A text arrives on my phone at 7.15 on a Tuesday morning. It’s from my friend, Stacey, who’s at the gym. There’s nothing unusual about the text, except for the location from which it was sent. I’d always considered Stacey to be like me, by which I mean ‘averse to both mornings and exercise’, but the woman has recently begun attending CrossFit classes before work.
Meanwhile, where am I? Lying in bed, reading an online article by author Laura Vanderkam entitled ‘15 Things Successful Women Do Before Breakfast’.
Newsflash: successful women do not doze 10 minutes past their alarm, then continue to lie prone, flicking through social media on their phone. Successful women are at their CrossFit class.
My heart constricts in panic. A few weeks ago I might have just shrugged and turned over in my bed. But then I wasn’t engaged and planning a swift wedding in four months’ time. For a woman who’s always been reasonably body-confident, I’ve suddenly become very aware of the breadth of my hips when placed in unforgiving silk satin. But where to find time to exercise?
Or, for that matter, to cook reasonably healthy meals each day? I work full-time and, though I don’t have children, I still have the usual daily chores that go along with running a household. And my fiancé and I have got a shotgun (minus the gun, or the pregnancy) wedding to plan.
On its own, all that would be manageable, but I’ve also added a mammoth challenge to my personal life in the form of an attempt to read 40 books in 12 weeks. (I’m not mad – yet; I’m judging the First Novel category in this year’s Costa Book Awards.) A quick calculation, based on how long it takes me to read the average book, tells me that means a hefty 21 hours of reading each week.
Now, you don’t need to sell me on the many advantages of having your nose almost permanently stuck in a book. My worry is, whether I actually have that much free time. And, whether I can work full-time (which mostly involves sitting on my bum in front of a computer), plan a wedding (more sitting on my bum in front of a computer), get in 18 hours of reading (you see where this is going), keep the laundry from piling up (slightly more active job) and look reasonably presentable in a white dress by the time the Big Day comes around. There are only 24 hours in a day.
And I spend quite a lot of those hours working and sleeping! Help!
The big question
By now, I’m feeling quite cheesed off at the author of this ‘successful women’ piece, Laura Vanderkam. I decide to look her up. Turns out she’s a busy working mum who also manages to find time to take regular exercise and have a social life. So how does she do it? How do any of these successful women do it? It would seem I’m not the first person to have asked this question – Vanderkam had been asking it herself and has done a few years of hard research, resulting in her latest tome: I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Penguin, £9.99).
Ignoring every cynical bone in my too-soft, unexercised body, putting aside questions about why men don’t seem to need books like this, and the fact that the book is not on my reading list, I get hold of it.
The research involved asking people to keep a chart in which they account for how they spend every single half hour of their week. It’s fascinating to get a peek at other people’s weekly schedules, outlined in such minute detail. For example, this from a self-employed mother: 6.30am: made tea, cleaned desk, worked on a system for upcoming employee training; 7am: ‘E’ got up and came into office, asking me to stop working so I could play a game with her.
Reading these schedules, kept by women who were ‘making it work’ (demanding job, family, having a life), was challenging at first, but oddly inspiring too – I’m floored by Vanderkam’s reasonable point that we all have the same amount of hours in a week. She urges me to think of it that way – 168 hours in a week, rather than 24 hours in a day.
Over a day, we can feel like we didn’t achieve all our aims – we didn’t exercise, or we failed to spend enough time with the kids. But often, if you look at your life over the course of a week, things can even out a bit more. Sometimes, just seeing how much time you actually spend on each ‘category’ in your life can be reassuring.
One of her discoveries, for example, is that we rarely work as many hours as we think we do, or like to claim.
In for a penny… I decide to keep my own log. I start drawing up my week’s schedule, divided into 30-minute slots. This appeals to the teenager in me who got a kick out of highlighting study timetables (rather than studying). Filling it in at work is easy – I keep an Excel sheet open on my desktop. At home and out and about, it’s harder. I carry a paper version in my bag, but though it’s easy to log hours out socialising or running errands, some of the time I spend at home just seems to disappear.
This is when I discover how I spend my spare time. I’m a supreme multi-tasker – I sometimes find it hard to account for the variety of things I do in one half hour. Is this why I always feel like I’m doing a million things but achieving nothing? At weekends, this multi-tasking dissolves into mere pottering. I can spend a whole morning trying to clean the house but then remembering I have to go to the post office, which involves an email to someone for an address and then suddenly I’m at the computer again…
I’m also beginning to question the shape of my life compared to the average woman in Vanderkam’s research. Most of them allocate half an hour in the evening to cooking and eating dinner; I spend more than 90 minutes at this. We try to cook a meal from scratch most nights, and that does take time. But, I remind myself, eating healthily is a long-term priority for me. Maybe it’s time well spent.
That’s what I start to consider as I add up my totals at the end of the week. Am I spending my time on the things that matter most to me? My level of commitment to exercise is visible in the fact that I forgot to even include it as a category when I began adding up my hours. I did get some in, though – a yoga class one evening, and some walks during my lunch hour at work. It’s not CrossFit at 7am, but it’s a start.
I begin to think more often about where I’m spending my time and where I want – or need, in the case of my reading – to spend it. I get to the point where I choose reading over ironing my clothes – my colleagues turn a blind eye; my granny, once the most glamorous woman in her small town, is probably turning in her grave. That’s not so hard. I choose reading over exercise – also not hard, but with the wedding approaching, I make a pact with myself to make time for exercise, consciously. Knowing it only takes half an hour to go for a run, and that I’ve also allocated enough reading time in other spots, calms me down. I no longer feel that, whatever I’m doing, I should be doing something else.
Three weeks in, and I have to admit I’m not keeping up the half-hour logs assiduously any more, but I think they’ve taught me the lesson I needed anyway. My time is not always my own – we all have work or duties that take up a certain proportion. But where it is mine, it’s also my responsibility to use it as well as I can. As Gandalf so wisely put it in The Lord of the Rings, ‘All you have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to you’. He knew, of course, that it’s not as simple as it sounds, but that it requires our attention. What will you do with your 168 hours this week?
I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Penguin, £9.99) by Laura Vanderkam is out now.
Time tricks: use it or lose it
1. LEARN TO ESTIMATE. Knowing how long an activity actually takes as opposed to how long you think it takes is key. So track how long it takes you to get your child to bed as opposed to how long you’d like it to take. You may find you have to start the whole process a bit earlier. And follow the ‘100 per cent rule’: if you’re allocating time to getting groceries, don’t forget the time it takes to empty the boot and put away the groceries once you’ve bought them.
2. MULTI-TASK BETTER. Multi-tasking can be inefficient if employed indiscriminately, but you can do it consciously and carefully. So try, for example, folding your laundry and calling your family on speakerphone at the same time. But don’t leave the room to try to tackle three other things in the same half hour (who, me?).
3. USE UNEXPECTED MOMENTS. What do you do when unexpected time opens up, like when a meeting ends early? See this as ‘found’ time, says Vanderkamp ‘making unorthodox hours more fun.’ Have ideas to hand for time that might appear. Don’t while it away checking your phone – ‘Cleaning out the inbox feels productive, but it isn’t accomplishing much,’ says Vanderkamp. Better options: listen to a favourite song; do some stretches; read a book; fit in a five-minute walk… the list goes on.
4. SIMPLIFY. This is a lesson I learned myself while trying to balance the competing elements of my life. While budgeting for our wedding, which had to be planned quickly, I questioned which things mattered most and focused on those. Suddenly, I realised what was actually important and everything else fell away. Try thinking of your time in the same way – you only have so much of it. What is it you really want to do?