Feeling overwhelmed?

Feeling overwhelmed?

(Note: Check out more from our interview with Brigid Schulte here.)

I actually had this conversation the other day:

Discussing an upcoming column, my colleague suggested I write about Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte’s new book, “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time.”

“I want to,” I responded in all seriousness, “but I don’t have time to read it.”

She just looked at me.

I confessed this to Schulte when I talked with her last week. She told me I wasn’t the Blog Photofirst. Which is why she arranges her books in sections and even “chapter-lettes,” three or four pages of tips and new ideas for people on the go.

“I totally and completely understand that feeling of stress,” she assured me.

I still haven’t gotten through the book, but what I have read plays like scenes from my own life: Mom of two balancing a high-stress job with an endless to-do list that includes baking Valentine’s cupcakes at 2 a.m., arranging carpools while at work, doing interviews in the car outside lessons and finishing stories in the wee hours of the morning.

Children who spit back “just a sec” with one finger raised, write notes to remind us to spend time with them or ask “how long will you be on the computer?”

Brains whirring in, as she puts it, “perpetual logistics mode.”

And she has a husband who is a reporter.

We arranged an interview, finally connecting on the third try after I missed her call (I was on the phone with someone arguing the Malaysian plane disappearance was a fake), her radio interview ran long and I left my cellphone at home (kindly retrieved by a co-worker so I wouldn’t miss Schulte if she called me at work).

Schulte talked to sociologists, time-management specialists, neuroscientists and hundreds of working parents to figure out why we all feel so overwhelmed.

She looked at progressive businesses that are trying to come up with a new kind of workplace and compared policies that affect working parents in the U.S. and other countries — Iceland, for instance, which offers yearlong paid leave for mothers and fathers.

Like her, I was astounded by one of the bases for her investigation: the contention by time-management specialist John Robinson that Americans have 30 to 40 hours of leisure time a week, more than they’ve ever had.

Of course, he counted as “leisure” the two hours Schulte spent waiting for a tow truck with her daughter after her car broke down on the way to ballet class. She told him he was crazy.

He’s a “great guy,” she said, but “he didn’t help me at all. He’s from a different era. I don’t think he understands modern life, what it’s like for women to be living these dual lives or the pressures of technology.”

Still, like many parents, she wondered if she was just not efficient and everybody else had it figured out. As she puts it, who are all these people who have time for coffee at Starbucks in the middle of the afternoon?

She’d always had issues with planning and time management. Friends took to setting her watch ahead 10 minutes. (My husband may or may not have done the same thing with our clock.)

She writes that she is “always behind and always late, with one more thing and one more thing and one more thing to do before rushing out the door.”

Schulte was struck by another finding: American women today spend almost all of their leisure time with their kids. In fact, studies show they spend more time with their children than stay-at-home moms did in the 1960s and ’70s because they’ve given up personal, adult leisure time, she said.

For many of us, that’s by choice. Older(ish) moms like me, and Schulte, delayed childbirth while we established our careers, and it wasn’t always clear we’d be able to have children. When the miracle finally happened, why wouldn’t we want to spend every free minute with them?

The “overwhelmed” phenomenon emerged first in white, middle-class families, though her interviews and time-management data show parents of all backgrounds feel stressed, Schulte said.

She’s heard her share of comments like, “you’ve made this choice, now deal with it.”

But her research showed “there are so many people feeling this way, men and women,” Schulte said.

“This is not an epidemic of personal failure. This is really a structural problem in our society. We expect people to work as if they didn’t have families or lives. And we expect people to have families as if they didn’t work.

“We’ve got this value of busy-ness. No one shows status with leisure and idle time.”

And when we do get 15 minutes of free time, it’s consumed with worry over what we’re not accomplishing.

So what does Schulte advise? Burn the to-do list. You don’t really need it.

“I had this ‘if-then’ bargain — if I get through all this and this and this and this, then I can sit down and read a book or enjoy myself. I never got to the end of that to-do list,” she said, again seeing into my soul.

Just last week I found myself avoiding or postponing several fun activities — a birthday party, a brunch with friends, an art fair my daughter would love — because I felt too overwhelmed by several personal things hanging over my head. If I could just get those done....

“I think you get so busy in that panicky, hyper-vigilant, go-go state that you don’t have a moment to stop and think; maybe my to-do list is crazy,” she said.

Our brains can only keep so many things on the rotator and will crash if overloaded. Focus on what’s important to you, she said.

Her list? Do good work. Read. Connect to my children. Take care of myself and my health. Don’t let the smaller things splinter and fracture your time.

“That’s how I was living,” she said, admitting she’s still a work in progress.

I’m writing myself a note: Finish reading “Overwhelmed.” Scrap to-do list. Have a drink.Blog Photo


Schulte's tips for managing your to-do list:

  • Keep a master list: Write down all the things you want to do, divided into categories. Get them out of your head, so you don’t have to remember them and they won’t fuel your gnawing anxiety.
  • Pick three: Choose a handful that are time-sensitive or you can realistically accomplish — arranging a doctor’s appointment or paying a bill, for instance. Even doing one gives you a feeling of accomplishment.
  • Leisure time: Include time for reflection, taking care of your health and friendships. And give yourself permission not to do any of them — she calls it the “back door.”


Julie Wurth blogs about kids and famlies and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.

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