THE BALANCE PROJECT | No. 47: Laura Vanderkam, Journalist and Author

Welcome to THE BALANCE PROJECT: a series of relevant and refreshingly candid interviews featuring inspiring and accomplished women talking about balance. I’ve always been curious—and maybe a little obsessed—about how women I admire manage the tragically glorified “doing it all” craze. So I asked them. As I suspected, no one really does “it all.” Everyone’s making sacrifices somewhere. And that should make us feel a little better. I hope the conversation will be steered toward that reality rather than toward the flawed and dangerous assumption that we should try—or even want to try—to perfectly do “it all.”

2015 marks the second full year of The Balance Project! And there’s lots in store: First, The Balance Project is celebrating its first birthday. Read all about how it got started and what I’ve learned from it here. Second, my second book, THE BALANCE PROJECT: A NOVEL, will be published in April. It’s women’s fiction and it was inspired by these interviews. More about that here. Third, in preparation for the launch and because these interviews have received such tremendous response, I will publish new interviews two or three times per week, not just on Fridays. Thank you for your continued support!

No. 47: Laura Vanderkam, Journalist and Author

Age: 35
Where I live:
 Outside Philadelphia
Job: Journalist and Author
Kids: A newborn baby boy, a girl (3), and two more boys (5 & 7)

Laura VanderkamIs the job you have now the same one you had before kids? If not, how and why did you change directions?
It is the same job! I had one year-long journalism internship post college at USA Today, and since then, I’ve always been out on my own as a free agent. The places I write for and what I write about have changed over time, but the basics—trying to write about things I find fascinating for publications that are willing to pay me decently—haven’t. I did shift to my main current focus area, how people spend their time, after having kids. I kept hearing about how hard it was to have it all, yet I’d find people who were thriving at work and life. I wanted to know their strategies, and since life is lived in hours, a lot of these strategies came down to what they spent their time on, and what they didn’t spend their time on.

Do you think having “it all” is realistic or overrated and why?
It depends on what you mean by having it all. If you mean a fulfilling career, a thriving family, and time for sleep and your own personal interests, then yes, of course you can have it all. Many people do—men and women. If you mean have all of the above plus a spotless kitchen that you personally clean daily and the time to watch 30 hours of TV weekly then…maybe not. But who wants that?

What part of “balance” can you just not seem to figure out?
Maybe The Balance Project isn’t the right place to say this but…I have trouble figuring out why “balance” is the predominant image for this conversation! I know it’s a popular one that resonates with people. Since that’s the terminology people expect, I use it myself. But I don’t think “balance” is quite the right image, because it pits work against family, as if they’re on opposing sides of a scale. One goes up, the other goes down. But life doesn’t always work that way. Both could go up and housekeeping could go down. In fact, that’s what’s happened over the broad population. Women spend more time working for pay, and more time interacting with their kids now than they did in the 1960s. They also spend less time cleaning their ovens.

What part of “balance” are you getting better at?
I’m getting better about thinking through my down time. Time passes whether we think about how we want to spend it or not. You can get to leisure time and think you want to do “nothing” but it’s impossible to do nothing. You’ll do something, but that may not be the thing that would be most relaxing and restorative. So I’m trying to think through my weekends, and plan a few fun things. Not every minute, of course, but enough to make me feel like I had a good time. Weekday evenings are another potential black hole of hours. It helps to think “I’d like to play Scrabble with my 7-year-old, and then read this novel after the kids go to bed.” That way the time doesn’t get lost to puttering and social media.

If you had one extra hour in each day and you couldn’t work or be with your family, how would you spend that hour?
Can my answer be a different kind of work? I know I underinvest in the soft side of my job. I meet my deadlines and I like to think I do good work, but I’m not as good about getting out and meeting people as I should be. It’s always easier not to make time to network, even though many of my favorite projects have come about because of making new connections. So I’d spend that hour on the stuff we often don’t get to that “increases our exposure and broadens our scope,” as race car driver Sarah Fisher once put it to me when I interviewed her.

What do you wish you’d known when you were 20?
You can make a living as a writer. Granted, it’s easier to make a living in other lines of work. I looked up the stats the other day from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and writers who are at the 90th percentile earn about the same as lawyers who are at the 50th percentile. But if you’re entrepreneurial, you can do decently, and there’s something particularly wonderful about doing work that you love. Also, I’d probably like to tell my 20-year-old self that I’d meet my husband four years later (in a bar!). I think I would have been more relaxed about dating if I’d known that.

What one part of your home life do you wish you could outsource?
I’m already pretty diligent about outsourcing. I have occasional daydreams about a private chef, but to be honest, if I really wanted someone to cook for me, I’d find a way to make that happen. Also, chef creations would be a waste on my kids. They’re mac and cheese fans.

What are you reading right now?
Roz Chast’s memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? She manages to turn her parents’ deaths into something readable and poignant, and the cartoons are amazing. I especially loved seeing the old family photos and then seeing how accurately she depicted everyone in cartoon form.

Biggest vices…
Food?
 Dark chocolate covered caramels. I’ve had to stop buying them. I wish I were the sort of naturally slim person who could put the leftover Halloween candy up on a shelf and forget it’s there. I put the Halloween candy up on a top shelf…but I haven’t forgotten it. I’m writing this 3.5 weeks after Halloween and I still pull the container down daily.
Website? Twitter. I try to tell myself I’m interacting with readers and discovering new things. And I do both of those activities. But I also spend a lot of time just screwing around.

How many hours do you generally sleep at night during the week?
Averaged over a week, I come out to about 7.5 hours per night. That’s what I need. If I get in bed 8 hours before I need to wake up, I wake up before my alarm. I have bad nights occasionally (I’m answering these questions while 7 months pregnant), but those are balanced out by better nights. From my time diary studies and from studies I’ve found elsewhere, I’ve found this to be the case with other people, too. Most people get enough sleep. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey, the average employed mother with a kid under age 6 sleeps 8.47 hours per day. No one ever believes me when I tell them this, but this is time diary data, not a guess. You can’t just ask people how much they sleep. There are no typical nights, and people are prone to underestimate sleep totals in a world in which sleep deprivation is seen as a sign of how important you are.

What do you read every morning?
I try to tackle my most important work priorities for the day before I get sucked into reading much. Reading is best done when I’m in a mid-afternoon slump. I will admit that I read theSkimm (a daily, slightly snarky email of the headlines) on my phone in the morning, sometimes while brushing my teeth.

Do you have a personal motto or favorite saying?
One of the busiest people I ever interviewed told me that instead of saying “I don’t have time,” she’d say “It’s not a priority.” I’ve adopted that as my own motto. A lot of how we spend our time is a choice. Granted, there may be consequences to choosing differently, but we are smart women in a rich country and we have the power to fill our lives with the things that deserve to be there.

Before Breakfast high resAbout Laura:
Laura Vanderkam is the author of the forthcoming book I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, 2015). Based on thousands of hours of time logs, this book explores how women build full lives with big jobs, kids, and time for fun, too. She is also the author of several other time management books, including What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours (Portfolio, 2010). She writes regularly for Fast Company, USA Today, and other publications and lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and kids.

Find more about Laura here:
www.lauravanderkam.com
Twitter: @lvanderkam
Facebook: 168HoursBook

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