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Overwhelmed: Looking at America's obsession with being busy

Friday, May 23, 2014, 8:30am - 9:30am
The Crawford Family Forum 474 S. Raymond Ave Pasadena, CA 91105 Map and directions
"Are our brains, our partners, our culture, and our bosses making it impossible for us to experience anything but "contaminated time?"
KPCCRadio (via YouTube)

You can tell from her adjectives that mother, wife and Washington Post writer Brigid Schulte really knows what it means to feel overwhelmed. She isn’t stressed; she lives “with her hair on fire.” And she isn’t running late; she’s “screaming down the road” to her next impossible appointment, which somehow, she will make happen, even though she was up until 2 a.m. making cupcakes for her daughter’s class and the psychological fist in her chest makes it nearly impossible to breathe.

Hers are the stories of the truly anointed, a desperate multitasker describing her life in terms of confetti shreds and impossible deadlines, and from the audience response at the Crawford Family Forum, everyone in the room understood exactly what she meant.

Schulte’s new book, “Overwhelmed, Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time,” blends hilariously honest stories from an out-of-control life with the sharp research and journalism you would expect from the winner of a Pulitzer Prize. On the stage with KPCC business reporter Brian Watt, her 90-minute interview flew by as she related story after statistic, each more disturbing and telling than the last.

There is the story about how she came to write her book: After the Washington Post wondered why its female readership had declined so significantly, Schulte was asked to sit on a women readers committee.

“So I walk in and all these women are sitting around a table and our task is to find out why women are not reading the paper anymore….Well duh. My own mornings you’ll find my husband (NPR’s Tom Bowman) sitting at the table reading the newspaper calmly while I’m emptying the dishwasher, making lunches or signing permission slips or finding soccer gear. My mornings are nuts.”

The wide-ranging interview, which you can watch above, lays out lots of reasons why women and, increasingly, men, are feeling overwhelmed, not just in the United States but all over the world.

In the U.S., however, we have made a cult of busyness, she said. Most of us limp by with just two weeks of vacation a year, and many of us don’t even use that pitiful amount of time. We assign status based on who works the longest hours and gets the least sleep, even though other countries with 30-day vacations and limits on how long people can work have higher productivity rates. In fact, she said, in countries like Denmark, society looks down on people who work long hours, because they are thought to be inefficient.

But unlike most countries, the U.S. doesn’t have required vacation time or limits on how much a salaried employee can work. Part of the problem is that the workplace really hasn’t changed since the 1950s, she said, when it was mostly men working in offices and women taking care of children and home.

Now women tend to work two jobs: One at the office and another at home, and there is little support for men who want to take time off to help.

“When they polled corporate people, and asked the top managers and CEO to describe the ideal worker, three quarters said it was someone without any caregiving responsibilities,” she said, “so that’s not mothers….or fathers.”

She talked about how angry she was with her husband when didn’t take family leave after their first child was born, and later how she interviewed him for this book to find out why. He was working for another news organization then, he said, and he was afraid that taking time off for his child would hurt his standing at work, and make his superiors think he wasn’t serious about his job.

The same problem can be seen more broadly, she said, when you look at statistics that show college-educated people in the U.S. are having fewer children — just 1.1 per couple.

“When your educated population feels it cannot have children and contribute to the next generation, then you have a real crisis,” she said. “That’s what’s bringing conservatives to the table now to talk about child care, because this birth rate is unsustainable.”

Many changes have to happen at the corporate and societal levels—such as not worshipping “busyness” and recognizing that workers need schedules that give them real time with their families.

But Schulte also had many thoughtful suggestions for her audience. She’s found that working in 90-minute intervals, with long rest breaks in between, helps her be more productive. She and her husband have negotiated a better sharing of the household duties—when he didn’t do the dishes before, she would grump and wash them herself. Now she she grits her teeth, takes a picture of the unwashed dishes and sends it to him in a text, along with the word “Really?”

She’s trying to reevaluate her expectations—does it make sense to bake cupcakes at 2 a.m. when it means she’s sleep-deprived and snapping at the children she was trying to impress the next morning? And finally she has some very strong advice about multi-tasking:

“Don’t do it,” she said. “There’s no such thing as being ‘wired’ for multitasking. The studies have shown that multitasking makes you as stupid as being stoned.”

Which might explain a lot about our current world….

By Jeanette Marantos

This program was a Drucker Business Forum co-presented by SCPR and the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University.

Twitter chat with @BrigidSchulte