7 Things I Learned from Reading “Overwhelmed” by Brigid Schulte

Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time” by Brigid Schulte is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It examines why so many of us feel so stressed and time-pressured and, more importantly, what we can do about it. Here are seven lessons I took from “Overwhelmed.”

"Overwhelmed" by Brigid Schulte expertly examines our hurried and conflicted lives and provides hard-won advice for us all
“Overwhelmed” by Brigid Schulte expertly examines our hurried and conflicted lives and provides hard-won advice for us all

Disclaimer: Schulte is a friend of mine, and we were both participants at recent White House Summit events. However, this article represents only my honest opinion; I received no compensation (never have, never will)- not even a free book!

With that, here are seven personal lessons that can help us feel less overwhelmed (The book also contains an analysis on how US culture, public policy, gender norms and corporate culture all contribute to “the Overwhelm,” but for now, let’s focus on things we can control):

1. Schedule in your priorities first

There are 168 hours in a week. That’s it. There will never be more. A lot of us, especially when procrastinating or while overwhelmed, will first work on the small issues that clutter our minds and to-do lists, promising we’ll shift to the important once we clear enough time to do so. We often run out of time. Of course, we have it backwards- we need to schedule first things first so they get done. Item 37 on the to do list can almost always wait.

We should also look at 168 in a positive way. If we have 168 hours, there is now no excuse to find an hour a day to spend with loved ones (there are still 161 left!) 3 hours a week to exercise (158 left!) or two hours for a “me time” activity (156!). I liken this to some great advice I once received- many of us say we don’t have time to read, but if you read 10 pages a night, you’ll read a new book every month. IMO, a worthy use of 2 hours a week!

We should also make sure to spend our time wisely. TV and Facebook are great, but shouldn’t gobble up too much time away from important things.

2. Make your priorities explicit

In one passage, Schulte is at a time management seminar and the attendees are stumped when asked to compose their next week’s calendar by filling in the most important things first. Schulte had a hard time distinguishing which things- work, her book project, time with husband, time with kids, exercise, social time, cleaning the house- should come first. I bet we’d all have similar struggles.

Ultimately Schulte decided that time with loved ones, writing the best book she could, and time for exercise were her top 3 priorities. She stuck to that schedule- the focus helped her be more effective, and the 37th item on the list, she found, was not really as pressing as she one believed.

Further, Schulte has adopted the practice of designating “one big thing” for each day–the top priority that has to be done well. For her, this provides focus and relieves the pressure on having to do everything on the to-do list.

I’ve long been a believer that you can’t get what you want until you know what you want. We need to be conscious about our priorities instead of drifting in our lives.

 Brigid Schulte and I after the White House Summit on Working Fathers!
Brigid Schulte and I after the White House Summit on Working Fathers!

3. Time chunks, not multi-tasking

Many others have made this point, but people are more productive when they have a dedicated chunk of time to concentrate on a task, and are far less effective when they switch between tasks and roles. At work and at home, we should try to carve out large chunks of time for single activities and roles. Maybe the distracted multi-tasker works as many hours as others, but is probably less efficient. He also probably spends as much time with his family as others, but he loses out on truly being present and attentive. Schulte calls this state of constant switching and distraction “contaminated time.” Time chunks can help us avoid this problem.

4. Get out of your head and play!

Being overwhelmed is mostly a cognitive phenomenon. Almost any activity that gets our mind out of “contaminated time” will help us feel less stressed. Meditation, prayer, exercise, play, music, “me time,” hobbies can all get us out of our worried thoughts and into a state of flow. Schulte entertainingly describes a trapeze class she attends in order to recharge and try something physical and new.

5. Overwhelm is not just a working moms’ issue

Unlike most books about society and stress, Schulte gives the challenges faced by men and especially by working dads equal time and attention. She examines her own marriage and how she and her husband drifted into gendered family roles when their kids were born and are now working their way back to the egalitarianism to which they always aspired. She also examines workplace cultures, company policies, public policy, societal norms and other issues that make men feel overwhelmed, as well. (Greg Marcus wrote a great book on a similar topic from a man’s point of view, if you are interested)

It is no surprise she was also a presenter (along with me!) at the White House Summit on Working Fathers. She really gets it, and demonstrates that many women are our allies in meeting our challenges.

Brigid Schulte (far left) moderating a panel at the recent White House Summit on Working Fathers
Brigid Schulte (far left) moderating a panel at the recent White House Summit on Working Fathers

6. Overparenting is really weird if you think about it (and takes up a lot of time)

Schulte argues that making your kids the constant center of your life and attention sends them the message that they are entitled. After all, if everyone drops what they are doing (work, their own time) to race to school to deliver the homework your kid left on his dresser, why should he learn consequences, responsibility, or that others’ time/goals/lives are as valuable as theirs?

Schulte also examines how the “ideal mother/parent” syndrome leads parents to spend thousands on birthday parties and go so overwhelmingly above and beyond at school bake sales, etc. when all kids really want is time with friends doing something fun (tag in the back yard and store-bought cupcakes, as opposed to children’s music performers, petting zoos and perfect Martha Stewart-inspired cakes).

7. Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t slow down every once in a while, you might miss it

Apologies to Ferris Beuller, but his ethos comes out loud and clear in Overwhelmed. In fact, the book ends with Schulte thinking back to a time in which she put off playing with her daughter to finish pulling weeds. She, of course, finds herself only partially done after nightfall but having missed out on an evening of fun and bonding. Schulte then reflects on a more recent day in which, at the encouragement of her kids, she leaves the dirty dishes in the sink and joins them in eating lunch together while simply watching the rain.

The lesson here is, yes, we are busy. But life can’t just be business. You need to unplug occasionally and enjoy the small moments. I think we all struggle with this sometimes, and I know I need to constantly remind myself of this, too.

in short, I think Overwhelmed is an excellent book- not just for these pieces of personal advice, but also for Schulte’s expert analysis of the societal forces that contribute to the US culture of being overwhelmed and, especially, for her brave and honest examination of her own life and struggles with being overly stressed.

Which of these lessons resonates with you? Any stories to share? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

Like the article? Think it would make for a good facebook, reddit or twitter conversation? Then please share it using the buttons below. You can also follow the blog via email, facebook or twitter. Thanks!

4 thoughts on “7 Things I Learned from Reading “Overwhelmed” by Brigid Schulte

  1. I agree, Scott. I really enjoyed Overwhelmed as well. For me, the concept regarding busyness and wearing it as a badge of honor was particularly eye-opening. I realized we do have choices with what we do with our time, to a certain extent, at least.

    • The need to appear busy is definitely a major component of the Overwhelm.

      It is a little like Parkinson’s Law in that the amount if time it takes to do something expands to the time available to do so.

      I’ll be taking a closer look at a related issue on my upcoming hbr piece either later this week or next week

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: