Brigid Schulte is the author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. Brigid is also a regular contributor to the She The People blog and has written for Style, Outlook, the Washington Post magazine, and other outlets.
NAW- Tell us about your book,Overwhelmed. How did you get the idea for it?What is it about? How did you select the title?
The book is an accidental book. I was feeling that I was so busy I could barely breathe, and yet feeling totally inadequate, that I could never do as much as I needed to or wanted to at work, and never do enough at home and especially enough with and for my kids. Then a time-use researcher told me I had 30 hours of leisure and, when I said he was crazy, challenged me to keep a time diary.
It truly changed my life. He found 27 hours of what he called leisure and I called bits and scraps of garbage. That set me out on what is really a journey to understand why life feels so crazy, not just for me, or for women, but for everybody, really, and how things can be better. It’s about time pressure and modern life, and about how our work cultures prize overwork and face time over performance, how our cultural attitudes are still pretty stuck when it comes to gender roles, which adds to working mother guilt, which fuels over parenting to compensate for it, how busyness, rather than leisure, has become a status symbol and how technology is only speeding things up for everyone. It’s a quest for The Good Life, really, in the 21st century.
My agent is really the one who came up with the title, because she kept hearing me talk about how overwhelming life felt. And one day, when I was sick, I was watching TED Talks – great video cliff notes – and heard a talk by Marvin Seligman, a positive psychologist, talking about how The Good Life requires time in the three great arenas of life: work, love and play. And that’s when not only the subtitle for the book hit me, but also the way I would structure the book – asking the two questions – why are things the way they are, and how can they be better – in each of the three arenas.
NAW- In today’s hectic world, time management is a must I guess but very few can actually do it. How did you start finding time for leisure and how difficult was it initially finding time for writing this book?
Initially, it was almost impossible to find time to write this book, because I was so caught up in trying to be the Ideal Worker and putting in a zillion hours at work, and at the same time, unconsciously also trying to be the Ideal Mother. I put myself last, thinking that time for myself was selfish and that I didn’t really deserve it. Also, I was shouldering most of the housework – my husband and I had fallen into pretty traditional gender roles without even meaning to – and that kept me not only physically exhausted, but my mind mentally cluttered with all the stuff I had to keep track of – child care, sick babysitters, Girl Scout forms, homework, teacher meetings, summer camp plans …
Things began to change slowly, and entirely as a result of all the research and reporting I was doing. In a way, writing this book was like a gift. They say that the unexamined life is not worth living – and I had gotten so busy, I never had time to stop and examine anything – other than to notice how tired and crabby I felt so much of the time.
It took me nearly a year to write the book proposal – mainly because I wasn’t sure I really wanted to write this book – writing about leisure seemed so silly! And I fought the idea that I would be writing a “Mommy Book.” I didn’t want to do that. Finally, a friend pulled me aside, and said I could use her sister’s house on a river in rural Virginia a few hours away for the weekend. I packed up all my notes and notebooks, drove down on a Friday night and vowed not to return until the proposal was written on Sunday. I listened to Wayne Dyer’s “No Excuses” on the way down – I don’t typically read self help stuff, but I was terrified I wouldn’t finish it – perfectionism has led to such procrastination for me.
Once the proposal as finished and Sarah Crichton of Farrar Straus & Giroux bought it, she was lovely and gave me an advance and the New America Foundation granted me a fellowship – and with that financial support, I was able to take a leave from my job as a reporter for The Washington Post and begin to concentrate on writing this book.
In truth – what eventually helped me WRITE the book – and find leisure time – was the result of the reporting I did:
-Learning about the social science and psychology of the Ideal Worker – and how it’s an ideal that no one can ever live up to – and you can die trying. All human beings have a certain flavor of “not enoughness” about them – and these cultural icons can play on that sense of not being enough. So I began to see that imperative more clearly – along with the cultural imperative to be busy. I spent a wonderful afternoon on a walnut farm with Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and learned about the science of motherhood – that mothers have always worked, and that it’s only in this modern era that mothers are expected to do it all, all by themselves. That relieved so much working mother guilt. That, and learning that men are wired for nurture. That there’s no such thing as the maternal instinct – that both men and women are wired to nurture, and that what it takes to become good at it, is time.
-I loved learning about what kids really need. And the best thing you can do for your kids is not hover, but give them space to find out who they are and what they like – to let them fail and learn how to pick themselves up and build grit and resilience. Not over scheduling them, letting them do the things that they really love, and biting my tongue when I worry they’re not doing enough – has freed up my time and helped my kids become more independent.
-Working with Jessica DeGroot of the ThirdPath Institute helped my husband and I see how we’d fallen into traditional gender roles – we began taking long walks, and talking about how we got where we were, and what we both wanted instead. We began laying out all the chores it takes to run the household, and began dividing them more fairly – and setting common standards we could both live with – mine a little lower, his alittle higher – and we kept each other accountable. Honestly – more than anything, sharing the load has helped clear the mental clutter in my mind and cleared space to think. Now, sometimes, when he asks what I want for dinner – he now usually cooks – I say ‘To not have to think about it”
-Learning that women have never had a history or culture of leisure, that studies have found that women throughout the world feel they need to earn leisure, they don’t deserve it – helped me see that I didn’t have to buy into that old notion anymore. That, and learning the emerging neuroscience on the importance of rest, renewal, leisure and idle time for creativity and the A Ha moment – as well as for health – and I give myself permission now to read, to have fun, without feeling like I have to get to the end of the To Do list first.
