Where has America’s time gone? That’s what Brigid Schulte set out to discover several years ago. Exhausted from a life controlled by a never-ending to-do list that allowed for no time to breathe, the former Washington Post journalist’s hunt for a cure to “the overwhelm” as she calls it led her on a multi-year adventure, where she explored the history of busyness and leisure, the impact cultural norms and traditional gender roles still have on each and how we can take back our time to love and play again. The journey resulted in Schulte’s best-selling book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.
We recently sat down with Schulte at New America’s Washington, D.C., office, where she now runs the Better Life Lab and The Good Life Initiative, to discuss how busyness became something to brag about, women’s struggle to find leisure, breaking out of traditional gender roles at home, the rise of intensive parenting and how to take time for yourself and learn to play again, among other topics.
Adrienne Penta: You start the book by looking at the cult of busyness and how people want to prove to each other how busy they are. Why and how did being busy become something that we’re competitive about?
Brigid Schulte: This world of busyness has become the water in which we swim. I don’t think a lot of us recognize this even while we’re going through it. One thing that astounded me the most was looking at how and when this happened and, more importantly, why. A lot of the book was in search of leisure time. While I may not have fully found it yet, what I came to understand was how the larger systems in place haven’t adapted to accommodate women’s shifting roles in their families and the way people work due to technology. There’s been so much historical change, yet we’re hanging on to outdated data structures, policy practices and culture. As life goes on, you’re trying to do more. You’re trying to keep up at work. If you have children, you’re trying to handle them, and you’re trying to keep up with other parents. When I would talk to someone about what was going on in my life and how busy I was, I didn’t realize that I was bragging because busy has come to be viewed as good and productive. A century ago, the way people showed their status was in their leisure time. The rich were idle. There was also this American concept of higher purpose: you needed to work to support yourself, but that was not the point of life. However, things began changing in the 1980s. That’s where you start seeing the trend line go up in terms of hours worked. That is also when businesses started financially rewarding hours worked. If you worked overtime prior to that, you didn’t get any more money or fame. Some people say the overwork and craziness of today is a result of technology, but these trends started before technology. Technology has just sped up things.
Why do women have such a difficult time choosing leisure? Are we simply conditioned to be busy all the time?
Let me take a step back before looking at women specifically because there is an important background to understand. Americans in general have a difficult time with leisure. There’s always been a foundation of hard work in the U.S., but it’s morphed into overwork – this sense that you can never do or be enough. Overwork also relates to evolving jobs. It’s easier to know when you’re done with the day if you work in a factory and your shift is over. If you work in the knowledge or financial industries, or other jobs that have become more prevalent, how do you judge when it’s good enough and you’re done? You don’t know the answer, and managers don’t either, which is why we’re still managing by the hour. It’s easier to say, “He was here until 10pm, so he must be really good. I’m going to give him a great performance evaluation and a raise.” There is something different for women, for whom studies have shown it’s incredibly difficult to have leisure. I personally never felt like I deserved leisure time, and when I had an open moment, I would run to the to-do list. That feeling has a lot to do with culture. Think about the images that you see, where it’s the man reading the newspaper with his feet up and the woman ironing, bustling or doing something else productive. Women have been conditioned throughout generations that a woman’s work is never done, and it’s generally been the work of overseeing the children and maintaining the home. People who study leisure say that for a long time they called women’s leisure “invisible leisure.” Some examples are quilting bees and knitting circles, where you could enjoy the company of friends, yet still feel OK because you were doing something productive. Women need to be aware that there’s never been a history or culture of leisure for us. If you look at the history of leisure, it’s the story of privileged, high-status white men, who showed status by getting further away from drudge work – whereas women took on a lot of that at home.
It seems like that’s connected to the issue many couples have of falling into the traditional at-home roles. Once you get into those roles, how do you climb out of them?
The first thing to do is to be aware of it. I think that traditional gender roles are unconscious. If you look at an unconscious bias test of both men and women, more than three-quarters automatically associate men with career and women with family – those are powerful traditional roles. Women feel this pressure to fit into these roles, and we need to learn to push against that. Take time to pause; figure out what’s important and what kind of person you want to be. Find something to push away the automatic thoughts of “I should do this, and I should be this.”
Your partner needs to see it too. Design systems that work for you and your partnership. When my husband and I realized we’d fallen into these roles, we started thinking about the work needed to make our family run, decided on the standards we could agree on and determined how to divide the work in a way that felt fair – it doesn’t have to be 50-50. Come up with a system and automate it so that you’re not always renegotiating.
There’s no way to climb out of being overwhelmed or to calm the chaos alone. It requires you and your partner, the family and the community, and understanding that we need systemic change in our workplace cultures and our social policy. The world has changed, and it’s time for us to change those cultural pressures as well. That’s why I’m a huge proponent of pausing, shifting your mindset and playing. You don’t have to accept an outdated world anymore.
