How to stop feeling so overwhelmed and enjoy more of life

Brigid Shulte, author of Overwhelmed, on what is keeping women from achieving a healthy work-life balance.


Photo, Masterfile.

In 2010, when Brigid Schulte wrote an article titled, “The Test of Time: A busy working mother tries to figure out where all her time is going” for the Washington Post, she had little knowledge of the impact it would have on her life. In 2014, she passed on what she learned in the must-read book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time

Overwhelmed, which speaks to any woman feeling like she can’t balance it all, helps us relieve guilt, focus on what’s really important and teaches us how we can spend more time doing what we love. We spoke with Schulte about her experience:

Q: What was it that initially sparked your interest in this topic?
A: This was an accidental book. I don’t know that I would ever have tracked my time and set off on this journey unless I had been been appointed to a committee to study the decline in female readership at the Washington Post, where I’ve worked as a reporter since 1999.

The Women Readers Committee, as we came to be called, made up entirely of women, took one look around the room at each other and collectively rolled our eyes: If women weren’t reading the newspaper, we figured, they were just too crazy busy.

Being reporters, we wanted to find the data that backed up our assertion. Someone mentioned that there must be time studies to show how busy women were. I’d never heard of time research, but I volunteered to look for it. I Googled “busy, women, time” and found a time-use researcher named John Robinson. When I called him and said we thought women were too busy to read the paper, he said, “Wrong. Women aren’t too busy. They have 30 hours of leisure every week. More time now than they did in the 1960s, even though more of them work in the market.”

When I told him he was out of his mind, he told me to come and do a time study with him and he’d show me where all my leisure time was.

The head of the Women Readers Committee was also an editor at the Washington Post magazine at the time. She told me to do the time study and write about it for the magazine. And that’s how this whole wild ride began.

Q: Of all the people you spoke to in this book, what would you say is the thing they all craved the most?
A: Time . . . to breathe, to think, to rest, to enjoy, to be filled with joy — without feeling guilty or that they’d fall even further behind if they jumped off the treadmill for even a moment. There was a real sense of loss when I spoke to a number of people. The feeling that it’s difficult to feel that we’re living inside their lives and in the moment, instead of watching it speed by from the sidelines.

Q: Despite the fact that women are working so much today, we still spend the same amount of time with our children as mothers in the 60s did. Where do you think pressure for moms to ‘be it all’ has come from?
A: I was puzzling over that question myself. I love my mother. She, like a lot of mothers in the 1960s, quit her job in a lab when my older sister was born and devoted her life to caring for her four daughters. But I don’t remember her playing with me, or reading to me or obsessing over my homework or worrying about my future. She did cart us around to lessons. But there were times when we’d get home from school and she wouldn’t be there. A few times, we were even locked out.

I was wondering why I felt so compelled to bake cupcakes at 2 a.m. to bring to the school Valentine’s Day party, why I was soaked in guilt if my daughter missed a ballet class scheduled inconveniently in the middle of the afternoon when working parents — and that’s the majority of both mothers and fathers these days — are at work.

When I started finding surveys showing a deep ambivalence about working mothers, particularly about whether mothers of young children should work, and a deep worry whether working mothers, who put their children in child care, could also form close relationships with their children, it all began to make sense. That ambivalence also fuels the guilt that drives mothers to overdo — they feel they have to make up for the fact that they’re working.

At the same time, I found reports from the 1980s and early 1990s that asserted working mothers weren’t spending as much time with their children, which set off a fusillade, particularly from more conservative quarters, that working mothers were selfish and abandoning their children — which added another layer of guilt — and we began praising mothers who’d “opted out” or sidelined their careers, sacrificed themselves and their dreams in order to put their children first.

So working mothers went into overdrive trying to prove that they did indeed love their children. And at-home mothers who’d opted out, went into overdrive, to show that their sacrifice was worth it.

The only thing? The data in those time studies was wrong. Working mothers today now spend as much or more time with their children than at-home mothers of the 60s and 70s. And they’ve given up sleep, personal care, housework and all their leisure time in order to do it.

Q: Do you think that more choice has actually made people more stressed?
A: Absolutely. Time management guru David Allen brilliantly calls it the GSA of life — or the Gnawing Sense of Anxiety that there is something out there that might be more important than what you’re currently doing. There are so many options and choices these days. There is so much more information. Trying to even decide what to pay attention to (hello, firehose of twitter feeds) not only taxes the brain but wears down willpower — a finite resource — and leads to “decision fatigue.”

Q: How do you think the hyper pace of today will affect the next generations as adults? Will they rebel or all have nervous breakdowns?
A: I think the data is really clear about what all this overscheduling, fear of the future and hyperparenting is doing to our kids: They’re stressed out of their minds. Many now think their parents will only love or approve of them if they achieve, achieve, achieve.

