Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time by Brigid Schulte

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March 24, 2015

It seems that many of us in modern U.S. life feel overrun, overwhelmed and constantly pressed for time. But did you know that the average American man has 40 plus hours of leisure time a week? And the average American woman has 30 hours of leisure time a week? This book delves into many factors that explain why despite technically having more time free from work, we generally feel more stress and less contentment in life over the last 40 years. 

Based on time diaries and time research, it turns out that “leisure” time can be multitasking time where one is not ever fully at rest from one’s job. Chronic connectedness with internet, phone, email and social media keeps many people with no breaks from thinking about work. The culture of modern parenting, especially “the cult of intensive motherhood” that Schulte has named one of her chapters of the book, keeps working women who are also mothers on the road shuttling their offspring from one activity to another with the goal of making the Olympics one day, or better yet, securing admission to an elite college. It turns out that working mothers today spend as much high quality interactive time as at-home mothers did with their children in the 1960s (eleven hours a week) while today’s at-home mother spends seventeen hours per week. American mothers sacrifice personal time, sleep and leisure time to take care of their children “despite laboring in some of the most demanding and unforgiving workplaces with the most family-unfriendly policies of any developed country on Earth.” (174). The book supports the research that pulling back from “helicopter mothering” allows children to develop grit, that characteristic that my previous book review detailed and which is the single biggest predictor of success in life.

This well-written, entertaining book spends a chapter detailing the work-life balance of people in Denmark. We learn that parents in Denmark receive in total a year of parental leave from work when a new child is born or adopted. Most parents work flexible hours so that one person can pick the children up from day care by 4:30PM. Danes expect that both men and women cook, clean and do house chores as well as spent equal time parenting. They spend abundant time taking classes for hobbies and learning new things. The happiness index and general satisfaction with life is one of the highest in the world in Denmark. What are some lessons that we in the United States can learn in order to live less overwhelming lives? 

Consider trying to change the culture of work in the United States. Schulte discusses the concept of the “ideal worker”, the worker who is always at work and always available to one’s boss, at the expense of all other areas of life. She presents plenty of research that shows that well-rested, less stressed employees have better health and lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. “Too much cortisol can lead to a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, obesity and cardiovascular disease.” (135) Schulte also discusses “Play”, the concept that all of us need to take breaks from work to recharge. It turns out that breaks inspire creativity. Scientists have found there is good biochemical evidence that those “aha moments” come in the shower rather than while at long hours at work. (268)

In describing her own harried life as a Washington Post reporter and mother of two young children, she recounts a frantic Thanksgiving where she was preparing a feast for eighteen guests, and her husband decided to go help his neighbor smoke his turkey while drinking beer on a sun deck. This sort of inequality in domestic chores between men and women is well documented in multiple studies. Besides the actual hours that women work both in and out of the home, studies have shown that women feel the stress and experience stress at higher levels than men (166). She explains how she and her husband invested time in counseling sessions with Jessica DeGrott of the Third Path Institute (“the third path is for couples who want to share their work and home lives as full partners, each one with time for work, love and play”, p. 156). She writes about three other couples and how they were able to improve their home lives and marriages by changing their work life routines. 

At the end of the book, she has an easy to read summary of possible changes we could make to our lives to improve our quality of life and use our time wisely all the areas of work, love and play. Rather than just have 30 hours of “leisure” time that is segmented and unfulfilling, why not try to block out hours of time that can be productive and satisfying. Schulte makes a compelling argument to at least start a conversation on modern American life and how to achieve more balance for all.