We know the familiar narrative: Women really can’t have it all, right? You can’t have a big job without sacrificing family life and giving your kids (or your house, or your partner, and most definitely yourself) short shrift. Laura Vanderkam, who writes and speaks about time management and productivity, wants to explode that old story in her new book, “I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time” Women do have time for ambitious careers and family, she argues. It’s all about making conscious decisions with time. She explains:

Q: A lot of people, women and mothers especially, feel they have crazy busy lives. You challenge that notion.

Vanderkam: A lot of the literature on women and work and life is based on anecdotes. Stories of stressful days and stressful situations. Stories have great power, but often they’re not the whole story. We often tell ourselves stories that aren’t true. So I wanted to bring data to this conversation. I also felt that a lot of the conversation was kind of negative. A lot of us have pretty good lives when it comes down to it. You can have stressful moments in a wonderful life. I think it helps to look at the picture more broadly.

I wrote this to show how women were successfully combining work and life and what their days looked like on an hour-by-hour basis.

Q: What did you find?

Vanderkam: I had people track their time by the half hour. One of the most surprising things, but the one I was most gratified to see, was that people didn’t work around the clock. Everyone in my book was earning six figures. Yet their average work week was about 44 hours. That’s longer than the average person, but it wasn’t round the clock.

It was also cool to see that people were generally sleeping. We have this idea that if you have a big job, you’ll never sleep and you’ll see your family. Yet they were getting an adequate amount of sleep – 54 hours a week – which is a little under eight hours a day. If you’re working 44 hours, and sleeping 54 hours, that leaves 70 hours for everything else. It seems quite possible to have a fulfilling family and personal life within those 70 hours. Sometimes they had to be creative about it. But they were doing it.

Q: What were they doing that others may not be?

Vanderkam: The most important thing was they were all using flexibility that they either explicitly had, or that they decided to take. About three-fourths of the women in my study – [there were about 1,000 in the study] – did something personal during their work hours, and did work outside of what looked like normal work hours. This was complete work-life integration, which can drive some people crazy, but, on the other hand, it makes it possible to do things that people feel would be impossible if you have a big job. Some would go read to a preschool class, come into work later, then do work after they put their preschooler to bed.

They had flexibility, autonomy, and more resources. So they were able to use that to make life easier.

Q:  Why do you think the narrative that women who go for big jobs have to sacrifice time for life, family and kids remains so powerful?

Vanderkam: I think we’re still not comfortable with women with young children having big ambitions. For all the progress we’ve made, we’re still not sure how we feel about that as a society. So if you’re doing something transgressive like that, it’s easy to assign blame for anything that goes wrong to this transgressive thing.

No one is entitled to a stress-free life. You can stay home with kids, and have plenty of stress. You can work part time job and have stress. Instead of assigning all stress to the big job, given that stress is inevitable, I want us to start asking, ‘What can I do to make it better?’

The cultural story we have goes like this: You miss the softball game, due to a late flight from a work trip. So you go down this road of soul searching. ‘I need to limit my hours or resign at work.’ But you know what? I miss my kids’ soccer games all the time, because another kid has a soccer game at the exact same time. But nobody ever says. ‘You should get rid of one kid.’ It doesn’t matter if I’m working or not, I can’t be in two places at once. We have a tendency to assign blame for everything that goes wrong to work. So I think questioning that narrative is important.

Another thing I found in my study that only occurred to me later as I was crunching the numbers – the time spent on housework and errands was quite a bit lower for these women with big jobs than the average employed American woman: 10 hours a week versus 20 hours a week. I think that’s partly a function of being out of the house more, because they work more. But it’s also a function of having the resources to get help, maybe having enough of their identities coming from their jobs that they didn’t define themselves necessarily by the state of their houses, and the power in their relationships from their economic status to have partners who helped.

Q: Was there more sharing of housework and child care? In most American families women are still doing twice or three times the amount that men are.

