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9 Secrets the Most Productive People Know

April 11, 2016

'What I learned from studying how 133 highly successful women spend their time'

Much of the literature on women, work and life is profoundly negative. In the usual format, our harried heroine is doing her level best to build a career and a family. Then, a series of dark moments lead to an epiphany that something must change. She must scale back or opt out—unless she wants to, in the famous quote from the book The Second Shift, speak of sleep “the way a hungry person talks about food.”

But like all popular narratives, this one has some holes in it. Plenty of people are able to combine big jobs, families and personal time just fine.

How do I know? From 2013-2014, I collected time diaries from 133 women who met two conditions: They had to earn over $100,000 a year and have at least one child living at home. Altogether, they gave me data on 1,001 days in their lives. I wanted to see what the lives of people who “had it all” (at least by this admittedly arbitrary definition) really looked like.

The answer is that they had far more balanced lives than most people think. I wrote about their stories and strategies in my book, I Know How She Does It. Here are some of my favorite secrets for how they made it all work—and how you can, too.

1. Take a proactive approach to your 9-to-5
Many of the women I studied planned their weeks out ahead of time so they hit Monday morning ready to go. They limited the time they spent emailing so they could spend longer periods focused on high-priority tasks. They also worked to actively anticipate any issues (potential snow days? during-the-day kid events?) that might disrupt their days.

2. …But work flexibly
Successful women know that work doesn’t just have to happen between 9 and 5. About three-quarters of the women I looked at did work outside of normal work hours. Why? Perhaps because the same number did something personal during work hours! Work-life integration allowed people to make all the pieces of their lives fit together. About half the women in my study worked what I called a “split shift.” They’d leave work at a reasonable hour (e.g. 5 p.m.), they’d go home and spend the evening with family and then they’d do more work after the kids went to bed. This meant they were sacrificing TV time, rather than family time, to do work.

Read more: Why You Should Plan For ‘Unscheduled’ Time in Your Calendar

3. Take life one week—not one day—at a time
Any given day might not be balanced, but people who successfully balance their work and family lives realize that we don’t live our lives in days—we live them in weeks. The women I studied would take any given moment in context. If someone spent two nights traveling for work, for instance, she’d make the most of the five nights she was home.

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4. Make time to invest in your future
Even if the successful women I studied were trying to limit their total working hours (the average was 44 per week), they made sure to invest in relationships, skill-building and pitching new work. If you’ve got a lot going on in your personal life, it’s easy to hunker down and focus on the work in front of you. But in the long run, you’re better off chucking some of the busy work and using that time to go out for lunch or drinks with colleagues.

5. Be creative with family time
Many busy families find it hard to make family dinner happen. But that’s not the only option for a family meal. Many of the women I studied chose to emphasize family breakfasts instead. People with the most fulfilling personal lives were mindful about family time and thought through how they could create family memories—but didn’t get hung up on having them fit any prescribed routines.

Read more: 12 Work-Life Balance Tips That Will Make You Happier and More Successful

6. Join the ‘good enough’ camp
Housework will expand to fill all of your free time if you let it. While it costs money to outsource housekeeping, it doesn’t cost anything to lower your standards, so that’s an easy option. The women I studied who had the most relaxed lives generally realized that there would be no 11 p.m. home inspection with some one coming to make sure everything was put away. The toys would just come out again the next morning, so these women chose to use time after the kids went to bed for work, leisure or time with their partners.

7. Prioritize sleep and exercise
The good news is that the women I studied slept an average of 54 hours per week, or just a little under eight hours per day. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Building a career while raising a family requires a lot of energy. Sleep and exercise add to people’s energy levels. The vast majority of the women I studied managed to exercise during the period they kept diaries. Those who made it happen realized that they didn’t have to achieve perfection. Rather than working out for an hour at the same time every day, they’d fit it in where they could. Someone might get up a little earlier one morning a week to exercise, go for a brisk walk at lunch another day, trade off childcare with a partner one evening to hit the gym and do something on the weekend.

Read more: ‘My Secret Weapon For Career Success: Exercise’

8. Choose better ways to spend your leisure time
The women I studied watched some TV, but not a ton (about four and a half hours per week). That gave them time to get together with friends, exercise, read, volunteer and maintain hobbies. By proactively choosing meaningful leisure activities, these successful women reduced the chances of just turning on the TV because it was easy.

9. Use any and all scraps of time
Free time sometimes comes in small chunks, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used. One woman with a long commute used the 10 minutes before she and her sons had to be in the car each day to play with them. That’s a much better idea than checking email or puttering around the house. Another woman used her time on the bus to knit. Even time spent standing in line can be used to text loved ones or read poetry, rather than to check email yet again.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of I Know How She Does It, 168 Hours and What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast.