at their lives in detail.

So here’s what she did: she got about 150 women who make more than $100,000 a year and who have at least one kid under 18 living at home – and she had them fill out time logs for a whole week. Most were married, some were single parents. She ended up with more than 1,000 days to examine – she looked at each half-hour slot the women had filled in. You’ll see some of these timelogs replicated in the book.

And here’s what she noticed. Actually these women almost to a woman got enough sleep – at least 7 hours a night. They worked, sometimes a lot, but not as much as they might have thought. They saw their kids for hours a day AND they had some leisure time. This emerging portrait did not fit in with the horror stories we hear of the hair-on-fire, stressed-out female executive…

I wanted to talk to Laura about one horror story in particular. About two years ago a lawyer at the top firm Clifford Chance wrote a goodbye email to colleagues and it made it onto the internet. She outlined a horrendous day she’d had. It featured fractious children, an unhelpful husband, demanding clients, bad traffic and late daycare pickup. She concluded by saying she couldn’t practice law any more and be a good mother. It was all too much.

Wasn’t it?

“To be fair the woman at Clifford Chance had an absolutely horrible day. That was a pretty wretched one as wretched days go. On the other hand I think it is also possible to have a wretched day within a pretty good life. And so the question is do we feel like we have to draw a conclusion from a wretched day. Or can we just acknowledge that sometimes there are wretched days and no one is entitled to a stress free life.”

Without knowing more about that woman’s story it’s impossible to say for her. But Laura says it’s important to see the whole mosaic of your life to keep pushing ahead. She says people should look at time as the whole week, the whole 168 hours, or even the whole month…not focus on what they can or should do in just one day.  The women in her study cobbled successes together over a number of days – projects tackled, clients met, kids taken to dentist appointments. And to make it all work they often let themselves off the hook on things like housework. Yes, plenty of them had a cleaner, but they still had to do things like dishes and laundry and picking up after kids. And many of them just…let it go. Sometimes dishes went undone. Floors stayed messy. A child got herself ready for school even if she left the house looking less than pristine. Many of these women gave up control to gain some precious minutes.

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There’s another study I’m gonna mention that some of you may have read about earlier this year. A Boston University researcher looked at how men and women at a huge consulting firm managed their time. Consulting is a notoriously full-on environment – it requires almost round-the-clock attention to clients. Both men and women at this firm disliked how much of their lives got eaten by work. 80-hour weeks were pretty much expected. But the men dealt with this problem differently than the women. The men subtly altered their workloads – taking on local clients, telecommuting, things like that. They just didn’t advertise it – so managers still viewed them as stars even though they worked less. The women though – they asked for their workloads to be scaled back. As a result their reputations suffered.

But oh, how I understand that instinct to ask…

AM-T: “I mean I have that typical female trait where I always ask for permission first…and it’s something I’m really trying to work on. But I notice this about myself, I never just assume I can do something. A voice inside me says, ‘You can’t do that.’”

“Yes, I think we have a tendency to want to be good girls and play by the rules.

And in many cases that serves us quite well in life, it's why women are doing better graduating from college and things like that than men, in general.

But when it comes to the workplace it doesn't always work in our favor because women get the idea that if they want to work differently they need to negotiate to get that. Well inherent in this word ‘negotiate’ is that you are giving something up in order to get something you want. What is that thing you're giving up? Well it's often pay, it's prestige, it's promotion opportunities. And what you really want is not necessarily to work less. You just want to work differently, you often want to move work around on dimensions of time and place. And if that's all you want well if you think about it why do you have to give anything up to get that? And I think that was the idea that men were using, that as long as I turn in the results. It's really nobody's business about the particulars if it comes down to it I will explain myself. But you know for the most part no one's going to ask and so I don't need to formally announce, by the way I'm going to go read to my son's preschool class tomorrow morning and I will officially be in at ten thirty. You know they just show up at ten thirty, and you know, you could be a million other places before ten thirty. You could be stuck in traffic, you could be visiting a client. You know you could be taking a call from home. Who knows really. So you don't have to announce this. You can just quietly achieve the sort of work life balance you want.”

That’s what some of the women in her study did. Although I have to say it would be nice if companies could cave a bit to accommodate people’s actual lives.

And related to that topic of managing your time to your advantage is the whole idea of working part-time.  Part-time can look like the holy grail to a lot of parents. But I have friends who have taken part time jobs only to find there’s a catch: that supposedly part-time gig does not fit into three days a week after all. It’s taking up pretty much all their time even when they’re home.

“We think that going part time will allow us to officially set boundaries right, we've paid the price. Now we can set artificial boundaries but the problem is just because you have a boundary doesn't mean that people will automatically respect it. And so you're going to have to constantly be negotiating this you know you if you have Tuesday as your day off. People are still going to schedule meetings on Tuesday. Your team is still going to have a conference call they're going to wonder why you're not there. They're going to e-mail you and wonder why you haven't responded and so you can not respond but many people are trying to be accommodating and so they wind up working basically full time hours they're just getting paid less for it. So in particular if people are thinking about taking an eighty percent schedule I would caution against that because it is quite possible to slack for twenty percent of the time and still get paid for it. I am not sure how many people who are working aren't slacking twenty percent of the time at the office. So why officially cut your pay just to go through, you know we all go through ups and downs in our productivity and this may be a particular low point for you but probably there will be a higher point at another point.”

