Meri Paterson

The ideas business and other interests

Book rec: I Know How She Does It

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I have a book recommendation! Laura Vanderkam is a wonderful author who writes about time management. Her new book, I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time is really worth reading if you’re a woman who dreams of having both a happy family life and a career, or already have both and find the juggling act stressful and difficult. (And if you’re a man in a relationship with such a woman, I would also recommend it to you for perspective.)I Know How She Does It cover

I’ve been a fan of Vanderkam’s writing ever since I happened to find What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast in a bookshop, and was inspired by her optimism about time. The lack of time is a favourite complaint among ‘busy’ people, but she actually maintains that you can make time for anything you want by planning and prioritising. And some of the things your time is currently spent on probably aren’t worth it.

The new book is based on research among women who have a big career and a family, and her findings are honey to my ears. I’m ambitious career-wise, but I also hope that I will eventually have at least one child, and I’ve already started worrying about how that’s going to work. The narrative is that if you want one, then you need to be reconciled to the fact that you will never be fully invested in the other. But Vanderkam’s research shows otherwise: the book is full of women who find the time to be properly involved in both, without big trade-offs, and it’s really reassuring to read about. 

You have enough time for both!

Vanderkam uses a comment to an article about women and work as an example of the kind of either/or thinking that will lead women to feel that they have to choose. The commenter says she enjoys staying at home more than she did being in the workforce, and concludes with: ‘If you get your joy from a paycheck and a pat on the head, go for it. I prefer hugs and dandelions.’ Vanderkam says there’s enough time in life for both. Even if you work 70 hours a week (more than 14h a day!), which incidentally none of Vanderkam’s women with big jobs did, and slept 56 hours (a very decent 8h a night), you would have 42 hours (6h every day) left over for other things.

I really responded to this – there’s so much more time than you think! A more realistic amount of work, say a publishing-typical 56 hours a week, would leave more than 10h per day for other things. I’ll be damned if you can’t have a happy life with your partner and family in 10h per day.

As a sidenote, I found the hugs-and-dandelions comment fairly sad. It seems to reveal an idea of a work ethic that’s driven solely by reward, whereas I think work is, firstly, in many ways its own reward, and also that there’s nothing wrong with finding joy in the paycheck and the ‘pat on the head’. They’re forms of validation – you’ve given up time and talents, and they have been found good, so you keep getting paid for it. Paychecks are also a very direct route to hugs and dandelions, because they let you buy time (say, pay someone else to clean your house so you can spend time with your kids instead).

But you probably don’t have time to iron underwear

The other thing that elicited a strong response in me was Vanderkam’s advocacy of lowering your housekeeping standards. In one of her previous books, 168 Hours, she talks about how today’s women should stop idealising the 1950s housewife, who looks flawless and has a spotless house, serves amazing dinners and raises polite and intelligent children. Even assuming that anyone in the 1950s actually managed all that, few of those housewives went to paid work every day. They could afford to spend half an hour ironing underwear or crinkling the edges of pies just right.

Most women today, however, will find that they don’t have the time both to have a career and have a perfectly polished home life. This much is true. So you can either stress yourself out by comparing yourself to these women, or you can relax your standards. The example Vanderkam uses in this book is bathing small children every night. They almost certainly don’t need to be bathed that often, so why not spend the time doing something more important?

There’s a lot more to the book than I have touched on here, so if this sounds intriguing, do read it! It’s encouraged me to no end. You have time for anything you want to do – just not everything.

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