The Author of 'Overwhelmed' Shares Why We All Feel Like There's Never Enough Time

Brigid Schulte's new book is a fascinating look at how to reclaim our leisure time.
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Monica Gabriel Marshall
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Brigid Schulte's new book is a fascinating look at how to reclaim our leisure time.
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OVERWHELMED is stamped across the cover of Brigid Schulte's new book, over the harried pencil scrawl of a woman’s frantic to-do list. For so many of us, that list is comically familiar—a collection of half-notes and reminders in CAPS because it's important! How can there possibly be so much to do and so little time to do it?

For Schulte, balancing a fast-paced career at The Washington Post with marriage and motherhood meant “being always behind and always late, with one more thing and one more thing and one more thing to do before rushing out the door." When John Robinson⎯a sociologist who studies time and how people use it⎯tells Schulte that the average woman has thirty hours of leisure time in a typical week, she tells him that he is crazy and sets out to prove it. Schulte’s quest does lead her to uncover those elusive thirty hours of leisure time, but she finds it shattered and shredded⎯polluted by the pressure to be the ideal worker, the ideal parent, and the pressure to be just plain busy. We talked to Schulte for a behind-the-scenes look at what she discovered while writing her book about “Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.”

What is “The Overwhelm” ?

“The Overwhelm” is feeling like you’re living in quicksand. You're running as fast as you can and you’re kind of getting nowhere—never mind enjoying anything! It’s sort of like you’re just hanging on by your fingernails. At least that's the way I felt. I felt like I was working all the time but not on stuff that I really cared about. I’m sure some of it was good, but it’s not like it was truly fulfilling. There was always more to do; it never felt like I was doing enough or was good enough.

But I never took the time to sort of think, "What would I do differently?” or “What do I want?” and then I examined the sense that I never do enough for my kids. Even our weekends were fraught with running from one thing to the next. I think “The Overwhelm” is never stopping to ask myself “Why? Why am I doing all this?” That’s a lot of what I was experiencing.

So how did this experience play into your decision to write this book?

I think when John Robinson told me I had thirty hours of leisure a week, I thought he was out of his mind. But in a way it was the greatest gift of all because it sort of gave me an opportunity to step back and ask some hard questions. I was aware that I had a good education, a great husband, good resources⎯but because of that I felt like I didn’t deserve to feel any different. I felt like if I was overwhelmed, it was my own fault and of my own choosing. But I think it was such a gift to see that in a way it was something I was choosing, but I didn’t even realize I was choosing it.

This revelation began the process of waking up and finding people and places that are doing it differently. I allowed myself to be very inspired by that. This gave me the ability to say, “You do deserve to take leisure time, right now, just because you’re alive. You don’t have to earn it.” I’m also the type of person who likes to understand why⎯why did it go this way? So it was another revelation for me to be able to take a longer historical view to answer the question of “How did we get here?”

“Leisure has been trivialized. Something only silly girls want, to have time to shop and gossip." Ben Hunnicutt

What is the greatest loss to a culture that doesn’t value leisure?

I think we lose our soul. We’re so busy earning and striving, getting and buying, competing and worrying about our status that we don’t take the time to check in with ourselves and determine what we truly value. You lose the ability to know yourself, and what other task is there in life than to know yourself and to live life by your own compass?

This concept of “time confetti” is certainly something I experience on a regular basis! Can you explain how you came up with this idea and how it influences the way we experience leisure?

I was writing a magazine piece for TheWashington Post magazine about the time diary challenge that John Robinson set for me. I was trying to explain how my time feels to somebody who is not in it. I think I had just hosted a kid's birthday party when that image of confetti came to me. I realized with a wave of sadness that this was what my time felt like: lots of little pieces, flitting from one thing to the next, not really finishing one thing before I go on to the next, always looking ahead and never being fully present where I am. And that’s really what my time felt like, lots of little bits. Ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there. I think the sadness came from wondering, “Does all of this add up to anything?” At the end of the day, while I was sweeping up confetti, I kept wondering, "What does this add up to?” It didn’t feel like the path to anything substantive or meaningful.

This sense of “time confetti” pollutes all kinds of time, but certainly leisure as well. The term psychologists and sociologists use is “contaminated time,” and that clearly describes the quality of leisure time women have experienced throughout history. Now women’s time is particularly fragmented. Women have all the heavy responsibilities of work and are also primarily responsible for everything at home. Most of us live with a constant sense of worry and planning that really takes you out of the moment, so that even a moment of leisure doesn’t feel like leisure at all.

