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.