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


A Book To Deconstruct the Work-Life Balance

Every waking minute, some woman is made to feel guilty about how she’s spending her time. Laurie Abraham and a new book deconstruct the myth of work-life balance.


Ever heard of John Robinson, the éminence grise of the sociologists who study how Americans spend their time? He and his colleagues have issued a bevy of findings over the years—e.g., a dishwasher does not save time (maybe due to vigorous rinsing before loading?)—that I’ve always accepted as truth, as counterintuitive as some of the results seemed.

Which is why I was glad I took the approximately 10 minutes required to read the first chapter of Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte’s new book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. I almost didn’t open it, because it looked like yet another earnest attempt to crack the code of “work-life balance” (a concept that I find useless when it comes to constructing a meaningful life, but more on that later). While Schulte is definitely earnest—her misery at being unable to feel any sense of peace about her performance on either the home or the work front seems very real, and poignant—the book is distinguished by the depth of her reportorial investigation into why busyness has become both a bane of twenty-first-century existence and a badge of honor.

So back to chapter one: There I learned that if your car dies in the middle of the road and you wait two hours for a tow truck, as Schulte was forced to, those 120 minutes count as “leisure,” according to the time-diary method Robinson and his ilk employ. (Subjects keep detailed accounts of their days, and then researchers slot the various activities under general headings.) And I realized that another head-scratching Robinson factoid had lodged itself in my brain: Women have more leisure time today than they did in the 1960s, despite so many more of us now working outside the home. I’d heard this and reflexively assumed that I must be more of a layabout than I’d thought. I mean, doesn’t everyone think she works long and hard? The power of the expert to define reality can be awesome.

Over the course of a week, Robinson totaled up 28 hours of leisure for Schulte, which included: 6 a.m. bedroom DVD workouts (sound muted, so as not to wake her daughter and son), reading the Post (even though she works there), Friday pizza and movie night with the kids, listening to NPR for 20 minutes while trying to drag herself out of bed, “an hour on the computer at midnight beating it roundly at backgammon (okay, busted—some incontrovertible leisure), downloading photos and e-mailing them to family, answering e-mails, and arranging for a cleaning service to come to my friends Jeff and Molly’s house because Jeff was battling stomach cancer.”

Part of the problem with time-diary studies may be that the categories aren’t fine-grained enough to describe female existence. (For Schulte, Robinson divided her time into paid work, personal care, sleep, leisure, child care, housework, volunteering, and commuting—though some investigators use up to 17 groupings.) But better representing our experience isn’t just a matter of increasing the number of slots, according to the new crop of (often female) academics whom Schulte consulted. For one thing, women’s actual leisure feels less than leisurely because it tends to be chopped up, parceled out in what one scholar calls “minute vacations” (Schulte’s example: pausing to observe an “uncannily beautiful moon”…in the midst of searching for her son’s bike helmet). Men, meanwhile, log extended stretches of pure downtime: weekend afternoons of golf, Wednesday nights out with the guys. Perhaps worse, women’s time is generally more “contaminated” than that of the opposite sex, Schulte reports, because, as a result of both working in the paid labor market and being ringmaster of the domestic circus, we usually have multiple balls in the air, and on our minds. As one friend told me, explaining why she felt so frazzled, “My son borrows my cortex.”

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, aka the father of “flow,” documented this contamination by using what’s known as the “experience sampling method”—subjects are buzzed at random points during the day and asked what they’re doing and how they feel about it. The average mother is doing five things at once and simultaneously planning two to three more, his data shows, while the average father is doing one and a half. The upshot, Csikszentmihalyi says, is that the splendors of flow—a peak state in which we’re so immersed in what we’re doing that we lose self-consciousness and the sense of time passing—are enjoyed more by men.

