Overwhelmed

by Brigid Schulte

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Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Copyright: 2014
ISBN: 1-4299-4587-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 286

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Subtitled Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Overwhelmed is part of the latest batch of reading I've been doing on time management and life organization. The focus of this book is particularly appealing: Why does life feel so busy? Why do we feel constantly overwhelmed with things we're supposed to be doing? Did something change? If so, what changed? And how can we fix it? Schulte avoids many of the pitfalls of both science popularization and self-help books by personalizing her questions in an appealing way. She is overwhelmed, she wants to escape that trap, and she goes looking for things that would help her personally, bringing the reader along for the ride.

The caveat to this approach, which I wish were more obvious from the marketing surrounding this book, is that Overwhelmed is focused on the type of overwhelm that the author herself is dealing with: being a working mother. Roughly two-thirds of this book is about parenting, gender balance in both parenting and household chores, time stress unique to working mothers, and the interaction between the demands of family and the demands of the workplace.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with this focus. I'm delighted to see more time and attention management books and workplace policy investigations written for the working mother instead of the male executive. Just be aware that a lot of this book is not going to apply directly to people without partners or kids, although I still found it useful as a tool for building social empathy and thinking about work and government policy.

Schulte starts the book with a brilliant hook. Overwhelmed, fragmented, and exhausted, Schulte had kept a time diary for a year, and is turning it over to John Robinson, a well-known sociologist specializing in time use. Schulte memorably describes how her time diaries have become confessionals of panic attacks, unpaid bills, hours spent waiting on hold, and tarot readings telling her to take more quiet time for herself. But Robinson's conclusion is ruthless: she had 28 hours of leisure in the week they analyzed during the visit. A little less than average, but a marked contrast to Schulte's sense that she had no leisure at all. Based on his research with meticulous time diaries, Robinson is insistent that we have as much or more leisure than we had fifty years ago. (He has his own book on the topic, Time for Life.) Schulte's subjective impression of her time is wildly inconsistent with that analysis. What happened?

In the first part of the book, Schulte introduces two useful concepts: time confetti, to describe her subjective impression of the shredding of her schedule and attention, and role overload. The latter is used in academic work on time use to describe attempting to fulfill multiple roles simultaneously without the necessary resources for all of them, and has a strong correlation with depression and anxiety. Schulte immediately recognized the signs of role overload in her own conflicts between work and parenting, but even without the parenting component, I recognized role overload in the strain between work and volunteer commitments. Simplified, it's a more academic version of the common concept of "work-life balance," but it comes with additional research on the consequences: constant multitasking, a sense of accelerating pace, and a breakdown of clean divisions between blocks of time devoted to different activities.

The rest of the book looks at this problem in three distinct spheres: work, love (mostly family and child-rearing), and play. Schulte adds the additional concepts of the Ideal Worker, Ideal Mother, and Providing Father archetypes and their pressure towards both gender stereotypes and an unhealthy devotion to work availability and long work hours. I found the Ideal Worker concept and its framing of the standards against which we unconsciously measure ourselves particularly useful, even though I'm in an extremely relaxed and flexible work place by US standards. The Ideal Mother and Providing Father concepts in the section on love were more academic to me (since I don't have kids), but gave me new empathy for the struggles to apply an abstract ideal of equal partnership to the messy world of subconscious stereotypes and inflexible workplaces designed for providing fathers.

Schulte does offer a few tentative solutions, or at least pushes in a better direction, but mostly one comes away from this book wanting to move to Denmark or the Netherlands (both used here, as in so many other places these days, as examples of societies that have made far different choices about work and life than the US has). So many of the flaws are structural: jobs of at least forty hours a week, a culture of working late at the office or taking work home, inadequate child care, and deeply ingrained gender stereotypes that shape our behavior even when we don't want them to. Carving out a less overwhelmed life as an individual is an exhausting swim upstream, which is nigh-impossible when exhaustion and burnout is the starting point. If you're looking for a book to make you feel empowered and in control of eliminating the sense of overwhelm from your life, that's not this book, although that also makes it a more realistic study.

That said, Schulte herself sounds more optimistic at the end of the book than at the beginning, and seems to have found some techniques that helped without moving to Denmark. She summarizes them at the end of the book, and it's a solid list. Several will be familiar to any time management reader (stop multitasking, prioritize the important things first, make room for quiet moments, take advantage of human burst work cycles, be very clear about your objectives, and, seriously, stop multitasking), but for me they gained more weight from Schulte's personal attempts to understand and apply them. But I think this is more a book about the shape of the problem than about the shape of the solution.

Overwhelmed is going to have the most to say to women and to people with children, but I'm glad I read it. This is the good sort of summary of scientific and social research: personalized, embracing ambiguity and conflicting research and opinions, capturing the sense of muddling through and trying multiple things, and honest and heartfelt in presenting the author's personal take and personal challenges. It avoids both the guru certainty of the self-help book and the excessive generalization of Gladwell-style popularizations. More like this, please.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-08-24

Last modified and spun 2018-08-25