Straight Talk About Time Management for Job Seekers

How much time do we really have?

Laura Vanderkam, noted author on time management and productivity, believes in rethinking the concept of how much time we have in the day, both for work and family responsibilities and for doing the things we enjoy.

In a Q&A with Tami Forman, Laura talks about how returners can prioritize their job search, how to reduce the “mental load” we often carry, and which scheduling strategies can help.

Q: Stay-at-home parents and other caregivers who want to return to the workforce need to make time for the job hunt. What are some strategies for doing that?

Laura: Job hunting is always easy to put off because it sounds so nebulous and other things seem more immediately pressing. A few strategies can help.

  • First, make a specific list of activities you intend to do: updating your resume, getting references, taking a course, meeting former colleagues for coffee.
  • Second, commit to devoting time to the job hunt first, before tackling other things. Let’s say your children are in school. As soon as they get on the bus or as soon as you drop them off, work through your designated list of job hunting activities for the day. The errands can wait.
  • Finally, set a time limit for the day. This sounds counter intuitive, but by setting a time limit (say, two hours per day) you can relax the rest of the time, knowing you’ve already done what you set out to do. That can help you feel far more positive about the process.

Tami: I’ve talked to so many people who say they’ve been thinking about going back to work for years. I especially love the idea of giving yourself a time limit. If you do it right, it becomes a commitment. It also creates slow and steady progress, which is really what wins the day in job hunting (and many other things).

Q: There’s a lot of talk about the “mental load” on women, especially moms — the never-ending lists of who, what, where, and when associated with family life. What are ways to counter this?

Laura: When you’re a stay-at-home parent, you naturally shoulder much of the mental load of parenting. It just makes sense as a division of labor.

But when you go back into the workforce, offloading some of this can be the difference between happiness and extreme stress. First, recognize that not everything has to be done nor does everything have to be done by you. Start demanding more from your children. Their school projects are theirs, not yours. They can make their own lunches or buy. They can help arrange carpools.

You can hire after school help, and that person can take over the mental responsibility for the activity schedule. Your spouse can also step up to the plate. Try asking what responsibilities your spouse would like to take over and how you can work together to help make this a successful transition.

But keep in mind that your spouse might also be doing more than you think. It’s easy to notice the work we do and not the work others do. In our family, I know I do a lot of the kid scheduling. But I have never changed a light bulb in seven years of living in this house. I have never brought my clothes to the dry cleaner or picked them up. I have never put air in a kid’s bike tire… and we have a lot of kid bikes.

Tami: I’d add that one way to reduce the mental load is to make it not mental. Write it down! Yes, it takes a few more minutes in the short term, but it becomes more manageable in the long run. And writing more down can also solve the “I see what I do, but not what you do” problem.

Q: What are some ways to let go of the guilt many people feel when they don’t adhere to someone else’s priorities?

Laura: I think the biggest thing you can do is recognize that time is valuable. If someone asked you to give them $500, you’d probably raise your eyebrows and sputter. You’d at least ask some questions about it. Yet somehow asking for time doesn’t raise the same trepidation even though it’s the exact same thing (or worse! You can make more money. You can’t make more time.)

Next time someone asks you to do something you’re not excited about, try putting a dollar figure on it so the opportunity cost becomes more real (that’s a trip to Florida!).

Another issue is that it’s hard to say no, and the farther something is in the future the more it feels like we’re assigning it to a different person. “Oh yes, October me won’t be busy!” But by October you will be just as busy as current you… with the added fun of this other commitment you were lukewarm about several months prior.

So, when someone asks you to do something in the future, ask yourself if you’d do it tomorrow. If you’d move things around or cancel things to fit in this new opportunity, then go ahead and say yes. You’ll be just as excited in October. But if the answer for tomorrow is absolutely no, probably that should be your answer for the future too.

Tami: I often tell people that they need to say “no” to the things they don’t want to do in order to say “yes” to the things they do want to do. I also love the idea of assigning a dollar to the time. And for parents who aren’t currently working that is even more important — is this activity keeping you from going back to work or looking for work? Because if so, it really is costing you a lot of money.

Q: What is your advice to returners in terms of time management? It can be a struggle when you’re used to a certain routine, especially if you’re trying to minimize disruption to your family’s schedules.

Laura: I’d suggest letting go of the idea that you are duty bound to minimize disruption to your family’s schedules. You are worth some disruption! Especially if you’ve been meeting everyone else’s needs for years they can deal with a little discomfort while they learn to meet yours.

Yes, there will be hiccups, but there are always hiccups in life. Do not tell yourself the story that you going back to work is the problem. If a kid forgets her after school snack, she forgets her snack. End of story. It’s not because everything is falling apart.

Tami: One thing I love about your work is the way you push us to reframe issues and ask different questions. If the question is “How do I minimize disruption for my family?” the answer might be “Don’t go back to work.” But if the question is actually “How can the family come together to support mom in her career restart?” that yields a very different answer.


Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books including most recently “Tranquility by Tuesday: 9 Ways to Calm the Chaos and Make Time for What Matters.” This interview was conducted by Tami Forman, the founding executive director of Path Forward and a frequent speaker on issues related to caregiving and workforce participation.

Originally published June 2018.