I was really struck by the work of Suniya Luthar, a psychologist at Columbia University’s teacher college. She found that kids in the high-achieving affluent suburbs of New York City were actually more stressed, and two to three times more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and distress than kids living in harsh urban poverty in crime-ridden neighbourhoods. That’s an unbelievable finding.

You think you’re giving your children an edge, and you’re actually making them sick, both physically and mentally sick. Other researchers have found that these kids, once they hit college, aren’t really sure who they are or what they like, because they’ve been so programmed all their lives.

The other thing that struck me was the work of Jean Twenge — about how these kids who are both pressured to achieve and also made to feel that they are the centre of the universe — are entitled, self-centered and miserable.

Q: If we can take one thing away from Denmark (which you set as an example of a country that has better balance) what do you think it should be?
A: I’d love for us to learn that work, love and play are inextricably linked, and you need all three for the Good Life:

1. Short, flexible, intensely productive work hours and cultures and policies that recognize and value that workers are humans who have lives too.

2. Gender equity: When I was reporting in Denmark, one woman asked me, “Gender equity, it’s all we ever talk about. Don’t you get tired of that in the United States?” And I about cried. Because at the time, our politicians were resurrecting a decades-old argument about whether women should have access to birth control!

3. And finally, we need to embrace time for leisure, protect sacred time for family and for ourselves, and [what they call] hygge — the simple beauty of the ordinary moment.

Q: What can employers learn from your book about ways to benefit and empower their employees?
A: That what we think of as the ideal worker isn’t ideal at all. That expecting and rewarding workers who come in early, leave late, never take vacation, jump on a plane at the drop of the hat, are not necessarily the best workers, nor the most productive and creative. In fact, working that way is leading to burn out and, several surveys show, disengagement and “presenteeism” — when you become just a butt in the chair.

I want them to know that unconscious bias (men = career, women = home and family) is alive and well in all of our brains because those are the movies we’ve been playing in our heads for centuries, and it’s going to take awareness and will to change.

And I want them to begin to read the fascinating, emerging science that shows how working short, bounded, intense hours, with deliberate and refreshing breaks between “pulses” actually promotes creativity. There’s a reason why you get your best ideas in the shower: The brain is wired for the “aha” moments of inspiration to come when you are at rest, taking a walk and not forcing your nose to the grindstone. That’s work time too.

That, I think, is the most important thing to remember — that flexible workplaces are not just a nice to have for people with families, but actually make all of us better, more creative and productive workers. And in a knowledge economy, isn’t that what you want to cultivate?

Q: What has writing this book made you change about your own life? Professionally, personally and at home?
A: I’m still, as I write in the book, very much a work in progress. But I’ve learned a lot, changed a lot, and my time feels better.

Here are a few of the changes I’ve made and my family has made:
1. On my good days, I work in pulses of 30, 45 and 90 minutes, like Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project recommends, then take breaks.

2. I pause before automatically reacting and ask myself: Do I really want to bake these cupcakes at 2 a.m. for the class party? Who am I doing this for? What value am I going for here? And I realize that what I value is connection to my kids. And staying up late doing something so others will think I’m a good mother, actually makes me a bad mother — I’m so tired I get cranky and snap at my kids — and lose the opportunity to have those moments of connection that are what life is all about.

3. My husband and I talk regularly in a way we hadn’t before and are much more intentional about dividing chores and child care. That has cleared a lot of the mental noise in my head, because I no longer have to keep track of all the logistics in my brain. I’m no longer stomping around seething and resentful and angry all the time, which makes me nicer to be around — even for me.

4. I’m much more willing to share child care now that I’ve spent time with Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, one of the world’s pre-eminent scholars on motherhood, and have learned that, just as mothers are wired to nurture, so, too, are fathers. And that the biggest reason why mothers wind up doing it is cultural custom and TIME. And if we give fathers more time with babies early on by themselves, our relationships and division of labour will be much more equal down the road. (It’s true! Time studies are finding that.) That we expect mothers to do it all on their own is a very new phenomenon.

5. I’ve completely revamped the way I keep my to-do list. Instead of listing everything I need to do, ever, in my life, and feeling like I have to do it all today, I set a handful of priorities. It’s helped me realize that so much stuff that I felt I had to put a lot of time and energy into before I could enjoy myself or take a break really only deserved no more than five percent of my time and energy.

6. That’s freed up time for play. A group of friends and I formed a very loose group, like the Mice at Play I profiled in my book, and whenever someone has an idea to do something fun, we toss it out there, say we’re going and join if you can. I no longer feel like I have to earn leisure time.