true WELLth Podcast: Brigid Schulte Episode Transcript

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Announcer:

The true WELLth podcast is made possible by Brighton Jones. Brighton Jones is the financial wellbeing firm that helps you align your wealth, your passions, and your purpose. Learn more about how you can live a richer life at BrightonJones.com.

Brigid Schulte:

I was just always feeling just never enough. I just didn’t have enough energy or bandwidth to give everything at work and then I just was always feeling washed up and inadequate at home, never feeling like I had enough time to give to my kids or to be there or be fully present. I just was running all the time and it would be crazy, I’d feel like I’d get to the end of the day and I’d be really busy and I would have done a million things but then when I stopped to think about it, it’s like there’s not one thing I could have told you that I did. I just felt like I was living in fast forward.

Manisha Thakor:

Hello and welcome to the true WELLth podcast. My guest this week is, Brigid Schulte, a former award winning journalist at The Washington Post, wife, mother of two, author of the bestselling book, Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, and currently Director of the Better Life Labs at the New American Foundation.

Manisha Thakor:

I would be willing to bet that if you’re listening to this podcast, you have felt, and perhaps are currently feeling, overwhelmed in one way or another. COVID-19 aside, this state of overwhelm seems to have become endemic to our culture and it affects, no pun intended, overwhelming number of Americans and it’s not just our daily lives that are affected. Being in the state of overwhelm for prolonged periods takes quite a toll on our brains and our bodies.

Manisha Thakor:

Our guest today became an expert in this field not by choice per se, but rather, when she found herself amongst the ever growing group of people feeling, well, overwhelmed.

Brigid Schulte:

I’ve described the book before as an accidental book. I never intended to write that book, I can’t even… Sometimes it’s sort of strange when I think about this trajectory of my life, I kind of fell into it really because I was living it and then, it really has shaped my life really since then.

Brigid Schulte:

So, as I write sort of in the first chapter, I was just proceeding on in my absolutely crazy unsustainable nutso life. I was working full time as a reporter for The Washington Post, which was, very dedicated to it. It’s a very intense and competitive job and I was just really doing an amazing job. Do you know, do excellent work.

Brigid Schulte:

At the same time, I had a marriage that was very important to me. I had two little kids who were just basically gave my life such joy and such meaning that I also wanted to be an amazing wife and mother and create this wonderful kind of oasis at home and it was just, it was crazy. When I looked back on that, I’m, I’m not sure how I made through.

Brigid Schulte:

I don’t know how so many women make it through, really. It’s a tough time. It felt like I was burning my candle on both ends and out the middle and it really took the process of writing this book to realize, at first I felt like it was just me, that there was something wrong with me and honestly the whole spark for the book was when I ran into a time use researcher who told me I had 30 hours of leisure a week and if I didn’t have it, then I was doing something wrong, like it was my fault, that I was sort of squandering all this like free time. I just remember when he told me that I felt furious. It’s like, you have no idea, you old fart. You don’t know what my life is like, you know?

Brigid Schulte:

So I was angry, but the other part of me was just terrified because what if he was right, you know? And like, “Oh my God, this is my one and only life,” and I’m just like, I’m racing through it and I don’t even feel like I’m living it, you know?

Brigid Schulte:

So it really took writing this book to realize it’s not just me and it’s not just women feeling, and it’s not just that we can’t sort of get our act together and we just need to breathe more deeply at red lights, which is actually some advice that somebody gave me. It’s like, “Oh, just take deep breaths at red lights. It’ll all be fine.” Well, it’s not and it really took me the process of writing the book to recognize that we’ve created systems in this country, through our policies, through our workplace practices, through our culture, our beliefs and our attitudes, that make it really difficult to combine work and family or care responsibilities. Even when you’re defining care and life as, as a single person, as somebody who has, you know, just wants to do something other than work all the time, has a hobby or just wants to enjoy life, we make it very difficult for people to have what I like to call both and lives, to have a meaningful work and time for joy and love and life.

Brigid Schulte:

So now you have the business round table and all these CEO’s coming out and saying, “We can’t just be about money. We can’t just be about shareholder profits,” which is what drives that always on work culture. We really need to be thinking about our workers, our wellbeing, the communities that we live in. We need to be thinking about how work is as part of the fabric of our lives, but not the only part of our life.