She says another way women try to spend more time with family is by avoiding the extra-curricular stuff like networking. She admits she doesn’t go to as many events as she probably should. But particularly if you work for a firm, keeping too much to yourself can be a bad career move.

“…we want to work with people that we trust and trust is partly built up through social interactions and relaxed get-togethers and those often just can't happen during the normal nine to five and so you know, I've seen this happen with women managers who get really bad feedback from their teams because they're not taking them out to dinner. And that seems so silly, like why doesn't everyone just want to go home? Well you know why should you have to hang out with your colleagues more. But it is this investment and social time with your team that makes people trust you and like you and want to work with you. And so you ignore that at your peril. And I think it helps to recognize that this need not be an either or situation. Just because you are a working parent doesn't mean you have to go home at five p.m. every night without fail. When we think of only living our lives in twenty four hours then we wind up in this trap where we think it's either/or, but if you gave yourself say a budget of three social events with work per month, well that's three evenings there's thirty days in a month so that's ten percent of your evenings. So ninety percent of the time you're home. Ten percent of the time you're with your colleagues -- that really doesn't strike me as a horrible balance, but that ten percent invested at work could go a really long way in making people still see you as the kind of person who's willing to invest in those relationships.”

AM-T: “But again as you point out part of the reason women are doing this is that they’re rushing home to see their kids, and you know, ‘I hardly see my kids.’ Again, this story that’s been out there for centuries that the perfect mother does certain things.”

“Well I would I would argue with the centuries thing, I think it's been out for approximately fifty years and before that there wasn't as much discussion of this, I mean if you look at more traditional societies certainly mom is out there in the field right alongside dad. There's no separation here in terms of the traditional roles. But yes there is a story that is out here that a good mother does certain things.

And even women who earn incredible amounts of money which will give their children all sorts of opportunities will not give themselves any credit for that because in their mind the only thing that counts that a mother does is that she is available at ten A.M. on Tuesday. And if she is not available at ten A.M. on Tuesday she is failing as a mother. And the fact that you can…bring the kids to Europe for spring break, can afford the best violin teacher out there and have them live in a good school district or pay to go to private school, none of that counts right? And I find that a very funny way of looking at it because kids need both time and money and almost universally if you are working, you are providing both. And I think that one thing that will help women with this, I really do encourage people to keep track of their time for a week and many of the women in my project were quite surprised to see how much time they were spending with their families.”

One woman told Laura she didn’t feel guilty any more after viewing her time log.

So given what Laura found in those time logs…why the drumbeat of woe about high-achieving women and balance?

AM-T: “Why is that so persistent, I mean you call it a recitation of dark moments. What’s going on there that this negative stuff is far more out there than the kind of achievable lives you’re talking about?”

“Partly it's just that darker moments are darkly entertaining. I mean there's nothing exciting about a headline that says a woman does work and life just fine. You know that that's not the sort of story that anyone wants to read whereas reading about for instance that that Clifford Chance associate’s horrible day in which she you know is woken up by the kids multiple times and has a long day of you know a colleague sitting on a note until daycare is closing and whatever else happens, that is far more entertaining, and there's also the fact that negative things stand out in the mind more than good things. We are prone to notice them and so when you have a couple points of evidence they tend to lead us to a conclusion that's the whole story telling format that's what makes narrative, and the human brain remembers things in the form of stories. So it becomes very easy for us to say this negative thing happened, this negative thing happened, this negative thing happened. Therefore life is crazy, life is unsustainable, and particularly for women because it is still seen as somehow strange and different and we're not sure quite how we feel about it. We are prone to assign blame for negative things to work and so we get you know the story going where we're lamenting a softball game missed because of a late flight and we start down the road of, you know, should we cut back our hours at work, should we resign? But no one has that same angst over a softball game missed because another child has a swim meet at the exact same time. Like we're not led to the conclusion that you need to get rid of the other kid from that hard choice moment. And yet life is all hard choice moments. So why not? I mean why are we so apt to blame work for these bad choices when there are other reasons that we have to make choices as well? And I think it's because we're still not entirely comfortable with women achieving professionally. And I do hope that that will change over time and I hope that one of the things I've done in this book is introduce the idea that there are many women who are doing fine with it and it doesn't need to be this harried, sleep deprived, angsty life.”

AM-T “And just finally tell me there are days when you get to the end of your day and you go, oh God, I wish I’d been more productive today. Or does that never happen to you?”

 “No, it happens all the time. I have not felt necessarily all that productive lately as I have not been sleeping as much as I wish I could, but I try to keep moving forward and keep my eyes on the big goals, and you know some little stuff might not happen and that's OK. But you know on the whole life is pretty good.”

 Laura Vanderkam. The book is I Know How She Does It. And if you want to track your own time for a week or two you’ll find a link Laura gave me under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com – from that link you can download one of her timesheets. And you can find her at lauravanderkam.com.

Now if only someone could write a similar book for women at the other end of the economic spectrum.

I’d love to hear about how you manage your time whether or not you have kids. You can comment under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com or on the show’s Facebook page.

And if you’re a news junkie don’t forget to check out my sponsor for this show, Foreign Affairs magazine – go to foreignaffairs.com/broad for a huge discount on a year’s subscription.

And if you’re a longtime fan of the podcast and can contribute $50 you will receive a Broad Experience T-shirt in return – for details and a photo of the shirt check out the page for this episode at The BroadExperience.com.

Finally, thanks to Emma Jacobs for her help with this episode.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.