"The 13 habits I've stolen from successful women. And they work."

I laugh at articles about “successful people”. A lot. They seem to be written by the personal assistant of a high-powered man with a live-in barista who knows exactly when to activate his almonds and pour his coffee after he’s sweated it out with his personal trainer and meditated on his mantra.

Then, for the podcast I Don’t Know How She Does It, I interviewed seven successful, fabulous and frank women with crazy busy lives, high-flying careers and, between them, 22 children who need to be wrangled.

It changed my life.

These women were so real and so honest. They admitted their strengths and their vulnerabilities. I learned a lot – and now I’m stealing some of their life strategies. I admit it’s been one of the toughest months of my life: my husband has been away, I’ve had the flu and my mother got sick. Yet I feel I’ve survived the rough patch because of these 13 strategies.  Each has made life a little bit more manageable and a little less frantic.

Here’s what they do that has has worked for me.

1. Get up early.

It almost kills me to write this because I am not a morning person. I’m Snoopy, the cartoon character who said “I think I’m allergic to mornings”.  Even when I do early morning radio, I never feel right.  But every single successful women I interviewed gets up early. Jessica Rowe is up at 5am to get to work but even those who start work at 9am get up early.  Jane Kennedy is up at 5.30am and the other mothers are not far behind her.  All the women I chatted to like to be ahead of their children and snatch some quiet alone time to get their heads into gear for the day ahead. That usually involves a quiet cup of tea (or four – I’m looking at you, Annabel Crabb).  So, I’ve begun getting up with the birds and the plane noise.  I can’t say I love it, but I definitely feel more ahead of the game.


2. Exercise at some stage – preferably early.

Mia Freedman gets straight on the treadmill, often on her pyjamas. Justine Clarke runs with her large dog. Carolyn Creswell plays tennis one evening a week and runs around on a farm all weekend.  Juanita Phillips walks her puppy and does an active form of yoga.  Since we spoke, I’ve been walking my dog in the dark at 6.15am. The dog and I are bleary eyed and stiff of limb in the mornings but I must admit it’s a beautiful time of day to be alive. The kookaburras did laugh at me the day I jogged in my PJs but I didn’t care. Sunrises are a new beauty in my life.

3. Have a super-dooper strict routine.

Nearly all these women have a rather rock solid routine. Juanita Phillips says, as a single mother, hers is a military one. Mia Freedman says doing the same thing every day reduces her anxiety and the more the same life is, the happier she is. Actors Jane Kennedy and Justine Clarke have a lot of variety in their lives, but maintain a structure to their days that they build variation around.

And that is the key – the strict routine is vital, but all women insist it must have room for flexibility. I am about as allergic to routine as I am to mornings. I love spontaneity, thrill, excitement, newness and surprise. But I’ve had to learn to let those things go – or at least reserve them for weekends. So I have built routine into my life. My life has been on triage lately – jumping from one disaster to another – but having a routine has meant less mess in my head and my life.



4. Multi-task to a schedule.

We all multi-task. But Mia and Annabel multi-task to a routine. They even schedule their shower to coincide with the ABC’s AM radio program. Carolyn Creswell conducts her mentoring session with young business people during her half hour drive to work. She has the number ready in the phone and presses call as she pulls away from the school gate. Carolyn also rings her mother and one friend on the way home. Juanita Phillips keeps on top of the news via Twitter while doing the shopping.

I have put a radio in the bathroom, I now don’t head bang to music on the drive home and instead I check in with friends, family and my mum.

5. The art of the graceful ‘no’.

Entrepreneur and owner of Carmen’s Foods Carolyn Creswell says learning to say ‘no’ changed her life. The successful businesswoman runs a business, sits on boards, is an ambassador and mentor.  She is honest with people up-front about what she can deliver, but says her secret is being brilliant at saying no. Within 24 hours of being asked to do something she will either accept or say no. And she will say no kindly, firmly and with grace.

I’ve got better at saying no.  But I’m not good at …

6. Getting help.

Carolyn gets her mum to do little errands, her husband is at home to do a lot of the wrangling and she put an ad in the paper for a loving grandmother who comes to cook meals every weekday. Jane Kennedy (who has five children) says the ‘lovely Mary’ has saved her life and comes every day from 3pm until 7pm.  Annabel Crabb has had a series of fun and interesting au-pairs. Justine Clark has a mum, sister and brother who are older and help.


