Just talking about her old way of life makes Brigid Schulte short of breath. The Washington Post reporter and author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, led a very busy, full, and stressful life. “I’m having a hard time breathing telling you this,” she says while recounting her formerly hectic daily routine.
Before writing her book and, in the process, restructuring her life, Schulte didn’t sleep through the night. She would either wake up to a nagging thought telling her she forgot something, or in a full-on panic attack. “After 9/11 and the sniper attacks it was awful. I was having these nightmares that a nuclear bomb went off and that I couldn’t get to my kids,” she said. “It sounds so crazy when I say that, but I couldn’t sleep.”
Life during her waking hours, when she at least knew her kids’ whereabouts, wasn’t what anyone would call relaxing. She had multiple to-do lists scattered throughout the various spaces she inhabited, not a single one of which she ever completed. In the mornings she would rush around getting her kids ready for their day–“there’s always some goddamn form to fill out,” she says–before commuting 40 minutes to her demanding full-time newspaper job. If something came up in the middle of the day with one of her two children, she would drop whatever front-page story she was working on to attend to it. All of this didn’t help her concentration at work, which meant she either stayed late or had trouble finding time to work on things she enjoyed. Both scenarios resulted in crushing guilt. The evenings were spent attending to the family–she did most of the cleaning, cooking, and child care.
“My me time was one yoga class at 8:30 Saturday mornings,” she said. And she didn’t even fully enjoy that: “For years I was late because I felt so guilty. How could I not spend every minute that I wasn’t at work with my children? I would always barrel in late.”
All of that sounds horrible and, to borrow the term from Schulte, overwhelming, especially to someone like me who has no little humans to care for and, in comparison, zero responsibilities. But, it’s not an unfamiliar scenario. As Schulte discovered while reporting her book, our work and family cultures are set up in such a way that encourages and reinforces these scenarios. “Our workplace policies and laws are frozen in time in the 1950s, as if (every family) is a breadwinner/homemaker,” Schulte said.
Despite those forces beyond our control, Schulte found tangible ways to restructure her daily life so it was less crazy-making. And that’s not just an empty book-jacket promise. Through years of research, reporting, and professional coaching, Schulte changed the way she approaches her world. Of course, not everyone has the luxury of writing a book on how to live a less overwhelmed life, which offered Schulte all sorts of resources, like quality time with Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a renowned evolutionary socio-biologist and one of the world’s foremost experts in mothering. But, we can all learn from her experiences and craft more manageable days.
“One of the biggest changes is that I’m no longer trying to be perfect,” Schulte said. Part of her anxieties stemmed from trying to conform to her image of both an “ideal worker” and an “ideal mother”–standards no one can ever meet, especially not simultaneously. “I was so soaked with guilt for so long about being a working mother–that clouded every moment, every decision,” she explained.
After talking to various professionals, however, Schulte learned to let go of that paradigm. “That has been so freeing–clearing my mind, my jangled emotions. It is no longer fraught,” she said. She no longer feels compelled to drop an important assignment to take her kid to ballet out of fear of being labeled a bad mom. In fact, she recognizes that “good parenting” doesn’t mean constant availability, but also setting good examples for her children.
It’s not entirely your fault you’re unhappy. “Our workplace cultures reward face time, people who get in early and stay late, people who eat at their desk. Macho long hours is what we value,” explained Schulte. That means you either stay late and worry about the things you’re missing at home, or you leave early and have anxiety about falling behind at work. It’s a lose-lose situation that Schulte says she still struggles with.
But recognizing that she can’t control everything has made Schulte feel less guilty about the times she can’t be there for her children, or decides to work from home, or take a lunch break. “I don’t want to encourage people to only do the personal mastery,” she said. “There’s a lot that people can do, but it’s really important to me and in writing this book that they see this larger picture that they’re part of.”
Still, there are some “personal mastery” things you can do to improve daily life, like overhauling your mental organization. “I sort of jokingly have burnt my to-do lists,” said Schulte.
She now has one big master list, where she puts every single thing that she can possibly think of that she needs–or more importantly, wants–to do. Not unlike Etsy’s creative director, that helps her quell the gnawing feeling that something is always being forgotten. “You need to get it out so it clears up some mental space,” she explained.
But the list isn’t just a running log of tasks, it is divided into three priority areas: work, love, and play. Suddenly, doing a puzzle with your kids or going to a yoga class is a to-do item on par with picking up the dry cleaning–and much more fun and rewarding to do.
As for the daily household tasks that necessarily remain on the to-do list, she no longer beats herself up for not getting to everything. Instead, she gives herself one thing that she has to do that day, whether it’s something scheduled like dropping the kids of at an appointment or finishing a draft of an article, or something more personal like taking a real lunch break. It’s a reasonable goal Schulte often meets, changing her entire outlook on success. “You’ve done your one thing that you’ve set out to do and the rest of the day feels like a win.”
There is a lot of research out there for how to structure a more productive day, as any loyal Fast Company reader already knows. (Standing desks! Lunch breaks! Dressing for success!) Schulte says: Figure out what works for you and your style. She, for example, found that she works better with more boundaries. “It has helped me learn to gather my time into chunks, so I’m not multitasking. I try not to do things more than once,” she said. She sets aside time for Twitter and Facebook. She has set up her email so it doesn’t automatically feed in. (She has to click “get mail from server” for her inbox to populate with new messages.)
Schulte has hired a cleaning service for her house to free up time for other things. Not everyone can afford to do that. But, she also had a series of conversations with her husband about what it takes to run their family and how to split the work. (Something she says they should have done when their first child was born 15 years ago.)
“We’ve started to really sit down and come up with common standards and common goals: What does it really take to run this family?” she explained. “There was so much stuff I did that he didn’t even know I did–it was all invisible.” Schulte would tidy up before her husband got home, for example. She would interrupt her day for the kids’ appointments or illnesses, something he would never do.
Even talking about changing habits was difficult for them and really only happened in a serious way because Schulte’s book was looming. That put his “feet to the fire,” she said. When the conversations did happen, they didn’t exactly go smoothly. “I would get so angry and he would get so defensive.” But she insists having the arguments is better than the resentment Schulte harbored for all the work she was doing. Now, her husband does a lot more of the housekeeping-related tasks.
The most important tip Schulte has, however, is to realize that all of these productivity and stress hacks might not always work for your life at any given moment. “What’s working for me now, may not working in six months or a year and I’ll need to adapt and change.”