Who is the “Ideal Worker” and what is his role in “The Overwhelm”?

I think there are a lot of interrelated factors that lead to “The Overwhelm," but a lot of it starts at work. The “Ideal Worker” is a very modern phenomenon. It sprang up with the industrial age, particularly in the 1950s with the “corporation man"⎯somebody who put work first and whose work was his identity. The crazy thing is that in the 1950s the “Ideal Worker” would get into the office at 9 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m. Then in the 1980s, the expectations intensified. Now the Ideal Worker gets in at 6 a.m. and never leaves. First in, last out, never takes lunch, moves at the drop of a hat, travels at all times, sleeps with a smartphone at the side of his or her bed. So basically, the Ideal Worker is now somebody who is work-worshipping, and if you burn through a couple marriages, then that’s the price that you have to pay. I think that if we can reshape our relationship to work and redesign our workplaces that would go a long way to recapturing our sense of leisure and taming “The Overwhelm," if you will.

"The average high school kid today experiences the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient of the 1950s." Bridget Schulte

In your book you discuss how much more stressed we all are nowadays. How does this kind of stress contribute to a loss of authenticity in our lives?

We live with this constant flavor of of never-enoughness. When you’re running around conforming to these cultural ideals, like the ideal worker or the ideal parent, then you are living in what philosophers call “forfeiture." This means you’re not living your authentic self; you’re busy avoiding the fact that you are going to die someday or just too busy trying to fit in.

One of the most amazing things that I think I covered in my book is how important leisure time is to our well-being and how little access to it women have ever had. When you look at the history of leisure, high-status men have always been the ones who have had access to leisure—long stretches of it and guilt-free. Sure, we recall some women like queens or “the women who lunch” were not exactly getting their hands dirty, but this was only ever a reflection of the status of the men in their lives. Women, on their own, have never had a sense of deserving leisure.

This blew my mind because it really rang true to me. I never felt like I deserved leisure, but I never realized no one ever talked about that. There is still this sense of  "a woman’s work is never done." Even though we have moved beyond the era of the housewife, there is still a lot of baggage that ties women to all of the drudge work of housekeeping and we do take it up because we feel like we have to. Frankly, for most women, even vacation is just more work. In fact, every single woman surveyed in a study back in the 90s said that they felt they didn’t deserve leisure, that they felt they needed to earn it, and that the only way to earn it is to get to the end of a very long to-do list. What kind of authenticity can be found when you live under the tyranny of the to-do list?

This book is a shout-out to request that everyone pause and ask themselves the hard questions about what is important to them. If you do step out against some of these cultural norms⎯long work hours, intensive mothering, and being busy⎯you’ll be able to connect with other people who are committed to trying to figure out how to live authentic lives.

Do you think women have a leadership role in changing the conversation amidst the overwhelm? If so, what should that leadership look like?

This is really an issue for everybody, not only women, but women certainly have a role to play. The fact is our culture and our workplace policy don't really support anyone having a life and absolutely supports those people who choose to overwork themselves at the office. For me, the Denmark chapter was so instructive. I went to Denmark because of a time-use study that showed that mothers in Denmark had almost as much leisure time as fathers, which is really unheard of. In most leisure studies I have found there is always a leisure gap between men and women. So I went to Denmark to find the secret of their leisure success and I found that it was a combination of things:

01. Both men and women had short, intense work hours. If you work long hours in Denmark, you are seen as inefficient rather than a good worker. So it was not like here where women can work flex hours and men work long hours and there is this pay-gap penalty.

02. They really value gender equality. You cannot have leisure time for women without gender equality. If you are stuck doing twice the housework, twice the childcare, and you are filled with guilt and you feel like you don’t deserve leisure, then you are never going to have leisure time.

03. The whole culture values leisure time⎯they value time to themselves, they value time with family, they value unplugging from work. Leisure is much more of a cultural norm.

These mothers in Denmark had the most pure leisure time to themselves, whereas our leisure time in America is so larded with guilt that when we do take it, we don’t really enjoy it. I was particularly struck with a comment made by a Danish father I was spending time with. He said “I think Danish women really have a sense of their own value." It made me think, "Wow, does that mean American women don’t?" And I will say, as a child of the 70s and 80s, I think we were so determined to show that we were equal and so determined to prove ourselves that we lost track of our value as women⎯we lost track of the importance of simply being human. Men shouldn’t even work the way they do! But, what I think is so exciting about the millennial generation is that both men and women are waking up to their value, both at work and at home. That's really the next step.

Photo by Vanille Griotte