Women have at least 30 hours of leisure time every week, sociologist John Robinson, PhD, told journalist Brigid Schulte. Shocked? We were. So was Schulte, a reporter at The Washington Post — and a mother of two who was more familiar with late nights and packed schedules than with the elusive concept of "free time."
Robinson challenged Schulte to keep a meticulous diary of how she spent her days. It turns out, she did have the time — just not the quality time. While she constantly felt stuck in the all-too-familiar state of being stretched too thin, her data portrayed a different story. Schulte's week included about 28 hours of “leisure” — fragmented and splintered, to be sure, and inclusive of exercise, TV, and Facebook.
The problem was that most of this time didn’t feel leisurely; it felt harried, compressed, and unfulfilling. This experiment led Schulte to write Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time. She notes that for most of us, free hours aren’t spent meditating or enjoying a moment of relaxing nothingness. Rather, we are checking and re-checking our to-do lists, multitasking, and stressing about what there is still left to do. Basically, our free time is “contaminated.”
Constant connectivity — our 24/7 habit of digesting news, photos, and feeds in real time — dilutes our hours and amplifies our strain. “All those stolen glances at the smartphone, the bursts of addictive texting, and e-mail checking at all hours…don’t show up in [our] time diaries,” Schulte writes in Overwhelmed. “Yet that activity splinters the experience of time into thousands of little pieces. And living in an always-on, technological haze leads to mental exhaustion.”
Through her research, Schulte learned that when subjected to constant stress, our prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that helps focus thoughts) shrinks. This allows the amygdala, the brain’s center for fear and anxiety, to take center stage — creating a state of overextension and hyper-connectivity Schulte calls “The Overwhelm.”
Photo: Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
What’s more, our society values busyness, with many people struggling to juggle the roles of star employee, devoted family member, and supportive friend — all while making it to the gym five times a week.
While workplace reform (not to mention a cultural shift away from viewing busyness as a badge of honor) will not happen overnight, there are ways each of us can reclaim soul-nourishing leisure time on a daily basis. Below, our favorite pieces of advice from Schulte’s book on how to break free from The Overwhelm.
1. Alternate efforts: Humans are hardwired to be most productive when switching between periods of intense focus and relaxation. (It’s like HIT intervals for your brain.) So, instead of multitasking and doing a bunch of things poorly, schedule 90 minutes of work followed by a break to help reboot your concentration.
2. Unplug: Establish boundaries for connectivity — and more importantly, stick to them. Demands from colleagues, bosses, friends, and family can feel unending when we let them all in, all the time. Occasionally, there’s a pressing reason why you need to respond to that late-night email, but the vast majority of the time it can wait until morning.
3. Release expectations: If you feel anxious, don’t dwell on that emotion. Rather, unleash it in the form of a journal entry. Sometimes, merely putting a name to what's gnawing at you is enough.