Ever feel like there just aren’t enough hours in the day? Washington Post journalist Brigid Schulte was more than familiar with that feeling. And she discovered she wasn’t alone—Americans of all backgrounds report feeling increasingly stressed and overworked. So Schulte set out to talk to experts around the world about how our lives got so busy and what we might be able to do to buy ourselves more time. Schulte visits Zócalo to discuss why Americans can’t lead balanced lives. Below is an excerpt from her book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.
It is just after 10 a.m. on a Tuesday and I am racing down Route 1 in College Park, Maryland. The Check Engine light is on. The car tax sticker on my windshield has expired. The cell phone I’d just been using to talk to one of my kids’ teachers has disappeared into the seat crack. And I’m late.
I screech into the crowded University of Maryland parking garage and wind ever higher until I at last find a spot on the top deck. My palms are sweating. My breath is shallow. My heart races and I feel slightly sick. I throw the car into Park, fumble ineptly with the parking ticket machine, and race down the stairs.
Only later, in revisiting this frantic day in my memory, will I realize that the sky had been that poignant shade of autumn blue and the leaves tinted with red. But as I live it, the stress hormones coursing through my veins tense my entire body and collapse my vision into a narrow, dizzying tunnel. Because I am filled with dread.
This is the day I have been avoiding for more than a year. Today, I am meeting with John Robinson, a sociologist who for more than a half century has studied the way people spend their most precious, nonrenewable resource: time. Robinson was one of the first social scientists in the United States to begin collecting detailed time diaries, counting the hours of what typical people do on a typical day, and publishing scholarly tomes summing up the way we live our lives. For his pioneering work, his colleagues call him Father Time. And Father Time has challenged me to keep a time diary of my own.
He told me that his research proves that I, a hair-on-fire woman struggling to work a demanding full- time job as a reporter for The Washington Post and be the kind of involved mother who brings the Thanksgiving turkey for the preschool feast and puts together the fifth grade slide show, have thirty hours of leisure time in a typical week.
Today, he is to dissect the mess of my time diaries and show me where all that leisure time is. I feel as if I am a bug, pinned on a specimen tray, about to be flayed and found wanting.
Because this is how it feels to live my life: scattered, fragmented, and exhausting. I am always doing more than one thing at a time and feel I never do any one particularly well. I am always behind and always late, with one more thing and one more thing and one more thing to do before rushing out the door. Entire hours evaporate while I’m doing stuff that needs to get done. But once I’m done, I can’t tell you what it was I did or why it seemed so important. I feel like the Red Queen of Through the Looking-Glass on speed, running as fast as I can—usually on the fumes of four or five hours of sleep—and getting nowhere. Like the dream I keep having about trying to run a race wearing ski boots.
And, since I had kids, I don’t think I’ve ever had a typical day.
There was the morning my son tae kwon do round house kicked me when I went to wake him up, which sent my coffee splattering over every single book on his bookshelf. I hurriedly wiped the pages dry so they wouldn’t stick together and render the entire library useless. Which of course made me glaringly late for work and threw my plans for the day into the shredder. My sister Mary has these kinds of days, too. She calls them Stupid Days.
There was the day when my husband, Tom, was overseas again and I flew in late to a meeting with school officials to discuss why our then ten-year- old son, who knew more about World War II than I ever will, was floundering in fifth grade. I dragged along our second grader, still in her pajamas and slippers because she’d stayed home sick. And I nervously kept an eye on my BlackBerry because I was in the middle of reporting a horrific deadline story about a graduate student who’d been decapitated at an Au Bon Pain.
Then there was the time when the amount of work I needed to do pressed so heavily on my chest that I’d said no when my daughter asked, “Mommy, will you please come with me on my field trip today?” We’d been through this before, I told her. I couldn’t come with her on every field trip. Then her big blue-gray eyes started to water. I felt all the breath drain out of me. I thought, at the end of my life, would I remember whatever assignment it was that seemed so urgent—I don’t even recall it now— or would I remember a beautiful day in the woods with a daughter who had been struggling with unexplained stomachaches, was socially wobbly since her best friend moved away, and who still wanted me to be with her? I went. I spent three hours in the woods with her, guiltily checking my BlackBerry, then, after putting her to bed that night, went back to work for another four.
I have baked Valentine’s cupcakes until 2 a.m. and finished writing stories at 4 a.m. when all was quiet and I finally had unbroken time to concentrate. I have held what I hope were professional-sounding interviews sitting on the floor in the hall outside my kids’ dentist’s office, in the teachers’ bathroom at school functions, in the car outside various lessons, and on the grass, quickly muting the phone after each question to keep the whooping of a noisy soccer practice to a minimum. Some appliance is always broken. My to-do list never ends. I have yet to do a family budget after meaning to for nearly twenty years. The laundry lies in such a huge, perpetually unfolded mound that my daughter has taken a dive in it and gone for a swim.
At work, I’ve arranged car pools to ballet and band practice. At home, I am constantly writing and returning e-mails, doing interviews and research for work. “Just a sec,” I hear my daughter mimicking me as she mothers her dolls. “Gimme a minute.” She has stuck yellow Post- it notes on my forehead while I sit working at the computer to remind me to come upstairs for story time.
My editors can recount every deadline I’ve blown. My son, Liam, once recited every single one of the handful of honors assemblies or wheezy recorder concerts I’d missed in his entire life. I was even failing our cat, Max. I asked someone at the pet store what I could do to make him stop scratching up the carpets. “He thinks you’re his mother. He’s showing he needs more attention from you,” she’d said. “Can’t you find time to play with him every day?”
“Can’t I just squirt water at him instead?”
At night, I often wake in a panic about all the things I need to do or didn’t get done. I worry that I’ll face my death and realize that my life got lost in this frantic flotsam of daily stuff. Once, my sister Claire told me that when you smile, it releases some chemical in the brain and calms anxiety. I have tried smiling. At 4 a.m. In bed. In the dark.
It didn’t work.
On some level, I know that who we are depends very much on how we choose to spend this ten minutes or that hour. I know from all those bumper stickers that this is my one and only life, and from the Romans that time flies. And I know from the Buddhists that we should embrace the moment. I wake with every good intention of making the most of my day— to do good work, to spend quality time with my children, to eat less trail mix, to stop driving off with my wallet on top of the car. But then one of the kids throws up, or the babysitter calls in sick, or the kitchen faucet starts gushing water, or some story breaks and everything collapses.
I fast-walk across the University of Maryland campus like it’s Judgment Day. I’m hoping these hectic, tardy, and chaotic little scraps of time that I’ve been tracking will add up to a meaningful life. But as I rush into the sociology building where Robinson works, I’m more afraid they’ll show anything but. I’m terrified that all the mess that I usually keep stuffed behind a friendly, competent, professional, if harried, veneer will come spilling out.