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Overwhelmed: Moms Are Too Busy to Work, Love and Play

03/11/2014 08:32 EDT | Updated 05/11/2014 05:59 EDT

"Time is on my side, yes it is," sang Mick Jagger. But is it, really, asks Brigid Schulte, mother of two and full-time journalist with The Washington Post. When in 2010 she was told by a time management expert that, contrary to popular opinion, women today have loads of extra time -- in fact, 30 hours of leisure time each week, her reaction was "like I had been hit with a frying pan."

As a typical working mom she was planning her interview questions while filling her son's Epi-Pen prescription, spending her days off work doing housework or organizing birthday parties, and feeling like the only time she could call leisure was when she was on a sick day and actually sick. Schulte knew that living like a hamster on a wheel is bad for our health: Stress has been linked to heart disease, gastro-intestinal problems, and a decline in mental health. And isn't the whole point of leisure having the time for a healthy renewal of body, mind and spirit?

She asked herself where were these elusive hours of leisure that time management experts insisted were hers? No-one she knew had any downtime, and in the end she wondered if there was anything she could do to get time on her side.

The answer took a few years and a journey spent talking to time experts, neuro-scientists, sociologists; learning to keep personal time diaries; interviewing working women including an inspirational group called WoMoBiJos or Working Mothers with Big Jobs; and trying everything from scheduled adult play groups to meditation programs. In her new book -- part sociological survey and part time management guide -- called Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No-One Has the Time, Schulte says we're smack in the middle of a cult of busyness and that feeling overwhelmed is actually shrinking our brains. "Our minds are like a ticker tape, a news crawl," she told me.

She started examining the workplace. But despite the "family friendly" corporations that pat themselves on the back, she found that most women are in workplaces that are inflexible and in jobs that are poorer paid and more stressful than men's jobs. Research on nearly 18,000 men and women in 27 industrialized countries, published as recent as last week in the journal Work, Employment and Society also disproves the theory that women have voluntarily traded less high-powered jobs in order to have more flexibility for their responsibilities at home.

"Workplace policies are still out of date," Schulte told me. "Women are still responsible for the domestic fires. There's a lot to do." Despite advances for women, one time expert told her, women have always been "in the laboring class" doing industrious work ("anything considered drudgery"), while men have traditionally been associated with "high status activities that required prowess, intelligence and were a lot more fun."

In blending academic research findings with women's actual life experiences, Schulte found that women everywhere live lives that are dangerously fast. Lacking for "me time," they end up with what she calls "time confetti" or scraps of leisure time, a bit here and there. She tried hard to change this and she says that she has now learned to make her daily To Do list so short it can be written on a post-it note while the rest of the stuff goes onto a master To Do list: "I may never get to everything on it. But having it on paper gets the noise out of my head."

Most importantly perhaps, she found that time management research is a young science. What often matters most is how we feel about an activity we are doing rather than the activity itself. "Looking at it one way, a picnic seems enjoyable and leisurely from the outside. But from the inside it may feel different if you are worried about things. You are at the picnic, but not in the moment. What leisure time is is what it feels like to you."

Can Schulte's discoveries help you break your own time crunch? Try on some of what she's learned:

  • Don't devalue leisure time. "We turn it into work," she says of her old goal to rise at 5 a.m. to squeeze in a run. "We think we are lazy if we are not productive all day. Then we end up exhausted."
  • Recapture play. "Women need a room of one's own and need to play in it," she told me.
  • Focus on a few goals. Put everything else into a "five percent bucket," meaning those things shouldn't take more than five per cent of your time or energy to do.
  • Re-examine today's compulsive need for "intensive mothering" and realize what's really valuable: "Love your kids. Keep them safe. Accept them as they are. Then get out of their way."
  • Chunk your time. Working in concentrated blocks of time with regular breaks, can be more satisfying and productive than multi-tasking.
  • Live the beauty of small moments. Research has shown that older people with a shorter time horizon than younger people can focus on what is important.
  • Do a brain dump. "The working memory can only keep about seven things in it at one time. And if the To Do list is longer than that, the brain, worried it may forget something, will get stuck in an endless circular loop of mulling, much like a running toilet. The brain dump is like jiggling the handle."
  • Choose one thing that is most important to do each day. "I try to do it first, when science is finding, the brain is most alert."

Truth be told, Schulte doesn't succeed totally in curing time sickness or reaching the time serenity she hoped for, but she sure comes close. "Overwhelm will not go away," she told me. "It's the world we live in. So you have to learn to manage it." Getting out of Overwhelm is waking up to the fact that you're not here forever, that life is fleeting. Willpower is a muscle you can learn to exercise, she maintains. Just say "no." Really.

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