4 Ways to Stop Feeling So Overwhelmed

There’s a scene in the 2011 film “I Don’t Know How She Does It” that depicts Sarah Jessica Parker as a working mother who lies in bed at night obsessing over her to-do list. Words appear on the ceiling: Emily’s birthday party theme; finish year-end fiscal summary; wash Ben’s teddy bear; refill washer fluid; wax something…anything! On and on while her husband snores beside her. It’s familiar; many of us are haunted by our tasks.

Brigid Schulte, Washington Post reporter and author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play when No One Has the Time,” calls it the “Tyranny of the To-Do List.” We often tell ourselves that if we complete our tasks, then we’ll have time for the things we enjoy. Schulte says, “I was living in the if-then mentality and the only problem was I never got to ‘then’ because I was always in the ‘if.’ There was always more stuff to do.”

In “Overwhelmed,” Schulte explores why she—and so many of us—feel stressed and breathless. She spoke to researchers and traveled to places like Silicon Valley and Denmark to understand the trend and uncover what we can do about it. She recently spoke about her new book at New Trier High School at an event sponsored by the Family Action Network, offering these ideas for bringing joy to our work, love and play.

1. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is narrowing our focus to the present moment. Schulte talks about “contaminated time” as our propensity, especially as women, to be everywhere and nowhere at once, lost in our thoughts and worries, and not truly engaged. Multitasking and stress are major culprits.

“We tend to think that if we multitask, we’re going to get a whole lot done.” Schulte says. “But the best research shows that as human beings we cannot pay attention to two things that require attention and thought at the same time and get any possibility of a good result.” In fact, Schulte cites a UK finding that multitasking drops your I.Q. by 10 points. Another study links stressful events and our perception of them to the shrinking of our brains.

The good news is that by fostering mindfulness for as little as 27 minutes a day with meditation, yoga or simply being present in the moment, we can actually expand our brains.

2. Be Idle

Rather than focusing our attention as with the practice of mindfulness, idleness allows our minds to wander. Schulte tells of Mark Twain lying under a tree lost in thoughts for most of a summer before writing “Tom Sawyer” and of J.K. Rowling conceiving the entirety of the “Harry Potter” series while stuck on a train, gazing out the window for four hours.

“When we’re idle, our brains are actually their most active,” Schulte says. “What lights up is something called the ‘default mode network,’ which connects different parts of the brain that don’t usually connect. You can have a random memory, a stray thought, a snippet of a story or a dream all come together in a completely fresh way for that ‘aha’ moment—a moment of inspiration.” Our brain is actually wired for revelation to come in a period of rest. She suggests oscillating between concentrated work and time away from it.

3. Re-imagine Gender Roles

Standards for what we consider a “good mother” have never been higher. We’ve got Martha Stewart on one side and Sheryl Sandberg on the other expanding expectations of our role. Schulte says, “Women are still doing twice the housework and childcare in addition to a lot of paid work. Mothers have given up time for sleep, time for personal care, time for friends and time with their spouse.”

Schulte shared a story about one Thanksgiving that found her frazzled, trying new recipes in a kitchen that looked like a bomb went off. Her husband walked in and opened the fridge and she was relieved that he was going to start the turkey. Instead, “he takes out a six-pack of beer and says, ‘I’m going to go to Peter’s house to help him with his turkey.’” She describes her feeling of profound sadness in that moment as she remembered their early promise to be equal partners.

“We didn’t even realize that we’d slid into these traditional gender roles,” Schulte says. She and her husband spoke and decided to fairly divide the home labor—not by gender, but by what they like to do. For example, she does the yard work while he buys groceries. She also reminds us not to re-do work our spouse has done. Let it stand as is (even if it’s not to your standard) and spend that extra time on leisure.

4. Recapture Leisure

Schulte notes that “busyness” has become prized in our culture, a sort of badge of honor. We share stories about how we work long hours or spend our days running from this to that. We don’t just overschedule ourselves, but our kids, too. It’s important for us to set an example of play for our children. Schulte says, “One-quarter of college freshman are on something for anxiety or depression.” We need to show our children that it’s okay to relax and have fun.

When she was looking for leisure time in her own busy schedule, Schulte turned to John Robinson, a preeminent time researcher. He told her that women have 30 hours of leisure a week (though not as much as men at nearly 40 hours). Schulte was incredulous. She kept a diary of her time for Robinson to help identify her leisure. He highlighted moments that she listened to the radio or exercised as well as her two-hour wait for a tow truck. None of those were times Schulte would have described as recreational. It seems that leisure is in the eye of the beholder.

She says, “Leisure is what you decide it is. It requires that you have a sense of choice over the activity and control over the time.” Ultimately, such play refreshes our soul. Schulte suggests trying new things, engaging in sports, spending time with friends and flipping your to-do task list by instead making a list of things you love to do—and then doing them.

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