I struggle with this one. But I’ve let a few friends drop me some dinners over the last month and pick up my kids. I regret not getting a live-in helper while my husband was away, but I did get a sitter most Saturdays and a cleaner once a week.

7. Keep weekends as family time.

Juanita Phillips doesn’t let her kids do weekend sport. It’s too hard. Weekends are for no schedule, fun, frivolity, flexibility and a slower pace. Carolyn Creswell’s large family go to their farm every weekend. There, they can be free and recharge for the week ahead. I can’t get my daughter to quit sport or my son to stop his drum lesson, but I am making weekends more fun. Popcorn, nachos, movies, a retreat from having to do things and a shift to actually wanting to.

8. Create a sanctuary for yourself.

Juanita Phillips does yoga a couple of times a week. Her time on the mat is the only time she is truly at peace. For Jane Kennedy it’s a occasional date with her husband Rob Stitch. Jessica Rowe retreats in the middle of the day to the couch with chocolate, coffee and an episode of Desperate Housewives but she says playing the role of an evil empress in a pantomime was also about reclaiming of a space for herself. Annabel Crabb finds solace in cooking. Carolyn retreats to her farm and Mia Freedman’s solace and sanctuary is at night when she gets into bed with her kids, chats and cuddles them tight. Justine Clarke likes to let her mind run free while running with her dog in a lovely park.

I’m failing here. I need to get back to yoga but I have been getting to an occasional movie at a theatre that allows you to take in a glass of wine. Heaven. I come home recharged and less cranky.


9. Friends are soul food.

Carolyn Creswell’s life is packed but she makes space for two book groups and a tennis gang. Jane Kennedy says her friends are vital.  “We have had a lot of parties lately as lots are turning 50 and we are all just in love with ourselves”. She makes time for mates and loves spontaneous catch ups as often as possible.

10. Choose the battles that are worth fighting. Drop the ones that aren’t.

Juanita says homework is not worth the angst with primary school kids.  Mia is on the same wavelength: “I used to get upset at the homework but now I don’t worry. They are only missing spelling, it’s not worth fighting about, D is for Damage, T is for therapy.” Jane Kennedy doesn’t iron.

I have long dropped the homework fight and have never ironed. But I’ve told my daughter she has to fight her own battles with the teacher if she doesn’t do her assignments.

Juanita says homework is not worth the angst with primary school kids.

11. Sleep.

Jess Rowe admits she doesn’t get enough but the rest of our female friends on the podcast try to get eight hours a night. For Mia and Carolyn Creswell it’s absolutely essential and not negotiable. Carolyn has an app on her phone that calms her down at the end of the day and prepares her for sleep.

I’ve started going to bed not long after my children. There’s less me time in front of the TV but it makes the early morning wake up less torturous.

12. Drop expectations.

Jane Kennedy says Masterchef is fantasy. The reason she now produces cookbooks is because meal times became too fraught and women would come up to her in the supermarket in a panic and ask her what to do. She says sausage in a roll is a good dinner, especially if you put some hummus and vegetables on the table. I’ve never been gourmet but I’m now serving dinners that Annabel Crabb might flinch at and taken Mia Freedman’s advice that a cooked chook does wonders. And all hail the Queen of Mince Jessica Rowe for revealing the different ways it can be cooked.

Jessica Rowe is the Queen of Mince Meat.

13. Cry and laugh when it all falls apart.

Jane Kennedy says she has learnt to deal with failure and not judge herself too harshly.  She finished her podcast by assuring us it’s okay to cry, and then we both laughed. Jessica Rowe actually laughs so hard at her parenting disasters she snorts. Her honesty about getting to the checkout at the supermarket and not having any money, about her daughter only having one sports shoe at the moment and hiding in the bedroom while the kids fight in the bath filled me with indescribable joy.  I’ve had so many disasters lately her giggling generosity has meant that when I’ve been close to tears I’ve laughed instead.

These women all know that everyone struggles sometimes. That we are all often overwhelmed.

These are the strategies I’ve learnt. All have helped me. I’d love to hear yours.  Meanwhile you can subscribe to the podcast and hear them all on iTunes or on Omny below.

What are your tips and tricks for managing life, work and family?

Want more? Try these… 

The one thing that successful women do every morning.

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Four successful women on what they tell women who want to get ahead at work.