Here are a few things about how I live, things that, notably, I don’t advertise to my full-time working-mother set: I sleep a minimum of eight hours a night. I “make dinner” for my two daughters at most three times a week (the air quotes because the usual menu—none of it organic, except incidentally—is, say, ground beef tacos with applesauce from a jar, or macaroni and cheese from the box with frozen peas, and I’m not kidding). For other meals, we eat out or order in. I don’t go to the gym or do yoga or any other regular exercise. I don’t have to supervise my girls’ homework—their father pays a bit of attention, but since no teacher has ever complained I’ve never felt compelled to get involved. I’m not a big cell-phone user—I turn it off, forget it at home, neglect to charge it.

I know my real friends don’t hold this stuff against me (you’d think I was confessing to pedophilia)—because, let’s face it, my real friends are basically aware of how I live. But I out myself, in all my banality, to strike a blow against the cult of busyness: the need to prove one’s worth based on the length of one’s to-do list. (Schulte speculates that as religious commitment receded, the “busier than thou” ethic caught fire to answer questions like “who am I?” and “why do I exist?”) Because I realized while reading Overwhelmed that as much as I believe that some research has grossly underestimated the demands of women’s lives, I don’t identify with Schulte, or at least not with her state of mind when she began her project, always in a frantic rush, never having time to herself, and never—and this is the big mea culpa I hear among women—feeling like she’s doing anything right.

The reason I’m not stuck in that frenzied trough, I think, is that because what I don’t do allows me time to do what I decided I needed and wanted to do after I had children. Which was to continue the writing and editing work that I love and to connect with my daughters, to be alive and responsive to them as separate beings—in fact, I unwittingly followed the advice of the time-management experts Schulte consults at the end of her book: Figure out a small number of goals and what’s required to fulfill them. On the motherhood front, based on my own capacities and limits—primarily how easily preoccupied I can get with work and even household tasks—I had to create, and protect, swaths of clean time with my girls. So, did I really care enough about what my children ate (other than a few servings a day of green stuff, copious butter optional) to spend time cooking and grocery shopping? No. Could I do meaningful writing and give my boss her money’s worth if I didn’t check my device for hours at a time? Yes.

Which isn’t to say that my schedule isn’t crammed, because it is (and just last night I was feeling like the worst person alive because I was late to pick up my elder daughter from piano; arrived home at 8 p.m. to find that my younger daughter actually did want help with her homework; couldn’t negotiate takeout to please both girls, so barely fed them at all; had the temerity to cross the street at 9 p.m. to attend a neighborhood book group, for which I was, of course, a half hour late). But if there’s a central insight of Schulte’s book, it’s that it doesn’t matter so much how occupied you are, but how you feel about said occupation, and I feel extremely lucky to be living a rich life. Like the busy women Schulte interviewed who are relatively sanguine about their circumstances, I don’t try to achieve some kind of platonic balance day to day but instead keep my overall goals in mind and make course corrections when things get out of whack. In the words of a woman who started a group called Working Mothers With Big Jobs, “Rather than seek perfect balance, it’s better for me to ask myself: Am I doing my best? Am I doing things for the right reasons? Do I make those I love feel loved? Am I happy?”

There is one crucial element that keeps my little life plan from imploding, however, which is that I’m blessed to have significant control over how and where I work. Overwhelmed is superb at peeling back the layers that keep the workplace and social policies from catching up to the fact that 70 percent of American mothers work, and they’re not quitting anytime soon. True, the very rich can “opt out,” and the very poor can’t find a door in, but pretty much the rest of us—male and female alike—have to find a version of the good life that includes both paid and domestic employment.

Perhaps most striking was Schulte’s portrayal of the “ideal worker,” a product of the era in which men could give themselves over entirely to the job because their other halves handled everything else. The stereotype, she says, has been internalized by everyone from big cheeses to flunkies—and kept us all from imagining, never mind agitating for, changes in government and employment policy that would take pressure off overburdened, stressed-out families. Meet the ideal worker (the abridged version): “He is a face-time warrior, the first one there in the morning and the last to leave at night. Rarely sick. Never takes vacation, or brings work along if he does…. Can jump on a plane whenever the boss asks because someone else is responsible for getting the kids off to school or attending the preschool play. Pulls all-nighters on last-minute projects at a moment’s notice. In the blue-collar workplace, he is always ready to work overtime or a second shift. Never has to think about researching good assisted-care facilities for Mom or Dad as they get older, whether they’re getting the best treatment in ICU, or how to get his sister to her next chemotherapy appointment. It’s simply not his job.”

