Skip to main content

I still remember when it hit me for the first time. I was practicing the piano, and suddenly it all became overwhelming. I burst into tears, stammering out to my mom, “I feel like I just keep working and working . . . like there will always be something left to do, and I’ll never stop.”

I was twelve.

It was the first time I’d experienced the overwhelming feeling that there just wasn’t enough time, but it was far from the last. Despite my parents’ intentionally low-pressure approach to school and childhood activities, I was starting to feel the effects of a culture I wouldn’t understand until years later. Little did I know then that this feeling would haunt not only my adult life, but also the adult lives of almost everyone who matured alongside me.

Anne Helen Petersen, in her viral Buzzfeed article “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” helped many of us name the feeling that haunted us all: burnout. She wrote:

Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it—explicitly and implicitly—since I was young. Life has always been hard, but many millennials are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which it’s become hard for us.

Many of us seized the concept of burnout with enthusiasm: this had been the feeling that none of us could quite articulate. She had finally made the connection between the severe lack of time that many of us were feeling and the inexplicable lethargy that overcame us when we were faced with mundane tasks.

But before there was “the burnout generation,” there was Overwhelmed: a 2014 book by Washington Post journalist Brigid Schulte, widely reviewed at the time (in fact, Verily interviewed Schulte in the year the book was released). Her book was, like Petersen’s piece, an articulation of concerns that have been simmering for decades. In Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Schulte, like Petersen, finds the words to describe a frustrating experience that many of us know intimately: the experience of a daily life seemingly wheeling out of control.

I have baked Valentine’s cupcakes at 2 a.m. and finished writing stories at 4 a.m. when all was quiet and I finally had unbroken time to concentrate. I have held what I hope were professional-sounding interviews sitting on the floor outside my kids’ dentist’s office, in the teachers’ bathroom at school functions, in the car outside lessons, and on the grass, quickly muting the phone after each question to keep the whooping of a noisy soccer practice to a minimum. Some appliance is always broken. My to-do list never ends. I have yet to do a family budget after meaning to for nearly twenty years. The laundry lies in such a huge, perpetually unfolded mound that my daughter has taken a dive in it and gone for a swim.

Though many of Schulte’s reflections center around the experience of exhausted motherhood, I found myself empathizing with her feeling of overwhelm, even without children of my own. As I read, I gathered the impression that motherhood (at least in some cases) pushes a common experience of the American woman to a fevered pitch: the experience of time famine.

Time famine

The term “time famine” emerged in the late nineties with the publication of a sociology study, whose abstract describes the concept succinctly: “A feeling of having too much to do and not enough time to do it.” It’s how I felt when I was twelve; it’s how children often feel in high-achieving schools; but, increasingly, it’s how many of us feel in our daily lives.

I am as inclined as anyone else to ascribe various cultural declines like time famine to the fact that we are spending so much time with digital devices. But this feeling of a lack of time is nothing new—perhaps technology use is a symptom, rather than a cause, of the huge degree of cultural restlessness that we experience. Something is causing us to turn to our devices and watch an endless stream of YouTube.

Articles about how a digital detox, new perspective, or different mental outlook could help our relationship with technology have been in vogue for quite a while—I even wrote one of them. But the fact is, we have adjusted our attitudes, optimized our lifestyles, and made up our minds. Something else is wrong. Sure, technology has its flaws. But we’re still turning to it for two reasons: in the hope that it will give us more time and in a desire to flee our constant, life-endangering stress levels. There’s something deeper to be learned here about why we feel so time-deprived.

Where does the time go, then?

I’d argue that most American women, married or unmarried, are intimately—even unfairly—familiar with one almost-universal feeling: guilt. We’ve all heard of “mommy guilt,” but the amount of pressure women put on themselves in today’s culture isn’t restricted to motherhood: especially in a culture of workism, guilt haunts the modern-day working woman. Whether we don’t work long nights, try to take weekends off, or simply try to balance a meaningful career with a personal life, we feel guilty for doing so.

