Award-winning Washington Post writer Brigid Schulte’s incisive, fresh and funny book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has The Time, grew out of an internal work group researching why so few women were reading the newspaper.
Schulte, a married mother of two school-age children, found ample evidence to understand why a majority of women live a life of “frantic busyness” with little or no time for guilt-free leisure.
The work project spurred Schulte to explore her own fragmented and exhausting life. As she did, she uncovered truths that can help any woman lead a more mindful life.
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Next Avenue asked Schulte how to step off the gerbil wheel, find time for yourself and enjoy life more:
Next Avenue: Why don’t women read the newspaper?
Schulte: Women are busy. They are raising kids, taking care of aging parents, doing twice the amount of housework and childcare as fathers and husbands.
Women’s time, throughout history, has always been interrupted time. We have our to-do lists: housework, childcare, dentist’s appointments, planning vacations, planning the holidays, setting up services to help our parents — our lists are crowded with all the other activities we have to manage besides the things we need to do at work.
As a working mom, I always felt guilty and that I wasn’t getting enough done, at work or at home. I was up at 2 a.m. to bake valentine cupcakes, and my daughter used to stick Post-It notes to my forehead when I was working at home so I would remember to come up and read to her in bed. I always had a list I never finished.
Part of what I’ve learned is that when we die, the email inbox will still be full, the to-do list will still be there. But we won’t. Our culture has made a cult of busyness.
Does that carry over into retirement?
I think it’s really important to note that leisure scholars are finding that even people in retirement, in the so-called “golden years” of leisure, often have a really hard time with it. We are so programmed to work, to be 'productive' and 'useful,' and to think of relaxing or doing something enjoyable or slowing down as a sign of weakness.
Often, even in retirement, our leisure looks like work.
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Is it harder for women to relax in retirement than for men?
I spoke to a woman in her 60s in Fargo, North Dakota who was busier than ever, writing, starting a nonprofit, volunteering for a million different things — even though she was no longer working for pay. And yet she felt too busy to ever go to church, to stop and slow down, to think about what was most important in her life, even though she yearned to. She was just on the go all the time.
Some men have complained that even though they’d like to relax more or play more golf, their spouses often spend their time puttering around, being busy, trying to get stuff done — when really, what’s more important than living your days fully and well?
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Do you think women are conditioned to feel guilty about leisure?
Yes, leisure research done in retirement communities finds that some women have been conditioned to have such a strong ethic of care, particularly if they spent their lives raising a family, that this ethic carries over — they care for grandchildren, for spouses, for sick friends, for the community. However, some have more of a sense that they’ve put their time in caring for others, and now it’s time for them.
What steps can women do to make guilt-free time for themselves?
Often, feminists ask, ‘Do women actually retire?’ Studies show that if the husband retires first, he’ll do more chores around the house. But once she retires, he stops, and she picks up most, if not all of the load — they revert to traditional gender roles. And then she often resents that he’s loafing about her space, getting in the way, making the work even that much harder.
Researchers found that, for women in particular, friendship was central to their notion of leisure time. It wasn’t so much the activity, but the time spent with friends that made it leisure.
This sounds like it should be easy, but it seems hard for women to step off that 'gerbil wheel.'
Heather Gibson, a professor specializing in leisure studies at the University of Florida, suggests embracing whatever feels like leisure to you, giving yourself permission to enjoy it, that you don’t have to ‘earn’ it, and that — for women especially — it can almost feel like an act of resistance, but once made, can be empowering.
What people who study aging, like Laura Carstensen, a professor of psychology and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, suggest is to keep in mind that your horizon is short. When you realize your time horizon is short, it becomes clearer what’s really important, and that guides what choices to make about what to do what your time. It’s a practice she suggests even young people follow.
Did your research give you hope for change?
Yes. I’ve learned we have to start small to change big and that I’m a work in progress.
Sitting with my dad after his stroke, I thought about how we don’t have much time; what do we want to make of our life here on Earth? What are my priorities? What is most important to me?
I do my to-do list differently now. I don’t feel the same kind of mental clutter I felt before. I make time to step outside of what I’m doing, to take time for reflection, even if it’s just sitting on our window seat, eating soup while watching the rain with my kids.
Brigid Schulte's 10 Ways to Find Time for Work, Love and Play
1. Pause. Step off the gerbil wheel regularly — if even for a moment, even if you have to schedule it in to figure out where you are and where you really want to go.
2. Understand how strong the pressure is to overwork, over-parent, overschedule and be busy and overdo and that humans are wired to conform. Our outlandishly unrealistic cultural ideals keep us spinning in 'never enough' — that we can never be enough, be good enough, do enough in any sphere.
3. Change the narrative. Actively support big change — in workplace culture, in cultural attitudes, in laws and policies. Redesign work, reimagine traditional gender roles, recapture the value of leisure and play.
4. Make conscious your unconscious bias and ambivalence. Uncover; be authentic; expect it of others; dispel worn out myths; talk.
5. Banish busyness.
6. Plan; do; review. As you get clearer about where you are and where you want to go, begin to imagine in those moments of pause how to get from here to there. Experiment; assess; try something different; keep trying.
7. Set your own priorities, and then set up your own network of support that lines up with your values that you want to conform to.
8. When it comes to the to-do list, do a brain dump to get everything out of your head to clear mental space. Then give yourself permission not to do any of it. Also, give yourself permission to put joy, fun, play, reflection and idleness or quiet time as top priorities and schedule it in until it becomes routine. You really don't have to earn leisure by getting to the end of the to-do list. You never will. So flip the list — put joy first. Do one thing a day and do it first. The rest of the day is a win.
9. Chunk your time. Work in short, intense pulses of no more than 90 minutes, and take breaks to change the channel. Check digital media at specific times during the day, and use timers so you won’t fall into the rabbit hole. Technology is seductive, lighting up the same structures of the brain that light up in addiction — so find your own system to use it wisely, don't let it use you or abuse you.
10. Set common standards at home and share the load fairly, even the kids. Remember, as parents, love your kids, accept them for who they are, then get out of their way. That way, everybody has more time to connect, which is what’s really important, not how many instruments they play and how many travel teams they’ve made. More is not more. Think inverted U curve. Like anything, some activity for kids, some novelty for the brain, some amount of hard work, some time for technology … it’s all good up to a point, but more is not better. Too much, and the benefits begin to diminish. Find your own sweet spot.
Cecily Patterson is a freelancer based in Portland who has written for Forbes, Art & Antiques, American Express, Spaces, 3M.com and other sites.