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

Vicky Kelman

Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time,
Brigid Schulte

Vicky KelmanIt’s pretty easy to describe the stressed, hurried and always under pressure lives of today’s overwrought families. We recognize these people. We ARE those people! (As Walt Kelly, creator of the Pogo comic strip, wrote many years ago; “We have met the enemy and he is us.”)

It is a lot easier to describe the swamp Schulte calls “the overwhelm” (the “crazy jangle of modern life… that everything all at once feeling”) than it is to figure out how to help people find their way out.

In fact, I got a little overwhelmed just reading the book.

One of the dangers of “The overwhelm is that it keeps us from having the time to imagine a way out.” (p. 158) Reading the book will get you thinking about it (if you can manage the time to actually read it).

Overwhelmed is a very interesting book, chock full of statistics and interesting case-studies chronicling the various ways in which parents (mostly mothers on whom much of the burden of the overwhelm falls) have struggled with the overwhelm and tried to extricate themselves from it. However, most of us will not find ourselves working for Patagonia or LL Bean or 3M or Google (which are among the forward-thinking companies about work-life balance) . Neither are we likely to find ourselves in a position like that of Michelle Flournoy who , when considered for the second job in the State Department, could actually say to her boss-to-be “I will work my ass off for you and do my best but I need flexibility.” (She needed to be home for bedtime.) If you are a CEO or COO, reading this book may provide some helpful ideas as to how things might be re-imagined to keep your employees helpful , happy, productive and balanced.

If you would like to know more about how we/you / the culture we live in has reached this impasse, I highly recommend the book. The data and the vignettes are compelling. Expect to gain more understanding of the how-we-got-here but don’t expect so much help on the how-do-we-get-out-of-here side of things. Prepare to feel a bit overwhelmed as you read.

A few helpful insights from Schulte which most of us can manage as we strive for less stress and more breathing space:

About work:

  • “Choose ONE thing that’s most important to do every day.
  • Chunk your time. Multitasking makes you stupid. (“Dumber than getting stoned.” [p. 65] says a British study Schulte cites.)
  • “Technology spins the overwhelm faster. “ (p. 26) Set reasonable parameters. (p 282)

About love:

  • Park the helicopter. You don’t have to do everything on your own and better than anyone else…’Love your kids, keep them safe, Accept them as they are. Then get out of their way.’” ( p 283)
  • Teach your children to count their blessings, to be grateful.
  • Give your kids time and space to do nothing or just notice the shape of clouds..” (p 284)

About play:

  • Understand that for women, there never has been a history or culture of leisure or play, unless you consider sweeping, making cheese, churning butter, quilting and knitting your kind of fun. It will take effort and strain to allow yourself time to play
  • Remind yourself that play is useful
  • Shorten your time horizon. What if we really did live like we’re dying? (pp 285-6)

Once upon a time, the following conversation took place at a professional development workshop for teachers at a synagogue in Salt Lake City:

Participant: The Mormons are SO lucky.

Facilitator: why?

P: They have “family home evening” every week.

F: We do, too.

P: We do???

F: We have Family Home Day.

P: we do???

F: We call it Shabbat.

P: OH!

As Jews, we already hold the antidote to the overwhelm.

Shabbat provides wrap-around healing for the overwhelm. Add some Shabbat to your life. Or add to your current practice. I don’t refer only to the rituals ( the lighting candles, eating challah, going to shul part [although I highly recommend that as well.]) When the sun sets on Friday evening, power everything down (phones, computers, TVs) and leave it all down, for as long as you can bear it when you are starting out (and then see how long you can go without as the weeks go by). Play checkers or chess or Settlers of Catan . Take a walk around the block. Invite friends over for ice-cream sundaes. Think of this as following Schulte’s admonition to play, to breathe, to do one thing at a time and to spend some time doing nothing.

Say berakhot: this is the Jewish system for teaching gratitude. Seen a rainbow? Smelled some fragrant grass? Eaten a slice of bread? Jewishly speaking all of these are occasions for gratitude. Practicing the berakha system enables us to become aware of the many gifts that surround us. The new field of “happiness” studies has documented the positive impact that keeping a gratitude journal (writing down 3 instances each evening or even each week) can have on a person’s level of contentment. If we do it with our children, we are all learning to be grateful and focused on the riches we can enjoy together in the current moment.

Ben Hunnicutt, one of the ‘leisure researchers’ that Schulte consulted with said, “Leisure is being open to the marvel of the present. The Greeks called leisure scole. Like school they considered it a time for learning and cultivating oneself and one’s passions.” ( p 51)

Try it, says Schulte. You and the others you share your life with might just like it!