Book review: Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

Back in 2009, Brigid Schulte accepted a challenge to keep a time diary. Her new book Overwhelmed covers both that time diary challenge and what Schulte went on to learn afterward. Back then, she explained, things were not going well:

This is how it feels to live my life: scattered, fragmented, and exhausting. I am always doing more than one thing at a time and feel I never do any one particularly well. I am always behind and always late, with one more thing and one more thing and one more thing to do before rushing out the door.

Schulte is an award-winning journalist, and it shows in her book. Overwhelmed is filled with references to research in brain science, sociology, etc. and also with enlightening first-person interviews. It even has copious endnotes. But Schulte is an engaging writer, and the book never drags.

Schulte spends a lot of time describing the cultural and structural issues that help lead to overwhelm — including jobs that expect long days in the office, the lack of high-quality affordable child care, and a society that smiles on busy-ness. (She interviews a scholar who has collected and studied thousands of holiday letters, where busy-ness and crazy schedules are ongoing themes.) But, Schulte also points out “bright spots” where organizations and cultures are moving in directions that help people live less overwhelmed lives.

While many of Schulte’s anecdotes deal with mothers, she’s very clear that the issues of overwhelm applies to all. Fathers also get stressed about work time vs. family time. And “single people want lives, too,” as attorney Melvin White explained to her.

While it’s mostly toward the end, Overwhelmed has many ideas about what others can do now, to help be less overwhelmed. This advice is based on Schulte’s research and what worked for her. She started getting to-do items out of her head and onto paper — a familiar idea to those who know David Allen’s Getting Things Done. She chose three focus areas, which come first as she plans her time; everything else goes under the category Peter Bregman calls “The Other 5 Percent,” because they should only get 5 percent of your time. To make sure that focus happens, her daily to-do list is now short enough to fit onto a standard size Post-it note.

What I found most interesting, though, was:

But by far, the one skill that I have learned that has transformed my experience of time is the power of the pulse …

Working continuously, without breaks, is in fact a surefire way to produce subpar work … Pulsing — deactivating and reactivating the brain — actually makes it pay better attention.

Schulte learned to work in pulses, chunking her time between work and family, rather than continually switching back and forth. She wound up writing most of this book in 90-minute pulses. (A concept we first discussed on Unclutterer in 2009.)

The book has an appendix entitled Do One Thing, which is an 8-page bullet list of things each of us can do to overcome the feeling of overwhelm — but it’s the one part of the book that’s a bit dull. Still, it’s a decent summary of the points made throughout the book, and a good reminder that there are indeed plenty of things we can do to feel less flustered.

2 Comments for “Book review: Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time”

  1. posted by Beverly on

    The biggest problem is the person him/herself. Learn to say “no” and “enough.” Nobody says your kids have to be involved in every activity known to kids. Nobody says YOU have to be involved in everything that comes down the pike. Pick your priorities and you won’t be over-scheduled or find yourself with 18 things to do at the same time. My daughter played in the band and was a member of the flag corp. That was enough. I worked full time and went to college one class each semester. I saw no need to kill myself getting my education in a year. Priorities. If you have too many priorities then you will have to understand that you won’t be good at all them. It’s not possible to spread the icing too thin and not have the cake show. Reality sucks but being realistic about what you want to do and what you can do is the better option.

  2. posted by Steve on

    I think that most of us are overwhelmed with the current pace of our lives. I agree with Beverly, one of our biggest problems is that we don’t say no enough. If we take the time to step back and ask ourselves what we really want out of life, set a goal, create a plan to get there, and only say yes to the opportunities that will get us to our goal we will restore a sense of balance to our lives. We will also create the margin that we need to reduce our sense of overwhelm, and give us more time with our family and friends. Just say no to any opportunity takes you away from your goal.

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