Based on the time logs of highly successful (and productive) women.

By Laura Vanderkam
Updated June 08, 2015
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Woman checking her watch
Credit: Valeria Schettino/Getty Images

Tackling a to-do list can seem impossible, almost as impossible as achieving the ever elusive “work-life balance.” When Laura Vanderkam, author of I Know How She Does It, studied hourly time logs from successful women—criteria being they have to have at least one child under 18 and earn a six-figure salary—she saw a few surprising patterns. Here, Vanderkam shares advice gleaned from watching how these working women divvied up their 168-hour weeks, and how you can too.

Woman checking her watch
Credit: Valeria Schettino/Getty Images

Find less-conventional times to spend with family.

The “family dinner” is a hotly debated topic—is it ever possible to get home in time? Are kids better off for having home-cooked meals with their parents? But Vanderkam found that you could mimic this needed family time at other, more convenient hours that fit better with a work schedule. She suggests aiming for a family breakfast instead of a family dinner, since most people’s mornings sync up more easily than their evenings.

Make the most of your mornings.

“No one has work emergencies at 6 a.m., whereas they do happen at 5 p.m.,” says Vanderkam. If you save all of your plans for after work—like, plans to exercise—these will often be derailed by unexpected workplace conflicts. Instead, get up early and do some big-picture thinking before breakfast or head to the gym. This is also a great time to spend with young children before heading to work, since they’re up at the crack of dawn anyway.

Work from home.

When studying weekly time logs, Vanderkam noticed a pattern: women left work at a reasonable hour and resumed work at night after the kids were asleep. “Almost all women have some version of this,” says Vanderkam, calling it a “split shift.” “It enables you to work long hours and yet not give up family time. You trade off work time for what would be TV-watching time.” To maximize productivity, make a to-do list. If you are committing to another hour of work, make sure the projects and tasks are manageable and can be accomplished in that hour.

Be strategic about your inbox.

Everyone wants to get to Inbox Zero—but that’s not likely to happen. “Email expands to fill the available space,” says Vanderkam. If you spend time responding to emails, inevitably, more responses will end up in your mailbox. Vanderkam advises starting your day with a major priority or task, because if you start your day with email, you’ll be sucked into an endless spiral. “You have to consciously choose to give it less time,” she says.

Take breaks.

“If we don’t take real breaks, we take fake ones,” Vanderkam says. Go out to lunch, walk around the block, or exercise at lunchtime—anything that gives your brain time to recharge. If you don’t, your brain will “rebel” around 2 p.m., and you’ll find yourself surfing the Internet instead of working.

Get a good night’s sleep.

This isn’t news—you need to sleep in order to be a productive, functioning member of society. But there’s an idea that busy, working women need to be chronically sleep deprived, says Vanderkam. When she studied the 1,001 days of successful women, she found they were actually averaging just under eight hours of sleep every night. “Whatever you have gained in terms of available time by sleeping less you will lose in not being able to focus and not being your most creative self,” says Vanderkam. She suggests setting a bedtime alarm to get on a regular, healthy sleep schedule.

Create a housework schedule that is realistic for you.

Of course, we want to help you lead an organized life—but that looks different for everyone. Like email, “housework expands to fill the available space,” says Vanderkam, which echoes something we already understand—there will always be something else you can clean or plan or organize. Vanderkam also recommends taking “the easy route” when possible—for example, an investment in Amazon Prime will mean fewer errands and free shipping on last-minute birthday gifts.

Reframe your to-do list.

“All of your priorities are not going to fit in 24 hours,” says Vanderkam. Instead of focusing on daylong cycles to accomplish everything, focus on a week. When you look at your time in 168-hour increments as opposed to 24-hour increments, you may find that the prospect of balancing work, family, and fun is less overwhelming.

Track your days.

If you want to better manage your time, the best way to do so is by figuring out exactly how you’re spending your time, says Vanderkam. So, mimic her project: keep an hourly log of your days to see where your time is going, and where you can rearrange your schedule. If tracking an entire week seems daunting, she suggests starting with two workdays and one weekend—like Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. “When you do keep track of your time, you are more mindful about it,” says Vanderkam.