Author Brigid Schulte Shares How To Feel Less Overwhelmed

By Leigh Hornbeck
Times Union, Albany, N.Y.

It is hard-wired in Americans to be productive, that work is its own reward and doing nothing is a sign of weakness.

As a result, we are always tired, always running, always trying to do more.

Author Brigid Schulte went looking for our lost leisure time.
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The result was her first book, “Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.”

Schulte’s research led to changes in her own life and advice for other Americans. Schulte is the speaker at this year’s Bold in Business conference hosted by the Capital Region Chamber on Thursday, Oct. 22. A longtime journalist, Schulte, 53, recently left the job she held for 17 years as a reporter for the Washington Post. She now leads the Breadwinning and Caregiving program for the New America think tank.

Q: Why is leisure time important?

A: If you look at neuroscience, it’s clear why free time or blank space is important. We have two systems of thinking, one when we’re concentrating and the other is task-negative, almost a daydreaming state. That second kind isn’t valued in the U.S., but what we’re discovering is you need both to get to a new idea, a creative thought. You need the downtime when your mind is wandering — whether it’s going for a walk or not doing anything at all. I hate to use leisure to promote productivity, but it’s true, If we take time to recharge, when we work, we work better. We need the oscillation between the two types of thinking.

Q: There’s irony in the fact a lot of work went into writing a book about leisure. How and when did you start applying the lessons you learned?

A: I am a recovering workaholic and helicopter parent. I worked and lived in an overwhelmed state for a long time and learned a lot of bad habits. I do slide backward, but I have made changes and made progress. I work in intense, short bursts of 90 minutes and then take a break. At home, my husband and I had slipped unconsciously into traditional gender roles.

I learned how powerful the ideal mother image is out there. We have maternity leave, not paternity leave, and oh, since you’re home, you should do all the child care and housework as well.

Our policies are stuck in the 1950s and attitudes haven’t changed. Our standards for what we think is a good mother have been escalating since the 1970s in a crazy-making way.

Work to bring a greater division of labor in a fair way. Set common standards for what is clean enough, and hold each other to them. Women spend three to five hours a week redoing work they’ve delegated.

When I started the book I took the kids to all the doctor’s appointments. Now we make an effort to take turns. It’s not about getting to 50/50. It’s about getting to what feels fair. I have to value my own time, and how we do it sets the tone for our kids the way our parents set the tone for us.

Women think it’s selfish to take time for themselves, they only take it if they think they’ve earned it, when they get to the bottom of a long to-do list, but the list is endless.

Q: Have you gotten feedback from your family about the changes you’ve made?

A: My children are 17 and 14, so they are at an age when they joke about it, they think their parents are big dorks. But it’s great that my son and daughter see my husband making dinner and see me doing meaningful work. I supported my husband, who covers the military, when he traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan. He supported me when I traveled for the book. At first it was hard because he’d never flown solo. Now he doesn’t bat an eye.

Q: What do you do when you have leisure time?

A: Leisure time is a muscle, and you have to use it. When I was going to be changing jobs, I was worried because of the ingrained message I carry around about being productive that I would use the time off to pull weeds, clean closets, clean the basement. I paused and thought about what I really wanted. I wanted to learn to kayak in white water, so I called a place and set it up. I spent two hours in a pool learning to roll my kayak. Another day I took myself hiking. I’m much better at taking time to just stop. A lot of time we don’t know what leisure time looks like for us and it changes as our lives change. I added myself to the equation and I didn’t used to do that. I run in the morning with a friend once a week, I get out in the morning and row, I read.

I am trying to walk the walk. After a talk recently, I took an hour and went paddling instead of going home to fold the pile of laundry. I saw bald eagles and spent time in nature. Set priorities and put yourself in the equation when you come up with the list.

It really is our one and only life.

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