Manisha Thakor:

Brigid, when, or how did this phenomenon weave itself into the fabric of our work culture?

Brigid Schulte:

Quite a bit of it was sort of unconsciously. I don’t think that anybody set out and said, “Oh, we’re going to make it really hard for families in this country.”

Brigid Schulte:

I mean, we like to say that we’re a country of family values. That that’s what matters to us. But I think that what people need to be aware of as well, how do you define family and what does that mean? And does it mean different things, particularly for people who hold power? For leaders, for CEOs, for policymakers? And for many of them for many, many years, to say that you supported family values meant kind of the 1950s breadwinner homemaker model. Dad goes to work. Mom stays home. Or mom gets a little part time job or has pin money but the career is dad and the salary that matters is dad.

Brigid Schulte:

So I think that’s probably one of the most important things for people to recognize is just the power of those. I think for long periods of time, unconscious gender roles, just how powerful they still are and how it’s so important to begin to, first of all, be aware of them and then to begin interrogating them. Are they really the right way to be thinking about things?

Manisha Thakor:

Your book, Overwhelmed, which is a must read, doesn’t just expose the problem that has a section I extra loved on how to examine your life. Can you tell us more about that?

Brigid Schulte:

The other sections of the book are really organized under the framework that the Harvard psychologist, Erik Erikson said were the three great arenas of life that made up a good life. So really the book is all about the search for the good life and what Erik Erickson said is that it requires time and space for work, meaningful work, that even the Buddhist call it Dharma. Whether it’s paid or not, it’s the work that you do in the world.

Brigid Schulte:

The second great arena is love; our connection with our family, our friends, our loved ones, our communities. What I find so fascinating is all the great happiness research that’s come into vogue in the last five or 10 years, It’s all finding the same thing that also the Framingham Health Study found and all these other like great stress and resilience studies are finding is that human happiness is based in our connection with other people and that takes time.

Brigid Schulte:

We are social creatures. We need to feel belonging and we need to have that time and presence with the people that we love with those connections. That’s not 5,000 Facebook friends. It’s real honest connections because that’s what long-term health studies have even found is that the people who live longest and live healthiest longest, have the strongest support networks. They have the strongest sense of connection with family and friends and neighbors.

Brigid Schulte:

Then the last great arena that Erik Erickson wrote about is play, our way of leisure or whatever you want to call it but that it’s almost like that third space where you’re not working and you’re not kind of necessarily connecting with other people but it’s the place where the Greek philosopher said that we become most fully human. We become most fully ourselves. Where we are just open to the moment, open to whatever the experience is with no other agenda and to feel fully alive in that moment.

Manisha Thakor:

When Brigid is talking about this happy state referenced by the Greeks, she’s referring to the concept of eudaimonia, which often gets reduced in translation to simply happiness. However, do use this simplistic translation would be akin to categorizing a fresh almond croissant and espresso from the 9th arrondissement in Paris and a stale chocolate chip cookie and free coffee from the bank teller line, as the same experience.

Manisha Thakor:

In America, woven into our original governing doctrine, we have the notion of the pursuit of happiness being ours to behold. I, for one have never questioned that and yet no lesser mortal than Aristotle would take pause with that view.

Manisha Thakor:

As he stated in his ethics, a book he wrote to categorize what and how to live “the good life,” Aristotle argues that rather than the pursuit of happiness, a human’s highest good is to obtain eudaimonia, a good spirited fulfillment.

Manisha Thakor:

The difference between the pursuit of happiness and seeking a good spirited fulfillment may seem like splitting hairs. However, consider for a moment that the definition of happiness does not allow for pain or discomfort.

Manisha Thakor:

In the simplified depiction of happiness pain doesn’t exist yet. Think about your last workout. Say you’re powering through mile three of a five mile run and your leg muscles start to go. You’re breathing heavy. In that moment, you probably wouldn’t describe yourself as happy. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not a good experience. In fact, you may even be feeling extremely contented. You can hear the bird sing and breathe in the fresh air, feel the wind in your hair and at the very same time, your legs can still be giving you great grief.

Manisha Thakor:

The important takeaway here is that by striving to achieve eudaimonia, rather than happiness, we can find things to enjoy and truly relish in the moment and those things may very well coexist with the other things that perhaps are not immediately pleasurable. Thus, we arrive at Aristotle’s good spirited fulfillment and we come full circle, a time-tested antidote to dealing with a state of feeling overwhelmed.

Brigid Schulte:

The Greeks talked about time in two senses that there was Chronos or the chronological time, the time of the clock or where you track the passage of time in years and months. But there was another kind of time that they called Kairos time and that’s the time of the eternal now, the eternal present. When you think about it, that’s really the only place we ever live. We live in a constantly shifting moment of presence. So that’s sort of what the best of leisure or play is, is fully embracing the presence of that moment for no other reason other than that you are simply alive.

Brigid Schulte:

So those are sort of the three great arenas of life and where we are now in modern life with work culture, with gender norms, with the sense that busy-ness is better than taking time off or leisure, this kind of like this modern technologically infused treadmill that we all find ourselves on. Honestly, the book is really a call for all of us to begin to just pause when we can. To breathe. To see if we can find a way to reconnect with those elements that do make for a good life.

Manisha Thakor:

Brigid, switching gears, you found some interesting science about what overwork does to our bodies and brains. Tell us more about that.

Brigid Schulte:

That totally freaked me out when I was learning about that. So for when I was reporting the book, I wanted to try to understand. My training is as a journalist and any time you go on a story, you’ve come back and you talk to your editor, it’s like, “Oh, I found this great story,” and you start telling a story and they’ll usually interrupt you at some point before you get too carried away and they’ll say, “Why should I care? What’s the past gas paragraph? Why should anybody read about this?”

Brigid Schulte:

So it makes you think long and hard about maybe it’s a cool story or what was it about that story that made it so interesting to you that would make it interesting to readers or to other people and so I really had to think long and hard about, I know I feel overwhelmed but why should anybody care? What’s the past gas chapter, if you will.

Brigid Schulte:

So I really began looking into burnout and overwhelm and really asking that question, why should we care? I came across some really interesting stress research and as I was reading about it and how stress really comes from kind of the inability to feeling like you’re out of control, like you can’t control anything and also this feeling that you can’t predict anything. That life feels very unpredictable and it’s so many of us live in that and in that zone anymore. When you think about it, feeling out of control and that you can’t predict things and that’s particularly true for say, hourly workers who get these crazy unpredictable schedules. I mean, the stress is off the charts for some of these people.

Brigid Schulte:

So I wanted to understand that more and I came across the Yale Stress Center and they were just beginning at the time to do some fascinating work with FMRIs and trying to study not only how stress affects the body, because there’s a really good body of literature now, and we know how stress leads to chronic illness. It can increase inflammation, high blood pressure, diabetes, it’s even been related to cancer; inflammation and cancer. So the newer frontier was trying to understand how it impacted the brain and so I went up there and I spent some time at the Yale Stress Center and it was fascinating.

Brigid Schulte:

What they’re finding is, in some of these early studies, it’s hard to say causation but there certainly was this association or correlation that was kind of disturbing. They found if you had two conditions, if you felt like you had been through like a number of stressful events in the last year but you also had the perception that you were really stressed out, that in that condition, sort of the prefrontal cortex or sort of the part of the brain was smaller in volume, like physically smaller than the people who may have been through stressful events in the past year, but didn’t feel quite as stressed out about it or had more resilience to deal with it.

Brigid Schulte:

The other thing that I found surprising, disturbing, scary was that the people who also had the smaller brain volume and felt very stressed out, also had an enlarged amygdala, which is the site, that’s sort of the ID of the brain, if you will. That’s where we fear, anxiety, panic, negative emotions. That’s where that all lives and resides. So it’s almost like the more overwhelmed we get and the more stressed out we get, it’s almost like our brain is creating the pathways that make that more likely to happen; more freaked out, more stressed out.

Brigid Schulte:

I was doing some really fascinating… I just did a piece looking at time scarcity, the feeling that you’re running out of time and you’re on deadline and you don’t have much time and there’s this fascinating concept in behavioral science that when that happens, when you feel that your time is very scarce, what tends to happen is that we get tunnel vision. They literally call it tunneling, where think about it. Your vision kind of begins to narrow and so on the one hand, if you’re on deadline and I’ve been on deadline many times in my life as a reporter.