Schulte describes this feeling of guilt in a paragraph that is all too familiar to me:

As I began to think more about leisure time, I realized that I kept putting it off, like I was waiting to reach some tipping point: If I could just finish picking all the weeds, chopping the invasive bamboo, cleaning out the crayons and shark teeth and math paper and toys and bits of shells and rocks and too-small clothes in the kids’ closets, buy more cat food, fix the coffeepot, complete this story assignment, pay these bills, fill out those forms, make that phone call, send this wedding present five months late—then I could sit down and read a book. As if leisure was something I needed to earn.

Reading her list brought back my own list. The texts left unresponded to, the meal dates unplanned, the catch-ups with friends, the internet bill, the library fines, the DMV, the dentist—it’s an endless pile of unfinished tasks that just grows when unattended to. The trouble is, it also grows when it is attended to—finishing one unfinished task brings to mind a hundred other unfinished tasks. Checking my mail this afternoon turned into two hours sitting on the couch ripping open envelopes, pulling up websites, and making phone calls—all while I was supposed to be writing this article.

To cope, I often try to ignore these tasks, especially the ones that aren’t incredibly time-sensitive—leading to a constant buzz of guilt in the back of my mind. It’s classic productivity guilt, but this guilt has become much more than just a debilitating feeling. It’s giving us a frenetic desire—even need—to be always working on something.

If I’m completely honest with myself, I can think of only one easy way to silence the buzz of guilt. You guessed it: the ever-present glowing screen. Settling into bed with a bowl of ice cream and watching Netflix or YouTube while simultaneously doing something vaguely productive—searching for new meal planning ideas or reading product reviews on Amazon—is the easiest way to silence my racing mind at the end of the day. I often resort to this kind of quasi-relaxing productivity or quasi-productive relaxation, because it’s actually quite difficult to let go of the feeling that I really should be doing something.

It’s actually more fun to build an IKEA bookshelf and watch YouTube than it would be to just watch YouTube. I’m sure it would be better if I did yoga or made tea or read a novel, and sometimes I do those things—but when I’m really, truly burned out and exhausted, I take the easiest way out. My guilt is completely silenced when I am completely distracting myself, filling every nook and cranny of my consciousness with some sort of activity.

It’s well and good (and true) to say that we’d have more time if we didn’t use our smartphones so much, but if we recognize that our smartphones are coping mechanisms for already-existing crippling guilt and loneliness, perhaps we set ourselves free to address those underlying problems first. Yes, taking lots of time to scroll Instagram does contribute to our overall lack of time, but we also turn to our phones to flee the problem of guilt, in an ill-advised but understandable move.

Better accounting for our time 

In a piece entitled “How to Do Nothing,” Jenny Odell included an image from an 1886 campaign for an eight-hour workday. The image has three frames: in the first, “8 Hours For Work,” a woman stands in a factory; in the second, “8 Hours for Rest,” a person is asleep in bed. The third, entitled “8 Hours for What We Will,” depicts a man and a woman reading a newspaper in a boat. As Odell points out, “what we will” leaves a sort of openness to what the campaigners were requesting: “To me it seems significant that it’s not 8 hours of, say, ‘leisure’ or ‘education,’ but ‘8 hours of what we will.’ Although leisure or education might be involved, what seems most humane is the refusal to define that period.”

These days, we can forget the eight hours for “what we will”—we don’t even have eight hours for rest. What is taking up all this extra time that modern innovation and technology promised us?

For one thing, all this extra time—our "8 hours for what you will"—often comes in twenty-, fifteen-, and even five-minute chunks in which it’s hard to start anything, let alone finish it. Schulte's description of her own life as "time confetti" is relatable: "One big, chaotic burst of exploding slivers, bits, and scraps.” As Schulte observes, “what does a pile of confetti ever amount to?”

But, in fact, it might amount to something. When women really look at how they spend their time, their calendars can tell a different story than the story of guilt. As Laura Vanderkam, an author and time-management expert who wrote a series for Verily on how we spend our time, observed, women sometimes spend more time with their kids or doing other activities that lead to a balanced life—exercise, hobbies, time with a spouse, etc.—than they might expect. She described the life of a mom and partner at a consulting firm in this way:

Chan missed Tuesday and Wednesday, but she put her girls to bed more nights that week than she didn’t. She read them multiple chapters in Little House on the Prairie. I tallied it up, and she logged more time reading to her kids than the average stay-at-home mom of young kids reads to hers.