NAW- Does technology also have a role to play in our lives becoming more hectic? Earlier in the 50’s people would go out, take a walk in the park while now we just tweet.
Time feels like it’s speeding by when we’re distracted and not fully in the moment – when our thoughts are a jumble and racing through our skulls. Technology can take us out of the moment and into our heads. As much as it frees us, to do work anywhere at any time, it often makes us feel constantly vigilant, and tethered to the office to do work everywhere and all the time. I think it’s still so new we humans are trying to adapt to it – and this is just a confusing time.
NAW- How much help was it keeping a time diary? Would you suggest that others do it too?
It was a pain to keep, to be honest. But it was revelatory. I worried I didn’t work enough – and was always worried about it. But in doing the time diary, it was crazy, my time was really fragmented, but when you added all the pieces up, I was working at least 50 hours a week or more. That blew my mind – I hadn’t counted the emails I returned late at night, etc. So I felt so unproductive because my time was so chopped up. So one of the most important things I learned to do was to gather my time and “chunk” it – doing like things and doing them in one period of time – rather than trying to do everything all at once. I also learned to work in “pulses” – 90 minutes of concentrated work first thing in the morning. And on my good days – I’m still a work in progress! – I’m able to work in a concentrated pulse, then take a break. I’ve been much, much more productive. I still need to work on cutting my hours down – I’m answering these questions late Sunday night when I really should be in bed! (The other thing I learned – workflow is never constant – there are periods of flood, and periods of ebb. And right after publishing a book – that’s just a flood! I’m just trying to ride it out, thrilled that the ideas in my book are catching fire. That was the whole point in writing it – to start a conversation about the way we work and live – and how to make positive change.
Keeping a time diary is just like writing everything down that you eat when you’re trying to change eating habits, keeping a work out journal, a dream diary, a journal, tracking your expenses. It’s one more tool to help you understand your life, to get clearer about habits and patterns you want to change – and to begin small experiments for what will help get you to the place you want to be.
NAW- Tell us about the research you carried out for the book.
I did extensive research for the book. I am a tenacious reporter, and don’t want to let something go until I drill down and drill down and drill down and finally “get it” – maybe I’m just thick, and it takes me awhile to understand – but I almost have to keep reporting until something clicks inside and things begin to make more sense. So I spoke to researchers, read widely – academic reports, medical studies, surveys, books, traveled – spoke to more people – read more … The research in my book draws on time-use studies, sociology, psychology, neuroscience, leisure studies, business practices, legal cases, economics, human performance science and motivation, and more.
NAW- What can readers (in particular men) expect to take away from the book?
This book is for everyone – men and women, young and old, whether you have children or you don’t. For those who have yet to have children – I want them to learn from my mistakes. For women, I hope they see their own struggles in mine, and can give themselves permission to be good enough, not perfect, and to realize they DO deserve to play right now – and that putting it off until all the chores are done means they’ll never get to it. For men, I want them to understand how they are just as trapped by Ideal Worker work cultures as women are by Ideal Mother norms. And that it is possible to become more authentic – embracing both their work life and the lives – and souls – outside of work. But that bucking those powerful cultural norms is hard, and hard to do on your own – it will require pausing, disrupting the cycle of busyness and unconscious bias, setting your own internal compass, and finding a network of support.
A male friend wrote me a note after he’d read the book that read: “Every man in America should read this book. It is so damn good.” Then he went on to recount how he was going to the grocery store and was about to interrupt his wife, who was in the middle of an important work project. “Then I thought of your book and realized – ‘I know what we need.’” – so he didn’t interrupt his wife – she got more of that uninterrupted, concentrated time that helps time feel slower – and he began a pattern that is setting them on a new path toward fairer sharing of home duties – which will lead, as it did in this case, to fairer sharing of work life, rather than men getting the concentrated time and women the fragmented bits interrupted by housework, child care, errands and stuff.
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?
When I’m not writing, it’s most important to me to spend time with my family, my husband, my son and daughter, as well as my extended family in Oregon. I love the outdoors – hiking and being on the water. I rowed crew for a season or two in the early morning and found that both invigorating and peaceful being out on the water. I enjoy being with my friends, reading. I love to travel, and it’s been fun to take my kids with me on book tour and explore new places. I also like to run regularly with my running partner and friend. Though right now, I’m trying to recover from a foot injury and going a little stir crazy – we “aqua jog” in a pool – and it’s just not the same as getting out and pounding the pavement. (Yes, I read What I Think About When I Think About Running!)
NAW- Who are your favorite writers?
I have so many! I studied literature in college and have long loved Shakespeare and read quite a bit of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. I love Alice Munro’s short stories. I love poetry and was thrilled to discover poets like Jane Kenyon, Billy Collins and Wislawa Szymborska. When I travel, I like to read the literature to get a deeper understanding of place. So when I lived in Japan and travelled in Asia, I read anthologies of T’ang Dynasty poems, the Manyoshu, Kobe Abe and other Asian writers. Over a summer studying Spanish in Guatemala, I read Miguel Angel Asturias’ El Senor Presidente, and others. I also read a lot of wonderful nonfiction writers like Kate Boo and David Finkel.