Overwhelmed: Inspired thoughts about work, love, and play in a busy life

I don't remember where I first heard about this book, but I put it on my library holds list as soon as I did. So of course when it was finally my turn to check it out, I wasn't as excited about it as I was originally, but it was an audio book and I've been tired of the radio a lot lately, so I started listening (ironically, you'll see why) on my drives to work.

I immediately got excited about it again.

The book is Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. If you're anything like me (woman in 2014 with a job, smartphone, family, hobbies, and no support staff!), you may be sympathetic to the title. While I'm much better than I used to be, I often feel like there just isn't enough time to do everything I want to do, and that I have to make "progress" on my to-do list before I can relax, have fun, and enjoy my life in the moment.

Throughout the book, which covers a lot of ground, multiple sections spoke to me, and I felt inspired by the research the author examined and motivated not to fall prey to the common dilemmas she presented. She covers a lot of topics that affect my everyday life - being surrounded by technology, feeling physical impacts of a busy life, feeling internal or external pressure to be the "ideal worker" at work, struggling with the division of labor in modern households, and (while it's not an issue for us yet, it may be in the future) dealing with the pressure and desire to be the "ideal mother" while working outside the home. It came out earlier this year, so it feels very current and relevant.

As I listened, I thought about my mother, who taught me to be productive and create things rather than only passively consume. I thought about my close friend, whose husband is resistant to help at all around the house even though they both work. I thought about another friend, who somehow juggles a full-time job, toddler with behavioral problems, small business on the side, and doing all the food prep and cooking for her family. I thought about my future self, and wondered if my husband and I will be able to create a supportive, low-stress household for ourselves and our family as we grow in number and responsibilities.

And I learned from the families and researchers the author speaks to for the book. I've seriously been thinking about this book a lot since/while reading it (it's come up naturally in conversation several times!), and I'd love to tell you some of the pieces that stuck out for me.

(You can hear the author interviewed on Fresh Air here or read about the book here.)

Suzannah's Cliff's Notes: Highlights

The "Time Confetti" Section



The book starts as as an examination of time. The author visits a time researcher who's found over many years of research that women today have an average of 30 hours of "leisure time" per week. This is apparently more time than they had in the 1960's even though more women work outside the home, but still less than men. The author keeps a time journal to track her time, and the time researcher highlights every task/time he considers "leisure." Unfortunately, he includes all kinds of tasks "leisure" that probably did not feel leisurely at the time - reading the paper to research a story for work; waiting in the car for the tow truck; doing a yoga DVD silently in the bedroom at 6:00 AM before the spouse wakes up. And what about all the times we're doing more than one thing at once? This measurement of "leisure" does not seem very helpful for the everyday woman.

A leisure scholar the author speaks to sees "leisure" more narrowly. He makes time every day for a walk with his wife, enjoying music, or attending an evening singing group. When the author tells him she feels too busy to make time for leisure tasks she enjoys, he says sympathetically, busyness is one of the seven deadly sins.

"In the Middle Ages, the sin of sloth had two forms. One was paralysis, the inability to do anything--what we would see as lazy. But the other was something called acedia--running about frantically. The sense that, 'There's no real place I'm going, but by God, I'm making great time getting there.'"

Isn't that interesting? I do know the feeling of running around frantically, being busy to no huge, definitive end.

The author finds that being in an almost-constant state of busyness is not unique to the upper-middle class, or to full-time workers. And, it's not something many people feel they can put an end to by choice. Some may not even want to. Another researcher she spoke to has saved Christmas letters dating back to the 1960's, examining them for common language. She noticed terms like "time-starved," "strapped for time," "hectic," "whirlwind," "constantly on the go," and of course, "busy" were used commonly and almost as a brag. Cards with "We've had an action-packed year!" or details of a trip where the mother boasted driving a hundred miles a day, or a sarcastic letter that joked about accepting a Nobel Prize, building start-ups into Fortune 500 companies, sailing around the world, etc.

The researcher realized people were actually competing about being busy, as if to show status. Like, if you're busy, you're important, leading a full and worthy life. (Of course, they don't mention the downsides of busyness, like the laundry piling up or the frequent take-out instead of healthier homecooked meals, but they still demonstrate status symbols rather than just yearly updates.) I thought that was a big revelation, too.

Oh, and this constant busyness? It's apparently measurably not good for us. Not only is sleep deprivation and constant movement throughout the day shuffling from one activity to the next unpleasant, it's also moved from a moderate, healthy level of stress to what scientists call "allostatic overload." Behavioral medicine researchers have found that high levels of stress weaken the immune system, of course making us more susceptible to inflammation, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, obesity, Alzheimer's disease, cancer, and more. Depression and anxiety, too, which women are twice as prone too as men (men's brains produce 52% more serotonin than women's). A psychiatrist the author spoke with at the Yale Stress Center has research that prolonged stress can actually lead to the shrinking of our grey matter, specifically in four distinct areas of the brain that control decision-making, attention, emotions, moods, appetites, impulsiveness, and sleep. Volunteers with the most stressful experiences had, on average, 20% less gray matter brain volume than did subjects who had less stressful lives. Crazy.

The "Work" and "Love" Sections



The next part of the book is about the pressures we feel to work better and longer, despite responsibilities we have at home. Of course a lot of these pressures and challenges come from having children at home; the author talks about gender discrimination and parent discrimination found in workplaces in many fields. She talks to several complainants of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, some very scary stories about people not being offered promotions or raises, or being fired for unclear reasons after taking parental leave.

