Being overwhelmed with endless to do lists and being "crazy busy" seems to be the natural state of affairs for everyone these days, from overscheduled junior-high students to recent college grads to their parents and even — surprisingly — their grandparents. But it's one thing to identify, or complain about, a problem, and another to figure out how we got here (and how we can change the narratives of our lives).
Veteran Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte tackled the, well, overwhelming problem in her new book, "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When Nobody Has the Time." A married mother of two teenagers who works full-time at the Post (as well as contributing to the New America foundation), Schulte dug deep and discovered plenty that wasn't so pretty about the new American cult of busyness. I had the chance to have a long, thoughtful conversation with the author, who, in the course of researching and writing this book, uncovered some truths about her own life that will ring true with many other women (and men).
MNN: What made you want to explore how overwhelmed we are?
Brigid Schulte: I was just feeling so completely swamped all the time — busy, running around, doing too much at work, and so much with my kids, feeling like I barely had time to breathe. And I thought that was just how it was supposed to be, and everybody else around me was feeling similar — not sleeping a lot. And because of it, we were all often feeling angry and resentful. At the same time, I was on a committee at the Washington Post to look at why women weren't reading the newspaper; there was a large gap between men and women's reading. The women sitting around the table knew the answer: We are too busy to read.
And I felt angry that there didn't seem to be anything in magazines or newspapers or books to help me understand what was going on. There were mommy books that made me feel less alone, but they didn't get me anywhere, but reinforced that this is "just the way it has to be." Nobody in movies or TV seemed to reflect my life, and it was very isolating. I wondered if maybe everyone else has it figured out? And felt sort of resigned to it. I started doing my research and contacting experts and was challenged to do a time study.
That study turned into an article for the Post about how working families use free time. What was the initial reaction?
The online comments were critical and horrendous, but then I started getting hundreds and hundreds of emails from people — they were long and impassioned and full of pain and rage. It wasn't just working mothers, it was young people and old people, and men, writing to me. There was this cry: "Why are we living like this? This is not how I want to live my life!" But what more could I say to them? We're busy and it sucks.
So I thought, if this was going to be a larger project, "What would I really want to know?" Two questions animated the whole search: 1. Why are things the way they are? What's the history and the cultural context? I brought all of my skills as a journalist to the question. And 2. How can things be better? If it were easy, we'd be doing it. Who's doing it better? What is there to learn? I wanted to have some hope.
So, how did we get here? I thought that we were supposed to be working less in the future.
I looked externally at societal structures as well as internally, and was struck by three things. There's the unconscious bias that is still so strong in terms of what we think of as the ideal worker/woman/man. I didn't realize how strong those cultural assumptions are and how powerfully they acted on me. These ideals came from a different time and have also grown out of proportion so we have gotten to the place where the ideal employee is a completely work-first employee. A global survey of CEOs and work found that the ideal employee is a "Worker who has no caregiving responsibilities." But who is that anymore?
Wages have stagnated, and extreme work hours have been on rise since the 1980s. We are not just working hard, we are working crazy. It's out of control and unsustainable. The flip side is what's happening on the home front. The notion of what the ideal mother is has changed; the gap between what we are expected to do as mothers and what we actually do has never been higher.
I was struck by Pew Research Center findings that 60 percent of the people surveyed felt ambivalent about working mothers. If we haven't even come to terms with the fact that mothers work and that's OK, our workplace cultures are going to continue to be unforgiving, and our policies and laws won't change.
Where are all these late nights, and the sacrifice of leisure time getting us? Is anyone immune?
It doesn't even get the best work out of people. About 77 percent of workers feel disengaged and burnt out according to a Gallup poll. We have completely forgotten about play and leisure. We think it's unimportant and we have devalued it. There's this profound sadness and a sense of loss. What are we living for?
And the crazy thing is that this feeling stretches across so many groups. People feel overwhelmed at similar levels across many regions, all races, ethnicities and even ages. About 40 percent of people in one study feel so overworked they couldn't breathe — that held steady over various socioeconomic groups and 20 percent of retired people feel overworked.
What is the fundamental reason behind this busyness?
If you look at busyness, at its heart, it's a way to keep yourself from thinking about what is the most important thing — which is that our lives are short. It's a good way to avoid the ultimate reality.
I found really hopeful things. A whole chapter of the book is about bright spots; not just for families, but so that people can have full lives. Taking breaks and taking time off and away, we can make connections, which makes you not only a happier, healthier person, it means you can do more work. It helps you do more efficient, productive work.
I'm hoping to spark a national conversation. I think it's clear that men are feeling completely overwhelmed too; this isn't just a women's issue. So there's this cry from all sorts of different quarters, "Enough!" How trapped men are in the ideal worker notion too; it's become a national conversation because men are finally getting it too. This is a conversation for everybody.
What practical things can we do if we feel busy and overwhelmed?
You have to think about change on two levels. Absolutely we need to rethink unconscious bias and workplace expectations and laws and policies. And we need to address our current gender roles and who should do what work at home. But I'm 52 and I can't wait for social change, which takes time.
How do I carve out time in my own life day? One way is to take a pause regularly, however it is you do that. Taking a walk, meditation, take that time regularly. Do a weekly phone call for 10 minutes of check-in. How is it going? How are you making time for your family? Are you taking leisure time? You have to make the intention, and it takes some will, but it's a skill that gets easier over time.
Be aware of external pressures. Set your own priorities and get in touch with your own intuition and your own family. Nobody knows better than you what you need.
With work, it's really important to think: What is your mission? What is your performance? Rather than just putting in the hours, figure out how you work best. I'm still struggling with this. Find a way to create boundaries. One of the things I do is chunk my time. I work in 90-minute pulses, and then I take a break, for 30 minutes do social media/email/ then do another work pulse. I'm much more productive that way. And I start my week with a brain dump. I create a To Do list for work, for love and and for play. And then I give myself permission to not do anything on that list. But it's a way to gets stuff down and out of my head. Every morning I try to pick one thing that's most important and do that first. And then the day feels like a win.
Flip the to-do list. Put the joy first, and then everything else is stuff. It's so accessible, that 10-minute pause. As Tara Brach says, "life is short and today is an incredible day."
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