Thursday, August 20, 2015

Review X2: Books on Time Managment

So, you know I've been thinking a lot about time management lately, what with my time diary experiment and all. Part of the reason I've become so interested in the topic is because I started following author Laura Vanderkam's blog earlier this year, and I find some of her ideas intriguing, so I thought I probably ought to read one or two of her books. Both I Know How She Does It and 168 Hours came in from my library holds within a week of each other, so I read them back to back, which was a bit of a time management overdose. But, SO. MANY. THOUGHTS.

For a bit of background: I Know How She Does It (stupid title, don't you think? I get what it's supposed to be doing, but I still think it's stupid) takes a look at the time management strategies of moms who work in high powered careers, and 168 Hours takes a more general look at time management, and how we all should be spending our time. There were things I loved, and things I hated, and I feel like I just need to write out my thoughts here to sort through them. So bear with me. Here we go.


After reading both of these books, I would describe Laura Vanderkam as the Marie Kondo of time management, in that she makes the argument that if what you do with your time doesn't bring you joy, then you shouldn't be doing it. As much as I think this approach works for ownership of stuff, I think it's a bit fuzzier when applied to how you spend your time. Her advice was much along the lines of: You hate doing laundry? Outsource it! You hate your job? Get a new one! Which is all fine and well and I'm sure works for some people of a certain socio-economic status. But most real people just don't have the luxury of paying a cleaning service, or hiring a personal chef, or simply building a dream career out of thin air. So that kind of bothered me.

It helped to realize who Vanderkam's target audience is: well-educated, ambitious people with busy, affluent careers, preferably in dual-income homes. This is explicitly stated in How She Does It. 168 Hours is supposed to have a broader appeal, but if you view this books as intended for general audiences, Vanderkam comes across as wildly out of touch with reality. If you realize she is writing for a privileged upper class (and doesn't really seem to acknowledge that other classes exist and have time management issues), then her suggestions make more sense.

I am not really a part of that target audience, which is why I think I had so many issues with her suggestions, but was also so partially intrigued by this foreign, privileged view of life and time. While I like to think of myself as a well-educated, busy person, my background and upbringing is solidly middle-class. Possibly even lower-middle class (my parent's incomes fluctuated widely at times). Both of my parents worked, but they never made use of the luxuries of a cleaning service, lawn service, or even child-care. The idea was sort of unthinkable. The message growing up was clearly never pay someone to do what you can do yourself, and also that there is something character building about taking care of your own home, and teaching your children to work through chores and that kind of thing. So I did NOT fully buy into the argument about outsourcing all the work you don't want to do. (That being said, how nice would it be to pay someone else to scrub my toilets? I'm not going to lie that it sorely tempts me. But then, I want my kids to have chores and do that kind of thing, and how will they learn if they just see Mommy paying someone else to do it? I have conflicted feelings.)

Also, in How She Does It I was a little bit... annoyed by her definition of "Having It All." For women, she defined this as having at least 1 child, and earning more than $100,000 annually (personal income, not husband's or combined income). I thought that $100,000 figure was a bit arbitrary, but that aside, she didn't include anything else in her definition like quality of life, quality of familial relationships, job satisfaction, or general happiness level. I'm sorry, but if you work in a grinding job you hate, have one kid, and are completely miserable, I do not think that qualifies as "Having It All." At the same time, my own personal career earning potential is well below that $100,000 mark. Does that mean that, should I ever develop a career, I can never "Have It All"? Once again, annoyed by that socio-economic status assumption underlying Vanderkam's ideas.

Moving on.

The big message of How She Does It is to show how women with these demanding careers actually balance work and family time, and one of the things she kept saying over and over was that when they actually recorded their time in time diaries, these women were surprised at how much time they were spending with their children each week, and that once they looked at the numbers, many of them felt like they were spending "enough" time. This is where I had questions.

I'm very glad these women felt like they were able to spend "enough" time with their children, but what I always wanted Vanderkam to address was whether the children or the spouses felt like it was enough time. Perhaps this is a harder variable to measure and quantify (how do you ask a toddler if he feels like he got enough time with his mom?), but it's the anecdotes in the culture around me that raise this question.

For instance, there is the story of the female partner at my husband's law firm whose kids put an "RIP Mom" tombstone in their yard every Halloween, the joke being that they never see their mom so she might as well be dead. Then there's the friend in my church congregation whose mother had a busy and flourishing career, but who purposely chose to become a stay-at-home-mom herself because she wanted her own children to know they were more important to her than any job (the implication being she did not get that message from her own mother). And then there's the couple we know who changed their wedding date to make sure the nanny who raised the bride could be at the ceremony, as her relationship with the nanny was more important than the relationship with her parents. Did these respective mothers feel like they spent "enough" time with their kids? Because the kids sure didn't.

Now, I only have anecdotal evidence, and I'm sure there are more people I know who had power working mothers and felt like they got plenty of quality time with these mothers (we only focus on the outlier bad stories). Also, I'm pretty sure Vanderkam would argue these specific mothers in the stories above weren't managing their time well or taking advantage of strategies like the split shift. Sure, whatever. This question of relationship health is still one I would like investigated and explored more thoroughly. A relationship is two sided, and just saying that the women themselves felt they were spending enough time with their families doesn't mean all the family members would concur (my love language is quality time, and since I have a husband in one of these demanding careers, this is an issue that is sensitive to me).

Also, Vanderkam seemed rather dismissive of the idea that different personalities might view time and values differently. Her advice to busy working moms on home-life, beyond outsourcing all domestic responsibilities, was to lower your expectations, live amidst the clutter, eat quick processed meals, etc. Maybe that works for Vanderkam, but those kind of lowered living standards would be EXACTLY what would make me feel like my life was crazy (No time to pick up the clutter! No time to make healthy meals!). So many of these suggestions and strategies will work only if you have a specific personality (Vanderkam's personality). Vanderkam might say that I am just buying into specific cultural narratives that tie women down, but actually, there are a lot of people (male and female) who work and live with more peace when the house is uncluttered, and I am one of those people. I need a certain level of control over these areas before I can even BEGIN to focus or enjoy any other type of work. Anyway, just another "strategy" that wasn't for me.


Okay, I know I just dropped a bunch of criticism on these books, but I actually found many of her big picture ideas to be fascinating and productive.

Her overall, big argument is that as long as you prioritize your activities, you have enough time for everything you really want to do. She talks about how time is more fluid than we think, and that if we were more aware of how we actually used our time, we could find the time to do everything we really want to do. I believe this absolutely and completely. Being a full-time mom and full-time grad student has taught me this. I may not have as much concentrated, uninterrupted time as I want, but I do have time for everything I want to do.

I felt like the biggest takeaway for me, especially from How She Does It, was just mentally being present in the time you are doing something, instead of always thinking about something else. It won't feel like you have as many hours with your kids if you spend those hours thinking about work. It won't feel like you ever sleep if you tell yourself you're not getting enough sleep. Time management is more a mental game than anything else. It's about telling yourself you have enough time, being present in the moment so you feel like you were engaged during that time, and allowing yourself to spend time on things you want and not feel guilty because YOU ARE IN CONTROL OF YOUR TIME.

She talks about how we are stewards of our time, and our lives will be so much the better if we take control (rather than feeling constantly like our time is at the mercy of other people, therefore out of our control). She talks about time as the only tool we have to do the things we want to do in this life, so we should use it mindfully and purposely. I agree completely with all of these ideas.

I really love the idea of the core competencies that she talked about in 168 Hours, how you figure out what you are good at, what you enjoy, pick your priorities and your core competencies, and focus on spending your time there, not mindlessly wasting it on TV or web surfing.

Also, I really do appreciate what she is trying to do for working moms. Like I said, I had a working mother (not one who made $100,000+, but a working one nonetheless), and at some point in my life I might be a working mother too (being a student mom doesn't seem to count as being a working mom, even though it is a very similar set-up), and I really appreciate the hard evidence Vanderkam offered that just because women work, it doesn't mean they don't have many, many hours to devote to both personal and family life. I found this narrative encouraging, even if I still have reservations.

So, do I recommend these books? Despite all my issues, yes, I recommend them. I don't think you need to read both books (there's a lot of material that overlaps), and since 168 Hours is for a more general audience that's probably the one I'd recommend. Unless you actually are a working mom in a high-power career (Adrienne, I'm thinking of you), and then I would probably recommend How She Does It. Vanderkam is upper-class privileged and her strategies will not apply to everyone, but her big picture ideas are still very compelling.


  1. I love this post even before I saw the shout out to me:) I am very interested in time management and how, in fact, people seem to be a mother, run a household, manage school/job, and still have sanity/hobbies. I know I can do better at time management but I definitely find myself wasting time on social media:( I already put these books on hold at the library and am excited to read/listen to them soon. A few different people at my firm are appalled that I don't have a housekeeper, and I admit it sounds dreamy, but it is so contrary to my solid lower-middle class background and general thriftiness. I can't seem to take the leap.

    I know that I control my time and there is time for everything I want to do, but I still find myself complaining this, which is why I need to take responsibility and work on this.

    Also, I kind of wish we lived closer to discuss many of the similarities in our lives. For example, Nathan just got me a DSLR and I am both excited and intimidated by it, so your post on that was timely and I signed up for an online photography course. And I am the kind of person who never ever thought I would have a nanny. And I buy all of our clothes at garage sales and am generally thrifty. And I am obsessed with decluttering. So please keep all your glorious posts coming! I am a big fan.

    1. I know! Why don't we live closer?!? So glad you read the blog (and make the time to do so in your busy life), and that we can at least virtually talk about all these issues. I'll keep posting all my inane yammering about clutter, just for you. :) (And if anyone can convince you to hire cleaning help, Vanderkam will do it. I hope you find her books useful.)