She also talks about the challenge of finding quality childcare for an affordable price. Some more scary stories there, of course hopefully the minority, and she does talk about some bright spots of couples that have found a balance or alternating work schedules. Some employers who provide childcare or loose hours, making it easier to have kids at home, etc. She does a good job of sharing both good and bad stories.

This section leads into "The Cult of Intensive Motherhood" a lot has changed since women started working more outside the home, and some things haven't changed as much - i.e. studies show we still spend far more time on household tasks than men, even if both have full-time jobs. She talks about the pressures we now have to throw extravagant birthday parties and get our kids into good schools and colleges, as well as the guilt we may feel for not being the "ideal mother" spending lots of time at home with the kids. She puts in some personal experience in this section, too. I find it all very interesting, but since I don't have kids yet, I'm not sure how I'll feel when I'm faced with some of these choices.

The Play Section



Remember how she found in the first part of the book that many people don't value or spend leisure time? This section of the book, about "play," was a happy opposite of that. She starts the section by visiting Denmark, because a prominent sociologist who does time studies found that Danish mothers have more leisure time than mothers in any other country she studied: 6 hours, 12 minutes per day--as much as an hour more per day than mothers in the US, Australia, and France. Denmark also has one of the highest maternal employment rates in the world (more than 80% of mothers with children under 15 in the workforce).

What the author finds in her visit to Denmark is huge cultural differences and values compared to what we have in the US, reflected in government policies (6 weeks paid vacation per year, plus 12 public holidays, childcare days and sick leave) and in the opinions of families she visits. The first family she stays with has two parents that both work until 4:24 PM every day (a 37 hour work week), and trade off child care so the mom can go to the gym after picking up the kids. They have a simple, small apartment with not too much clutter in it, and they leave all their work tasks at the office. Evidently Danish employers see people who put in long hours and constantly check email at home as inefficient, rather than as ideal worker warriors. One mother she spoke to was surprised that some Americans are afraid to leave their children at daycare during the day--the way she saw it, how will your child be challenged if he's home with you all day instead of in a child-friendly learning environment?

Obviously there are some negative impacts of the Danish cultural viewpoints, too... the author mentions "occupational sex segregation," because originally the generous family leave policies (52 paid weeks at 80-100% of one's usual salary) were for women only; this led to women tending to work the lower-paying, less-pressure government jobs while men climbed the ladders in more prestigious private jobs. There are some other weird social effects, too. But, looking at the Danish norm does present a really interesting and different perspective of goals of everyday life.

Back in the US, the author also speaks to some groups like one in NYC of moms who get together regularly for playtime. Trapeze class, wine tasting, painting their toenails a crazy color - these are things many of us would put off until we've accomplished more of the daily to-dos. But it's inspiring to hear about people leaving the work alone to enjoy time and feel refreshed for the responsibilities.

Highlights Over.


As you can see, I've had a lot of thoughts while reading this book! I can't summarize it all. And the paper copy (I checked it out too and am flipping through it as I write this) is due back at the library. I'm sure I'll think of more, but this post is long enough!

A few complaints


Also, most of the book was about defining the problems for many modern people, and delving into specific cultural and practical problems for women, mothers, wealthy people, working class people, and men. The "how to" part mentioned in the title was actually a small portion of the book, fit into the last section, with ideas for how to make one manageable change to improve the work, love, and play portions of your life.

(Actually, I could tell from the second chapter or so that it might be that kind of book, where you don't actually get to the solution until it's almost an afterthought.) But after I read the author's tips and lifestyle changes, I realized one positive side of the book's main focus on problems rather than solutions is, it allowed me to come up with some ideas of my own possible solutions based on which issues seemed most problematic to me--and which ones applied most to my life.

Also, whoever read the audio book had such a formal, actress-ey voice, it kind of got to me. Especially whenever she said "neuron" or anything you can say hyper-correctly.

But really, thumbs up


But really, those are minor complaints compared to how much I got from this book. I really can't recommend Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time enough to anyone else like me, aiming to keep low stress and happiness in a busy life.

If you read it, let me know--we can try some of the action steps together!

11 comments

  1. Very nice break down. It was a pleasure to read your take on the book. You do say you can't recommend it though. Typo? :)

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  2. Great review-I love listening to Fresh Air and playing audio books while I work is the only way I "read" lately. I will definitely check this out!

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  3. Thanks for sharing. I honestly use the word "overwhelmed" to describe how I feel way too often and will check this read out!

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  4. Sounds interesting, although I'm lock to not need help in this area. :)

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  5. This sounds like precisely the kind of book that was written for me—and one I won't read anytime soon precisely because of it. My leisure time is very limited (like so many other people's!) so I keep my reading light and entertaining.

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  6. I really enjoyed reading your rewiew. I recently quit my high stress job and can already see a huge change in my health and happiness. I know leaving a job isn't an option for everyone but for me it was the right decision and It's nice to hear about a book that unglorifies the concept of "busy."

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  7. Ha!! Thanks for the catch, fixed it!

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  8. Yep, isn't it always?! The audiobook was great for that for me. I definitely wouldn't have gotten through the paper copy very quickly in my limited reading time which I like to save for cheerful things before bed!

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  9. That's incredible, congrats! One of the tips she collects at the end of the book is that sometimes you may have to leave the job if it's the big cause of the problem. And hopefully the next job won't create the same issue!

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  10. This is so funny! As a fellow craftser, I love your blog. The other day, after you posted your chair do-over, I was wondering how in the heck you manage to get all this work done!

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  11. Ha!! It's a balancing act, for sure! Sometimes I do get my priorities a little mixed up. But when productive things are fun, it's easier to find time!
    (Thank you!)

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