Brigid Schulte:

If you hyper-focused on the one thing you need to do, that actually can be really good. You can shut out distractions, you can get your thing done. But oftentimes what ends up happening is that we start to tunnel and if we’re so panicked, we have a hard time focusing on what that priority is and so our attention goes to these kinds of low value tasks, right in front of us, which tend to be cleaning out your inbox or answering a bunch of emails.

Brigid Schulte:

So you’ll get to the end of the day and you’ll feel like you’ve been busy and you’ve been running the meetings and answering emails, but you really haven’t done that thing that you wanted to get to, or the priority, or something that would make you feel good, or something that would connect to meaningful work and that’s a lot of what then fuels overwork and work life conflict because then you’ll take work home with you. Or if you don’t, you’ll feel guilty about it and then you can’t really be present with your family or at home. Or that’s how works spills off into the weekends because we’re spending so much of our time at work, kind of feeling panicked and overworked and so then we can’t really focus. So then we just go back to our inbox.

Brigid Schulte:

We found that over and over in the project that we’re running, that people will get to the end of the day and just feel like, where did the day go? I was so busy and I haven’t even done the thing I was really meaning to get done today. That’s where kind of coming up with systems and structures where you take time to pause, even as counterintuitive as it seems, sometimes when you are just, it’s taking you 17 million times longer to do the one thing, sometimes you just need to go take a walk around the block, or you need to sit quietly for a couple minutes or take three deep breaths. You just need to disconnect from that kind of time scarcity and business cycle. Refocus on what’s really important. Set a timer. Do it for like 30, 45, an hour, an hour and a half, if you can, and then take a break. Begin to, again, as much as you can, control your time.

Brigid Schulte:

This one behavioral scientist, I love it, said, we need to think about our schedule, not like a pantry as something to cram more stuff in but more like an art gallery that we very intentionally choose, like what goes where and when,

Manisha Thakor:

Okay. Brigid, to wrap up, what are some of the things or practices that you do to help cut down on your own feelings of overwork?

Brigid Schulte:

Let me first just say I’m still very much a work in progress. I’ve learned a lot of bad habits over my life and so I don’t want to come off as like, “Oh, I’ve got it all figured out.” I’m figuring it out. I guess a couple of things that have really changed is probably that first one, is being a much more compassionate toward myself, not feeling inadequate all the time. Having a better understanding about how difficult it is. Recognizing that I’m going to fall into some bad habits or old traps but then not beating myself up so much when I do and recognizing I can try again, start again, begin again. Just begin again and learn and move forward with compassion. That’s been huge.

Brigid Schulte:

Then I think the last thing I would say is I probably still do work too much. I do love it. I’m very driven and passionate but I do make time for play, for joy. Sometimes, like I say, I do have to talk myself into it but I actually will put it… I think about my to-do list very differently. It’s no longer this huge long list. If I make a list, I think of it as a brain dump to kind of get it out of my head and then I’ll try to pick one thing to do that day or I’ll pick like three things and oftentimes I will make sure that I have time to meditate or exercise or read or do something that’s joyful on my list as well.

Manisha Thakor:

As always, our show notes at truewellthpodcast.com and that’s WELLth, W-E-L-L-T-H. We’ll have Brigid’s full length bio linked to her book and social media coordinates.

Manisha Thakor:

Again, that’s truewellthpodcast.com. And if you’d like to support the show, please take a moment to leave us a five-star rating and/or written review. Those quick, simple steps go a long way towards helping other folks who share your interests, find the show.

Manisha Thakor:

I’m Manisha Thakor and that’s it for this episode of true WELLth.

Announcer:

The true WELLth podcast, made possible by Brighton Jones. Whether you want to save for the future or celebrate today, give back to the community or explore the globe, Brighton Jones believes your values are every bit as unique as your fingerprints. Brighton Jones aligns your time and resources to those values so you can go after the things that you truly care about. Explore your richer life at brightonjones.com.

Announcer:

Today’s episode was edited and produced by Stan Hall, alongside the rest of our true WELLth team, Michael Stubel, Marc Asmus, Lindsey Hurt, Tara McElroy, and John Dougherty. to get in touch with the team is a trueWELLthpodcast.com.