I rarely give a book less than three stars. For one, if I’m not engaged by it, I’m probably not going to finish it. For two, I want to acknowledge the amount of work the author put into the book. Every book is a labor of love, and my opinion shouldn’t matter in the self-worth of the author. That said… I have Opinions about I Know How She Does It by Laura Vanderkam, and I’m going to try to express them in a delicate and respectful manner. (I still gave the book three stars on Goodreads.)
Vanderkam is a time management expert. I enjoyed her book 168 Hours, and I was really excited by this book because it collected data on how women use their time. I was less excited when I realized that the time logs collected were from women who 1. have children and 2. make more than $100,000 a year. This was Vanderkam’s definition of “having it all.” I understand the need to have a definition in order to do a focused study, but this disappointed me. I don’t like this definition of success.
I read on. Many of Vanderkam’s tips are useful: find the empty spaces in your life, be mindful that time is short, prioritize based on meaningful use of time. But I kept getting unnerved by the presence of money in this book. For example, I initially cheered during the section on cleaning, as I’ve been struggling with that myself… until she talks about getting a housekeeper and letting that person do your laundry and clean your kitchen. I seethed during the part on child care, where she makes the blanket statement that a center is going to be better than an in-home daycare. Then I started thinking about the work section, which is so focused on flexibility, and the assertion that even women in big-time careers have more time than they think. People who make less money don’t have as much time, because they’re working more jobs. No one in Vanderkam’s study worked more than 60 hours a week – but their jobs are bringing in a ton of money! So they don’t have to! Moreover, people who make less money are working public-facing jobs, or blue-collar jobs. So we have to show up at specific times. I have to be at the library during library hours. I have flexibility in my freelance work, but it’s not like I can ask to work the reference desk from home, or cut out early on a shift if there’s no one else to cover it. In fact, most of the flexibility in my schedule comes from my management responsibilities: if I cover a shift for someone who has called off, I can leave early on a different day. Or if I work Saturday, I get Friday off.
Don’t get me wrong about the above statements. This is not a “poor me” thing. I am extremely lucky and grateful to have the life I do. We are not rich, but we are not poor either. We have enough to make our son comfortable, but we don’t have enough to buy a bigger house. We have enough to occasionally go see a movie or go out to dinner, but we don’t have enough to hire a housekeeper or a nanny. And that’s totally fine. All of us are in different situations in life. That’s the issue with Vanderkam’s book. It’s not diverse enough. A book like this can’t apply to everyone, of course, but we need a book that does.
I don’t know if I’m the one who should write the book we need, but I have a few takeaways.
Let’s stop defining success by money and/or whether or not we have children. Instead of comparing ourselves to other people, let’s compare ourselves to ourselves. Look inside yourself. Do you feel successful? Is there something you could do that would make you feel more successful? Challenge yourself based on what you’ve done already and what you could do, not based on what other people have done. You can certainly use others as mentors or role models, but envy and jealousy only pull you down.
Use your definition of success to prioritize. You can benefit from Vanderkam’s time logs here. This will give you an idea about how you use your time. Keep your success definition in mind, and make over your days based on that. You may have to start with small changes, and you won’t be able to do everything. That’s okay. Focus on being self-aware and mindful.
Build your support system. If you don’t have children, you still need a support system. If you don’t have a lot of money, you still need one. If you’re a single parent, you still need one. It doesn’t have to look the way it does in Vanderkam’s book. Everyone has a different story, different needs, different resources. I used online resources to find my excellent in-home caregivers. I interviewed them, checked references, and did trial runs. We have had four amazing sitters who have all had an impact on my son’s life. I am also extremely lucky to have a supportive spouse who does just as much of the childcare as I do. He has Henry right now while I am at home typing this blog post. Our family and friends are also there and willing to pitch in when necessary. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Rethink flexibility. For those of us who have to show up at work – we have to learn to be flexible based on our responsibilities. My husband works 8-5, M-F. He teaches training classes, so he can rarely call in sick, and he has to take vacation in between classes. He can’t run errands or make calls during the workday. So I’m the errand girl: I drop off Henry, take him to doctor’s appointments, call in sick when I need to, go to the bank, make calls, and am the primary point of contact for our caregiver (and preschool when it starts in the fall). Ed is the primary caregiver on weekends and in the evenings. Not everyone has a spouse like I do, so you must find other support (see above).
We also have to be flexible within our jobs. People who work with the public have to learn how to switch from task to task quickly. We can’t multitask – that’s impossible – but we can parallel process and toggle. We must learn to roll with the needs of the customer and accept the fact that admin work may not get done in a given day. I adhere to “what’s the most important thing I have to do today?” If it can’t get done on a public-facing day, I have to carve out the time for it somewhere else in the week. Some of us work with the public all day, every day, and those people have to be more realistic about the tasks they take on. You might be able to get a more intense project done during downtime if it’s quiet, but you and your supervisor need to agree on realistic deadlines if you hit a busy streak. My department is quieter in the summer, but we pick up in the fall, so I’m not about to give time-sensitive tasks to my clerks in September.
Remember, it’s not easy. I beat myself up about my anxiety a lot. I tell myself I shouldn’t be anxious about things that don’t matter. My therapist reminds me that my concerns and emotions are valid and true. What I feel may not always be reasonable, but it’s better to feel feelings than to repress them. You cannot feel joy without feeling sadness. If you numb the pain, you numb everything. In order for us to be mindful and understand the beauty in the world, we must acknowledge that times will be hard. I don’t have all the answers, and I never will, but I keep seeking them, because curiosity makes the world go around. Vanderkam asserts that time is flexible, and this is true. In some seasons of our lives, or even week by week or month by month, we are stretched to our limits and we wonder when this misery will end. In other times, we have the space to focus on the silence, or the inspiration to bang out a short story or a novel, or whatever else makes us feel alive and whole. Plan your life the best you can – do the best you can – and keep seeking to grow, but allow yourself to flow with the bad and the good. It’s what makes us human.