Want To Be Happier? Throw Away Your To-Do List

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OverwhelmedAtWork_slide01Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
“There just aren’t enough hours in the day.”

“I’m crazy busy.”

“My to-do list is a mile long.”

If you’re like most Americans, you likely say one (or all) of the above statements on a regular basis.

A few years ago Brigid Schulte, a journalist for The Washington Post and a mother of two, did too. “I kept waking up in a panic at 4 a.m. worrying — not only about all of the stuff on my to-do list that I hadn’t done that day, and how much more there was to do,” Schulte says, “but also whether I was missing my life even as I was living it.”

And, then she started to wonder why she — and so many people she knew — was living this way. So, like any good journalist, she started doing some research, which led her to write what she calls an “accidental" book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time.

“It’s a journey to understand what happened to leisure in America — why I, like so many, felt so compelled to unthinkingly overwork and overparent and overdo,” she says. “And, how I could begin to create time for what philosophers and psychologists say are the three great arenas that make for a good life: work, love and play.”

Since this balance is what everyone is seemingly searching for these days, we sat down with Schulte to find out more about trying to live a less overwhelmed life.

I think that a lot of people today can relate to your book. How did we get to this point? Are we really more over-scheduled and overwhelmed than our parents’ generation?

Brigid Schulte: Yes! A generation ago people knew the difference between hard work and overwork — the latter of which has become our reality. Work hours began to rise in the 1980s. Now Americans put in among the most extreme hours of workers anywhere in the world. Why? Because of what’s changed and what hasn’t.

What’s changed: the world, technology, the economy, gender roles. What hasn’t: cultural attitudes and expectations and unconscious bias. I think the writer Katrina Alcorn [author of Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink] said it best: Our society expects people to work as if they didn’t have families or lives, and to have families as if we didn’t work. And, that’s just not the reality for the vast majority of Americans.

About 40% of all children under 18 are being raised by a sole breadwinning mother or mom who outearns her spouse. But, you would never know that by looking at our workplace cultures, policies and laws.

At the same time, the standards for what it takes to be a good mother have continued to ratchet up. Social scientists now say that the gap between what we consider the ideal and what we’re realistically capable of doing has never been wider. Since so much hasn’t changed as the world has, we’ve created an impossible bind for most people — not just mothers.
OverwhelmedAtWork_slide02Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
You heavily researched this book. So, what was the most surprising thing that you uncovered in the process?

I hate to admit this, but it was how ignorant I was of the forces that had shaped my own thoughts, actions and life. For example, I had never heard of family responsibilities discrimination [employment discrimination based on needing to care for family], nor that pregnancy discrimination was so real and so rampant —even though a federal law banning it was passed in 1978.

I also didn’t know that we have virtually no family policy in the U.S., unlike every other advanced nation on earth. And, that all meaningful conversation on the topic stopped in the 1970s. Nor did I realize how ambivalent this country is about working mothers, although it explains a lot of the guilt I always felt, and why we don’t have fully flexible workplaces or supportive policies or cultural attitudes that see mothers and fathers doing excellent work and preserving sacred time for family—or any worker, really, who wants to work and have a full life.

What are the consequences of living in this pressure cooker?

The health consequences are huge. The National Institutes of Health is involved in a multimillion-dollar multiyear study and has found that overwork, the squeeze between work and life, and managers who value face time and long hours, is associated with higher stress levels, poorer health, poorer sleep patterns, more anxiety and absenteeism.

And, the Yale Stress Center has reported that constant stress — the body was built for short bursts of stress, followed by a return to calm — is not only bathing the organs in the stress hormone cortisol (it’s been linked to higher rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and cancer), but it may also shrink the prefrontal cortex of the brain. That’s the “thinking” part of the brain that governs executive functions like thinking, learning, remembering, planning and decision-making.

Related: 8 Easy Ways to Curb Health and Wellness Costs
Aside from preventing these health issues, why is leisure time so important? In today’s culture, it seems looked down upon.

I have to be honest that there were times when I was embarrassed to tell people that I was writing a book about leisure. It seemed so silly and trivial. We clearly have lost all sense of its value as we’ve gotten wrapped up in busyness and the feeling that we always have to be “productive” and “doing” something.

But, then I began to read more and understand that without leisure time, we wouldn’t have civilization. It’s exactly when we take our nose off the grindstone and have time outside of work — outside the routine of survival—that our thoughts wander and wonder, that we make new connections, figure out how to solve old problems in new ways, and have the kind of insights that come in “aha!” moments. In leisure, all of civilization, in essence, has been created — art, philosophy, history, science, discoveries, innovations — and all in long periods of uninterrupted leisure.

So, what can people do to find leisure time in their hectic lives?

The first thing is to stop and recognize how strong the pressure is to overwork, overparent, overschedule, and be busy. Then, when it comes to your to-do list, do a brain dump to get everything out of your head and clear mental space. Then give yourself permission to not do any of it.

And, give yourself permission to designate joy, fun, play, reflection and idleness or quiet time as top priorities — and schedule them in until it becomes routine. You really don’t have to earn leisure by getting to the end of the to-do list. You never will. So, flip the list. Put joy first.

Finally, what’s the one thing you hope people take away from your book?

That the way we’re living is unsustainable — we’re not doing our best work, giving our best to our most important relationships, or living our best lives. We need to completely rethink the way we work, unstall the stalled gender revolution and our automatic assumptions about who should do what, and recapture the value of play —it’s what makes us human, and rewires our brains in creative and positive ways.

In researching the book, I found so many bright spots. I’m hoping not only to spark a national conversation about changing the way we work and live, but to show that, in many places, in many ways large and small, it’s already starting to change. And, I find that really exciting.

Next: Could Workplace Stress Really Kill You?

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