Stories like these remind me that our guilt can become overblown in relation to the facts. For example, I used to beat myself up about “not staying in touch with friends enough,” until I actually gave some thought to how many hours I usually spend a week catching up over the phone with friends and family—usually three or four hours, if not more.

Sometimes we mistakenly minimize our own time, not counting things that really do take time as “real time.” Time spent catching up with my mom while making dinner is still a meaningful connection with my family; a twenty-minute yoga video is so much better than no exercise at all; an hour of reading even once a week can really put a dent in a book list.

Unfortunately, though, this principle works in reverse, too. One of the biggest pitfalls that I run into when I’m writing budgets is sweeping things under the rug. “I don’t need to figure that Spotify subscription into my budget,” I’ll tell myself. “It’ll all work out in the end. It’s only ten dollars a month”and two or three elided expenses later, I’m off by hundreds of dollars a year.

Often, when I’m writing a daily to-do list or looking over work responsibilities, I don’t “count” recurring or daily tasks—yes, I have to do laundry and the dishes today, and get the mail, but do those really take any time? Then I both fail to “budget” time for these tasks and fail to give myself credit for accomplishing them.

Another category of tasks we tend to exclude from our “time budget” are tasks of indefinite length. Think about it: your dentist appointment could be half an hour, or two hours—it depends on how behind the dentist is. You should probably block out half a day for any visit to the DMV (a couple I know recently spent approximately two days at the DMV waiting for assistance with changing their license plates). Insurance claims, tax forms, and anything health-related are tear-jerkingly byzantine. To borrow an example from Anne Helen Petersen, “My partner was so stymied by the multistep, incredibly (and purposefully) confusing process of submitting insurance reimbursement forms for every single week of therapy that for months he just didn’t send them—and ate over $1,000.” We pretend that these things don’t take any time, but the fact is that they do take time, sometimes dizzying amounts of time. And especially since that amount of time is hard to estimate, we procrastinate on these tasks—and add them to our pile of guilt.

One step away from guilt: we don’t have to do it alone

On the face of it, our guilt seems inescapable. Since the nineties and before, America has been moving at a breakneck pace, and while social and political movements can cause change, few are centered around the DMV. Plus, cultural changes take huge amounts of time—and the guilt is now. What can we do?

One thing has given me great comfort: I’m not in this burned-out and overwhelmed cycle alone. Other people also feel busy, anxious, and confused. A lot of our guilt comes from the crippling feeling that we are the only ones who don’t know what’s going on: how to fry onions or create a retirement account. Comparing our daily lives to others’ highlight reels leads us to believe that we are always, irreparably, behind—and everyone else has it all together. Our guilt overwhelms us when we think we should have it all together, all on our own.

At a weekly dinner with my friends, we share “notable accomplishments” of the week, but we also make a point of sharing what we call “notable failures.” From our social faux pas to lapses of judgment, (we even have a specific, kazoo-driven soundtrack dedicated to “failures of major appliances”), we are honest about what actually happened that week—not the highlight reel that we think most people want to hear. Sharing our “failures” helps us to feel less guilty and reminds us that, no matter how embarrassing or frustrating a situation, people can sympathize (they might have an even more embarrassing story of their own!). Soon I’ll be gathering a group of friends to tackle what I call “the scary pile of papers”—you know the one—mysterious envelopes, unfathomable utility bills, bizarre auto-related flyers. We’ll pour a glass of wine, turn on some music, and tackle our guilt, together. 

As social psychologist Heidi Grant observes, “Human beings are basically wired to want to give help.” I’ve found that when we share the behind-the-scenes—the tasks and stories we don’t really want to share—we open ourselves up to feeling known, supported, and even normal, and we leave a little guilt behind along the way.

We’re all just figuring out this crazy thing called life, and we don’t have to do it alone. 

Editor's Note: Here at Verily, we strive for our tone to feel like a conversation with a good friend or family member. We talk about issues that are often hidden in our lives, so that we can all feel a little less alone. We've extended that conversation to Verily Yours. Delivered in the form of email newsletters, the Verily Yours subscription is your companion for specific pressure points in your daily life—finances, work, meal planning, and home decor and organization. Start your free trial today. We'd be honored to be with you in your daily life.