There are 168 hours in every week, but it still seems that it's just not enough time to get everything done. The unrelenting demands in our professional and personal lives leave many of us stressed, anxious, and unfulfilled—and the phenomenon cuts across gender, age, and marital status. In her new book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has The Time, Brigid Schulte, an award-winning reporter at The Washington Post, explores the dimensions of our time-crunched lives through a seamless blend of personal profiles and new findings from the field of time-use research. Recently, business writer Robert Lerose spoke with Schulte about the importance of taking breaks, how to work more efficiently, and how to redress the imbalance in our lives.
RL: Why did you decide to write this book? What questions did you have or issues did you want to investigate?
BS: I really didn't set out to write this particular book. I had been part of an internal group at The Washington Post that looked at why women were not reading the newspaper. We really struggled to read it ourselves because mornings were just a complete and utter frenetic time for most women that we talked to. We wanted to find the data that showed women are really busy. That led me to John Robinson, a very eminent time-use researcher. He said: Come do a time study with me and I will show you where your leisure is.’ I wrote a magazine story about it and received so many long involved emails that said: You climbed into my head and wrote about my life. That's when I thought that there's something more here, and decided to pursue it as a book.
RL: What are some things that surprised you in your research?
BS: I got to question some conventional wisdom, like you have to work a gazillion hours to be a good worker. That's a very powerful notion in the United States, but it's not true. New research is emerging that shows we are actually most creative and most productive when we take regular breaks.
RL: Time-use researchers discovered something that they call "contaminated time." What is that?
BS: They found that people were so lost in their thoughts that they could be doing something that looked like leisure—bike riding or having coffee with friends—and yet their minds were churning with stuff they had to do at work and so they were sort of everywhere and nowhere. They weren't fully in that moment. When your time is so contaminated, it adds to the sense of time pressure because you're so distracted. You're sort of living on the sidelines as your life streams past you.
BS: Women there had almost as much leisure time as men, which is really unheard of in advanced economies. Men were doing more housework, and the time [spent caring for] children was also equal. The other thing that was very interesting about a mother's leisure is that they have the most "pure" leisure time—that's the term time-use researchers use for time to yourself—whereas most American mothers spend almost every minute of their leisure time with their children.
RL: How does this respect for leisure affect Danish working conditions?
BS: By law, both men and women work short but intense hours. When work is done, it is done. Most Danish people do not check their work emails or calls after work hours. Here in the United States, if you're the last to leave the office because you're burning the midnight oil, we tend to think that you're the best worker. But in Denmark, they tend to think that you're really inefficient if you leave the office late. It's a completely different mindset. Yet Denmark is about as productive as we are per hour.
RL: You write that "working continuously, without breaks, is in fact a surefire way to produce subpar work." That human beings are designed to pulse. Explain that.
BS: I do credit Tony Schwartz [CEO of The Energy Project] for how I found out about it. You not only need concentrated focused work, you also need the breaks. And it's in that oscillation between focused works and breaks that you get new ideas, that creativity comes in. We're discovering that we not only sleep in 90-minute REM cycles at night, but we have 90-minute attentiveness cycles during the day. So if you really want to be productive, use that natural pulse, that natural cycle. You'll get more done if you do give yourself regular breaks. When you don't give your brain a break, it will take one by being distracted.
RL: What's something that small business owners could do to reform the workplace to make it more supportive for both working parents and fairer to everybody?
BS: Oftentimes it's a small enough environment where it feels more like a family and everybody knows everybody. [Flexibility] is something you can plan for, it's something that you can work with the employee to come up with a plan. For example, [a new parent] can take time off to really bond with their child or to recover, without feeling that they're leaving their co-workers in the lurch. The co-workers can feel that they're supporting their family member. And when they need time—for caring for a relative or even for themselves—it will come to them as well.
RL: You're a working journalist and a married mother of two school-age children. Can you give us an example of something that you took away from your reporting that has made a personal difference in your life?
BS: I say that I'm a work in progress. I try to work in pulses. I set timers when I need to sit down and concentrate on something. I look at what's important to me and to my work and try to find a balance when they're not in alignment. In my personal life, I used to feel that I had to do everything because I was the mom. Now we have a much fairer division of labor and that's probably cleared up most of that mental clutter more than anything else. I try to give my kids more unstructured time, to let them learn on their own, and to fail and pick themselves up. But I think one of the most important things I do is, I really take time to pause, to jump off the gerbil wheel. I don't feel that I have to get to the end of my to-do list before I have "earned" free time or leisure time. I recognize that time is finite, so I try to set priorities and then live by those priorities.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.