For many people, the work-family-personal time balance feels like a constant juggling act where one or more components constantly ends up out of sync. Meanwhile, you can't help but envyÂ that one friend, coworker, neighbor who seems to make time for everything, all while rockingÂ a smile and a skip in her step.
But weÂ all have the same number of hours during the dayâhow does she do it?
"There is much to learn from seeing how people use their hours to achieve their goals. Learning their strategies can be empowering; it reminds us that we have the power to shape our lives too," writes Laura Vanderkam in her latest book,Â I Know How She Does It:Â How Successful Women Make the Most of Their TimeÂ ($16, amazon.com).
In 2013, Vanderkam began askingÂ professionalÂ womenâwho madeÂ at least $100,000 a year and had at least one child under the age of 18 living at homeâto keep hour-by-hour logs that detailed how they spent each hour of the day from the time they wokeÂ up until they turned in for the night. They documented everything from a jam-packed day ofÂ meetings to the hourÂ spent picking outÂ a new J. Crew sweater online.
Excerpted below are some of Vanderkam's takeaways. While time management is neverÂ one-size-fits-all, theseÂ tipsÂ may help inspire you to re-work things in your own life.
Leave work on timeâor even early
It's easier said than done, but there are ways to shave off hours while maintainingÂ productivity, Vanderkam explainsâand a big part of it is simply making this commitment. She writes, "Building the life you want is about having the courage to do it ... treating your personal life with the same importance and urgency as your work appointments increases the chance that you will leave on time. You'll also have a life worth leaving for."
In various time logs, she noticed that many women worked in "split shifts," meaning they spent a large chunk of the day in the office, but cut out early to make it to say, kids' sporting events. Then later on, they'd squeeze in another hour of work after bedtime.
OtherÂ tricks? Shorten meetings to get right to the point, while also sending the message that you have a clear agenda. Another idea is to "perform a 4 p.m. triage," she writes. "An hour before you aim to leave, revisit your to-do list. Pretend an evil villain, laughing maniacally, has informed you he will steal your phone and laptop at 5 p.m. and keep them until the next morning. Knowing that, what would you still do? What wouldn't you do?"
Re-think the weekends
In a dream world,Â Friday nightÂ through Sunday evening areÂ blissfully free of work-related duties. But Vanderkam challenges that norm by suggestingÂ that when done mindfully, weekend work can have its upsides. (The women who participated in her time log project also demonstrated this work-on-the-weekend habit: 40% of logs showed work on Saturday, and more than 50%Â showed work on Sunday.)
"Using the weekends makes a more limited schedule during the workweek possible," Vanderkam writes. Think of it this wayâ"If you're trying to work a certain number of hours, working five hours on the weekend translates to an hour less you need to work every weekday," Vanderkam writes.
There's also something to the concept of starting Monday out two steps ahead. "In the context of the whole mosaic, sometimes working on the weekend is less stressful than not working on the weekend," she continues.
Instead, adopt "the Sabbath concept," she states. "It's good to take 24 hours off at some point to clear your head." This way you still get a real recharging period, and the rest of the days of the week are less stressful overall.
Stop stressing over family dinner
This is part of what Vanderkam calls "the 24-hour trap." We all feel this pressure to get a certain number of things done each day, including those daily rituals with our families.
But just because you can't have a picture-perfect family dinner every night doesn't mean that you're not around, explains Vanderkam. "Of all the work/life narratives out there, the most insidious is this: success in the larger world requires painful trade-offs at home," she writes. If you can swing family dinner two or three nights a week, you should view that as a success.
Vanderkam also noted that several busy moms spend their best quality time with their little ones in the early morning. "You can spend time with them first, before the rest of life gets in the way," she writes.
You can even apply this mindset to your romantic life: date nights don't have to be, well, at night. "Several women who worked near their husbands got together with them for lunch once a week," Vanderkam writes. "Date breakfast might work as well."
Remember to nurture yourself
This boilerplate advice is, let's face it, annoying when you're busy. But that's again because of the "24-hour trap." Taking time for yourself doesn't have to be consistent day to day. Vanderkam writes, "Yes, daily rituals are nice, but they're not the only strategy for building a productive life."
IfÂ leisure time pops up out of nowhere, you also have to be prepared to seize it, she adds, referencing one woman who found herself caught off guard by free time and just read Facebook and Twitter and ate Girl Scout cookies instead of seizing the moment.
"Whatever your favorite activities are, knowing what they are, and keeping them at the top of your mind, helps you take advantage of the pockets of time we all have in our lives," sheÂ writes. "Time is elastic. It stretches to accommodate what we need or want to do with it."
Don't sweat the small stuff
You don't have to make your kids' lunches every day unless you choose to, you can skip the long drive to visit an old friend this time, and if you can afford it, go ahead and spend your hard-earned dollars on time-saving perks like that grocery delivery service.
"If you've got food, a bed, and a healthy family, there's really no reason to make life harder than it needs to be," Vanderkam writes. "The laundry can wait. Contentment shouldn't."