The chapter on the culture of intensive motherhood talks about “the bloody mommy wars.” How do we stop putting so much pressure on ourselves and competing with other mothers?
We have to pull back because it is not good for us, our relationships or our kids. When women entered the workplace, initially there wasn’t a lot of stigma. For working-class women, there has been less of a stigma because there’s an understanding that if you don’t work, it affects your standard of living and hurts your family. For professional women – where intensive parenting started – there has been a lot of stigma and questions around whether they actually have to work. People would say: “You just want something to do; you don’t actually need to work. You’re sacrificing your kids.”
A study was done that said women were spending 40% less time with their children than in the past, and that spread like fire because it reinforced what everybody was afraid of: that working mothers ignore their children and aren’t performing their proper role. The study was wrong; it was a miscalculation, but by the time they corrected it, nobody wanted to listen.
Some parents say, “I’d never let anybody else raise my child,” and as a working mother, it took me a long time to realize nobody else was raising my child. Women and mothers have had help throughout history, whether informal or formal, but now we’re expected to do it all on our own. Mothers today spend as much or more time with their kids than they did while staying at home in the 1960s. They spend all of their leisure time with their children, which is not good for them or their children, who need space too.
Parenting is hard. We don’t really know how to do it, and we want to do it well because we love our kids. Competition in parenting has kept us from looking at the bigger issue, which is that we need better policies, structures and choices. As long as we’re fighting each other, we’re not seeing how we could work together to make it better for everyone – men, women, all types of families and, most importantly, our kids.
As working moms, how do we take time for ourselves and not feel guilty?
It took me the journey of writing the book to get there. I think it goes back to taking time to pause and figure out what really matters. If you’re going out with friends and haven’t seen your kids all week, of course you feel bad. But if you’re creating space and time to be with your children in meaningful ways, then you shouldn’t feel guilty. I think the desire to be the perfect mother drives us to want to be with our kids 24/7. Recognize that quality time with your kids is important for all of you, and be fully available and engaged during that time. But also recognize that that’s not the only time that makes you who you are.
Americans are dropping leisure time with other adults and putting our partners last. Some of that relates to our culture of overwork, which is already pushing against our free time. The free time we do have tends to be so scheduled and stressed that it’s not good free time. We must recognize where we can draw the line at work. Acknowledge that there are tradeoffs. Sometimes busyness is a matter of not being willing or able to make a choice. Sometimes it’s a matter of figuring out the one critical thing to do instead of the 10 on your list.
One of the best pieces of advice that I got was that partners need to co-sponsor each other. You should go out and take time to do an activity you love. Then co-sponsor your partner and make him go out and do something he loves. Support each other in the work that you do, the life that you share and play. Also, make sure that you have time to play together because that builds goodwill and trust because things are not always going to be balanced.
We get into this cycle of work and family. How do you find leisure activities and hobbies again in adulthood?
“What is it that you really like?” is difficult for people to answer – they don’t know, and they don’t know how to find it. Some of the play therapists give people gigantic pads with the wide lines and crayons that we had when we were in kindergarten and say, “Write down what you loved to do as a kid,” and then they take a play inventory. One woman said, “I used to love making mud pies, but I’m in my 50s so I’m not going to do that now.” She thought about why she loved it and realized it was the freedom of being outside and feeling her fingers in the dirt, so she started gardening. She didn’t do it with the mindset of “I hope my neighbors think my yard looks nice,” but from that sense of joy.
Part of the effort to identify hobbies is scheduling in a block of free time for yourself, which is difficult to do, and taking time to think: “What do I feel like doing right now?” It doesn’t have to be anything massive. When I left The Washington Post, I forced myself to take a pause, and I didn’t know what to do. After a lot of thinking, I realized what I really wanted was a sense of adventure. It hit me that I wanted to learn how to whitewater kayak, so I went to a lesson and enjoyed that moment.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned about leisure is that it’s like beauty: leisure is to you what it is to you. It’s really about how you feel. That’s why all the time studies in the world don’t matter because time is your perception of it and how you feel about it.
Have you found time serenity in your own life since writing the book?
I’m a work in progress, but I will say that I have learned a lot and come far. I recently took a two-week vacation in the middle of a big project, and I didn’t feel guilty because I realized I would come back refreshed and re-energized. I’ve learned that working harder and longer and pushing through doesn’t get you where you want to go.
Leaving The Washington Post brought about a real revelation too. I had this huge file drawer to clean out, and there were some gigantic folders of half-reported stories. They were missed opportunities because I got so busy and caught up in feeling guilty, running around and making my bosses happy. I didn’t understand the value of concentrated time – focusing on one big thing at the moment and then handling all of the little things people throw at you in another block of time. You can fill a container with little pebbles and then the big rocks don’t fit – there’s no space left for them – but if you put in the big rocks first and then the little pebbles, everything fits. I’m very mindful of that.
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