If you’re thinking, Yeah, yeah, nobody buys in to that anymore, then explain why I, who have worked for the same woman for 15 years, someone who I’m confident believes the quality of my work is high and never nags me about face time, someone who knows I write better at home because we no longer have individual offices to ourselves…why did I, in the midst of writing this very article, e-mail a colleague last Friday to ask whether our boss seemed “mad” that I wasn’t on the premises. (My friend reported: “She’s been in back-to-back meetings since I got here. I don’t think she’s noticed.” Touché.) And while I mostly fight off the worry that I’ll be suspected of malingering when I’m not in my assigned seat, I have to admit that I tend to think warmly of people lower in the corporate hierarchy who are always at their computers, who beat me into the office in the morning and are still there after I leave.

Part of this, Schulte points out, is that it can take effort and out-of-the-box thinking for managers to judge people by any standard other than availability and “presenteeism.” It requires setting clear goals and defining what qualifies as enough work. As a supervisor who’s still sipping the ideal-worker Kool-Aid, that last makes me twitch: I mean, people can always do more, can’t they? And don’t extra hours translate into more work, and what organization can’t use more work? More, more, more. I also confess that if I’m asked who the best worker is, my gut-level response is the same as that of the three quarters of 2,000 managers and execs who replied in a survey Schulte cites: “Those without a lot of personal commitments.” The logical extension of this is that I think I’m the exception, as are the rest of my smart, productive mother-colleagues. What is wrong with me?

Schulte says she basically harbored the same bias, until she found a “raft of new research” concluding that “better work gets done when workers have more control over and predictability about their time and work flow,” and that employees “are more engaged, productive, and innovative when they have full lives at home and are refreshed with regular time off.” And she went a huge step further and offered fascinating examples of how what are known as “results-only work environments”—in which employees control their own schedules—aren’t just for privileged “knowledge workers” like her and me. My favorite case, which she elaborated on in an interview, is from a government agency in Minneapolis in charge of delivering services to the homeless. The office had a backlog of 1,500 applications and a fractious, put-upon attitude among its staff. To address the problem, a results-oriented consultant helped the workers clarify their main responsibility—not to “complete applications” but make sure people had food and a place to sleep at night—and then set the workers free to fulfill that responsibility wherever and whenever they wanted. The backlog, Schulte reports, was cleared up in three weeks, and the staff figured out how to keep the office open late two nights a week without subtracting from the bottom line.

A main purpose of Overwhelmed is to spotlight less traditional but highly effective work structures, to bring them out of the shadow of informal agreements between certain enlightened employers and their fortunate employees. When I ask Schulte about her own setup, she enthusiastically relates that since she’s returned to the Washington Post after her book leave, she has worked mostly out of her home office (a good part of a reporter’s job is supposed to be in the field, anyway, not at a desk). “It takes away that breathlessness of the commute, the sense of being late,” she says. “It takes away all of the external bullshit, for lack of a better word, that gets in the way of what the real mission is: to write compelling, amazing journalism. If I can do that in a place where I can be more grounded and not worry about the kids being off school for a snow day, because I can be around, that takes a whole layer of jitters away.”

That she even could consider such an arrangement, she says, was prompted by a newsroom remodeling that chewed up space, compelling managers to let reporters work off-site and, inadvertently, revealing that “people were still being productive and not playing with their cats and doing their laundry all day.”

Wow, I say to Schulte, I’m surprised that an institution as large as the Post has embraced such freedom for its employees.

To be honest, she replies, the face-time culture of the legendary newspaper hasn’t been completely vanquished. “I try not to make a big deal out of [working at home],” Schulte says. “I try to be quietly effective. It’s not something I trumpet.

“I do this at my own peril,” she adds.

That, of course, is a shame for her, and it’s the rub for the millions who’d benefit from a major rethinking of how the workplace is organized. The ideal worker is dead. Long live the ideal worker!

Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.