Vanderkam: It wasn’t a uniform thing. About 10 percent of the sample were single mothers. Some had partners who worked much less, had more flexible jobs or were staying at home. But a lot of people said they split duties 50/50 – I bring the kids to daycare, my husband picks up. It’s very much understood that they both had responsibilities.

Q: What about people with no resources, what lessons can they draw?

Vanderkam: I looked specifically at this group of high-earning women because there’s such gnashing of teeth about this – the thought that women won’t go for big jobs because they can’t have personal lives. I wanted to show that many of these women have more balance than many of us think they do.

Obviously, it’s easier to balance work and life when you have more resources. But what if you aren’t earning six figures? It’s really about getting a good sense of where the time goes. Seeing the time available to you, and then asking, what is meaningful or enjoyable that you can do with that time?

You may look at your schedule and think, ‘I can never control what time I leave work, so family dinner may not happen.’ But perhaps you can control what time you come into work. So you can make family breakfast happen. Or maybe you’d like to exercise, but there’s not a specific time everyday – you can’t leave for an hour for lunch and exercise, not many people can. But you can look at your time log and think, ‘I could probably wake up a half hour earlier twice a week, and looks like I have some downtime on Saturday, when the family is together, but not really doing anything, that’s time I could maybe do a workout, and maybe some evening, there’s some downtime.’ You can look at the whole picture, and consciously fill that with time for the things that are important.

Q: You use the image of mosaic tiles when thinking about time. How can readers consciously arrange their tiles so to speak, to make the most of their time?

Vanderkam: I had people use spreadsheets to track their time. Spreadsheets are so dreary, so that’s when I came upon the idea of mosaic tiles. We are the artists deciding how to arrange the mosaic, deciding where to place the tiles. It puts the power back in our hands.

1. The first step is being aware of where the time goes. I think tracking it is great for a week. Even a day or two is helpful. I think that helps people with guilt. This one woman used to feel guilty about how often she saw her kids. But once she tracked her time, she saw she was always with her kids. We have this story, ‘I work full time, so I never see my children.’ Yet it’s emphatically not true.

2. Ask what you WANT to be doing with your time. It’s fine to say what you don’t want to do with your time. But the real question is, what would you do if more time appeared? What are the things you don’t have now, or don’t have to the degree that you’d like, but would like time for? We DO have time. We just often don’t think about what we want to be doing with it.

3. Think bigger. Shift your mindset from 24 hours to 168 hours. Often, we think that anything that’s important to us needs to happen in 24 hours, and if it doesn’t life is failure: ‘I didn’t see my kids today because I’m traveling for work, therefore I’m a horrible mother.’ ‘I didn’t exercise Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, therefore life is unsustainable.’

But looking at the whole 168 hours, you start to see there are spots that you can fit things in. It may not be the same time every day. But maybe it can happen three or four times a week. And that’s probably pretty good.

4. Being mindful how long things take, and leaving open space. I’m a real fan of not packing things as tightly as they could be. I do feel like I squeeze in a lot. But it’s fun to have open space, too, because then you have the chance to seize opportunities that may come up.

5. Use little bits of time. We can probably make space for big stuff. But it’s also helpful to seize the little moments to bring joy. The five minutes while you’re waiting in line, instead of checking email, or some social media site that makes you feel inadequate, look at old photos, or photos of a recent vacation. That’s a much more enjoyable way to stand in line than feeling like you somehow don’t measure up.

Or if your kids are up at 5:30 in the morning, and you leave for work at 8, maybe you can use that for something more fun. It’s recognizing and making the most of the time you do have.

Q: Feeling OK about the choices we make with time. That’s key, isn’t it?

Vanderkam: We’re not as central to the universe as we think we are. So chances are, no one notices what we do or don’t do. I joke about the 11 pm home inspection. There isn’t one. People think the house has to be picked up. But no one’s coming to look. Just take the time.

Want more inspiring news and ideas for improving your life? Sign up for the Inspired Life Saturday newsletter here​.​

If you enjoyed this story on Inspired Life, you may also like: