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How Working Moms Can Make the Most of Their Time

Today, the prevailing narrative is that of the harried, overworked, stressed-out mom. The woman who doesn’t get enough sleep. The woman who sacrifices self-care. The woman who either has a successful career or a happy marriage. The woman who can’t have it all.

In her latest book I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time Laura Vanderkam shows that women can have a fulfilling career and family life — and even get enough sleep.

Vanderkam, a journalist, bestselling author and mother of four kids, asked moms in high-earning positions to share how they spend their days. Specifically, 133 women earning more than $100,000 a year with at least one child under 18 living at home tracked every hour for a week. When Vanderkam analyzed the data, she found that women had time for work, their families and themselves.

Vanderkam used this data as the basis for I Know How She Does It. She divides the book into three parts: work, home and self. She shares a slew of tips, stories and findings she gathered from the time logs and interviews with the women. She shares some of these logs, including her own. Vanderkam also features other surprising findings on everything from the number of hours we work to the number of hours we sleep.

Below, I’m sharing just a selection — five tips — of ideas from her book on making the most of your time as a working mom.

1. Keep track of your time.

We tend to underestimate how long tasks will take. We might underestimate everything from completing a work project to getting three kids into bed. Vanderkam stresses the importance of tracking your time. As she writes, with a time log, you might realize that your “one hour” Monday meeting has never been less than 75 minutes.

She also suggests embracing our “inner pessimist.” “People think they will do everything right on the first try, that tonight is the night no child will be missing a requisite stuffed animal, that no one will suddenly remember he is hungry or that he forgot to put his homework in his backpack. Good estimators know that this time must be accounted for.”

2. Work in split shifts.

Instead of working a traditional 9 to 5 day, some moms worked in split shifts. During busy season, one mom, an accountant, left work by 6:30 p.m. and several times by 4 p.m. She was able to take her boys (a 7-year-old and 4-year-old) to lacrosse practice and the library, and eat dinner together.

You might work ‘til 5 p.m. and go home for dinner and bedtime. From 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. you refocus on work. Because working right before bed can boost your energy, Vanderkam suggests building in time to decompress. It also helps to create a list of priorities so you don’t spend the evening saying you need to do one more thing (and skimp on sleep).

3. Think in 168 hours — not in 24 hours.

Often we think finding a work/life balance means fitting all our priorities into 24 hours. Instead, Vanderkam encourages readers to consider the entire week (i.e., 168 hours). For instance, you might put in longer hours at work on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday but have a lighter load on Thursday and Friday so you can focus on your kids.

The same can be done with self-care. For instance, according to Vanderkam, if being active is a priority for you, you might get up 30 minutes earlier one day a week to go for a run. On a different day, you walk during lunch. On Saturday, while at your child’s 90-minute soccer practice, you run around the field for 30 minutes. On Sunday, while the family watches TV, you run, again.

4. Create adventures as a family.

These are the meaningful moments you and your family would like to experience. For instance, Melanie Nelson, who worked as a project manager and now has her own company, started doing an annual “Family Fun List” because she realized she wanted to enjoy life more.

Nelson, her husband and their two young girls each contribute three items. In 2013 their list included everything from going to the aquarium to hiking the top of a hill to visiting grandparents in Arizona to exploring a new neighborhood.

5. Use bits of time to bring joy.

When many of us have a free minute or five, we turn to our phones. We check email or social media. But, as Vanderkam emphasizes, we can use bits of time to bring joy into our lives. She shared these examples: 

  • Creating quality time, such as spending five minutes reading a children’s book before hopping in the car; playing hopscotch on the driveway before the bus arrives; or using that time to talk about the day’s challenges.
  • Texting your partner or kids to say you love them and to suggest a fun activity for the evening.
  • Texting a friend to see how they’re doing.
  • Taking a power nap.
  • Reading an article or blog post (keep a list of things to read).
  • Writing a letter (keep note cards in your desk or purse).
  • Studying your commitments to see if you can eliminate anything.
  • Scheduling leisure time. Vanderkam has a great tip for writing to-do lists: Include three categories, which are work, family and self. This reminds us that each piece is important.

Some of these tips may work for you. Some might not. Maybe none of them do. But what I really like about Vanderkam’s book is that she encourages us to think beyond common assumptions and anecdotes. She reminds us that we are the architects and authors of our lives. And, like her data and interviews illustrate, women build their lives in many different ways to make room for what’s important to them.

Yes, sometimes, these lives are bursting with activities and responsibilities. But ultimately, they’re also meaningful and satisfying. I think the takeaway is that we do what works best for each of us. We have a choice. Don’t let prevailing narratives persuade you otherwise.

Working mom and daughter photo available from Shutterstock

How Working Moms Can Make the Most of Their Time

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). How Working Moms Can Make the Most of Their Time. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 23 Jul 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.