There are 168 Hours in a week

Review of I Know How She Does It by Laura Vanderkam

I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their TimeI Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time by Laura Vanderkam
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked this book, but I didn’t love it. I know the author a bit online, we are alumnae of the same university, and I really liked her previous book, 168 hours. This one’s strengths are similar, but the rest of it is not as compelling.

First, the positives:
1. The idea to think in 168 hours (a week) instead of 24 hours (a day) is the insight of Vanderkam’s that has been the most consistently useful to me. I tend to fare poorly with any kind of program that insists on daily goals: daily word count, daily exercise, daily violin practice, etc. I invariably miss a day and then waste time and energy beating myself up about that. I also tend to get bored and anxious, and procrastinate when I face having to do the same thing every day, especially if it’s something relatively complex that takes a long time. Whereas I can get on board with doing something 4 or 5 days a week, maybe in different circumstances or at different times of day.
2. Her “Strategy 6” for using bits of time, starting on p. 194 of the Nook version that I read, is IMO worth the price of the book. I don’t think everyone will feel that way about it, but this is one area of time management in which I am especially weak. It’s similar in some ways to the “List of 100 dreams” that she recommends in 168 hours, but I could never make that list; it was too daunting. This list is already made for me, and I can use it right away. Overall, Chapter 9 of this book, strategies for Mastering the Tiles, is helpful and snappy. It can be read in 5-10 minutes and there’s probably something in there for most people that will boost your productivity and make you feel better.
3. Her insight about the power of narratives to shape thinking is both obvious and profound. I think most people start out almost unaware of the narratives that shape their lives, and the process of maturing brings this into sharper and sharper focus. I found myself thinking about the narratives that have shaped my life; they are different from the author’s, but the book gave me space to do so.

Now the not-so-positives:
1. I found this book’s tone to be annoyingly preachy and somewhat repetitive. It was also kind of boring. The insight that the stories and narratives we tell ourselves have power is wonderful, but the author’s only use of that insight is to hammer away at this notion: the dominant cultural narrative that as a group mothers who work outside the home are overwhelmed and stressed out by trying to fit in work and family life, is just wrong. The author overstates both the cultural dominance of this narrative and its wrongness and thereby undermines her otherwise good points. Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Sometimes.
2. I also found some of the advice to be obnoxious, in particular the notion that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. It may be easier to ask forgiveness than permission, but I think that in order to actually obtain said forgiveness, one has to be quite privileged in some way. If you’re not so privileged, rather than being forgiven, you may be taught a lesson or made an example of. I’ve seen that happen more than once.
3. The advice to delegate or just blow off administrative/housekeeping tasks is frustrating as well because the author doesn’t seem to understand fundamentally why most people do these tasks in the first place. She says that if you don’t do them, “the world will keep spinning on its axis.” She also says that if you don’t answer email, if it’s really important the other person will just remind you of it again. And in another chapter, she writes about people who quit working at a consulting firm because they were tired of long hours and travel–but had unused vacation time. Apparently in her view the only factor in the workers’ not taking the vacation time was their own attitudes; the company’s or coworkers’ needs and expectations were irrelevant. Just take the vacation time, she says.
In all these examples, she assumes, without providing evidence, that any negative consequences to these decisions are all in people’s heads. Under that worldview, if you could just get over your inflated sense of self-importance and take the time off, blow off the email, etc. nothing bad would happen to you. I have direct experience that this is not always–or necessarily even often–the case. Blowing off people’s emails and delegating administrative scut work to others is inconsiderate and makes people angry. Sometimes you don’t take vacation time because the work doesn’t go away just because you did–you may find, upon getting back, that you are more overwhelmed than before you left, and you have resentful colleagues to deal with on top of it.

Perhaps much of this attitude is a consequence of the fact that, for this book, the author only interviewed women making $100K a year or more. She explains why in the introduction, and the reasons make sense, but that decision does limit the book’s utility for the rest of us.

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3 thoughts on “Review of I Know How She Does It by Laura Vanderkam”

  1. I agree with your opinion of the tone and the too-easy dismissal of admin and housekeeping tasks. But your review made me wish I had stuck with the book, because I quit before Chapter 9 it sounds intriguingly helpful!

    Liked by 1 person

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