It’s summer time, which means time for new thinking and a new book in my mind. Currently, I’m reading Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte.
I picked Overwhelmed up recently because I find that most of my clients are in a near constant state of overwhelm and have little time to think or make decisions, sometimes impacting our work together, whether it’s a marketing or a coaching project. I wanted to understand what drives this and how I can best support them through the changes they want to make in their companies and in themselves (and yes, I too suffer from overwhelm so it was a bit if “Doctor, heal thyself!” going on here.) So far, I’ve had several good ideas coming from the book about how to better support my clients when they are in a state of overwhelm and what is really going on in their brains.
The central thesis of the book is that the time pressures of modern life are having a very negative impact on our health, our relationships, our kids, our productivity and creativity at work, and most alarming to me, even the size of our brains.
Brigid brings her prowess as a reporter for The Washington Post and The Washington Post Magazine to bear on this topic. She traveled the world talking to researchers about what drives us, what’s working and what’s not. So far, here are some of her most interesting findings:
- Research has shown that when an individual feels overwhelmed, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the brain actually shrinks. In some cases, the neurons in this part of the brain actually stop firing altogether.
- The PFC is the part of our brain that makes “executive decisions” and is largely responsible for ability to function as high-performing adults, overriding our animal reactions from the hypothalamus.
- There’s more bad news … research shows that when kids are exposed to stress, often from overwhelm in their parents, it can alter their neurological and hormonal systems, even their very DNA.
- Working women feel the most time pressures, working mothers even more so, and working single mothers most of all. This won’t surprise any women that I know, but the reasons why were illuminating.
- For the most part, American culture is still set up as it were still 1950 and we all have wives at home taking care of the details. Most of my successful female colleagues either have part-time “wives” to take care of at least life’s zillion little details, or wistfully pine for one. Who is managing the house, kids, aging parents, pets, making plans for weekend fun – or even just tonight’s dinner – when both parents are working themselves to the bone every day?
- The childcare gap is one of the biggest pressures in modern family life and it affects all of us, not just parents. The stories in the book were chilling. Mothers trying to piece together quality care in a society that proclaims its belief in family values, sometimes ending up with a dead baby.
- And there are so many other things that need to be attended to keep all the plates spinning. Interestingly, time tracking studies show that women do actually do more of this “attending to” and suffer more from “time contamination” than men do. In other words, while we are having that dinner that we just made for our family, we are tracking the next seven things that need to get done that night. The man is typically enjoying his meal and proud of the fact that he is actually sitting and having dinner with his family. For me, understanding how our brains process things differently was very helpful in understanding some of the dynamics I see at my dinner table!
- Most challenging for women is what she calls “time confetti”. Time tracking studies show that women are much more likely than men to be splitting up their work time with snippets of time for childcare issues, to call the plumber, wait at home for the TV cable guy, call in mom’s medicine, etc.
- Men, by and large, as the privileged class, have had their time protected to just work. Having this time to think, work and plan has been the domain of men for generations and having a wife at home and others to attend to his needs has long been a sign of status. This status symbol is taking a very, long, slow death in our culture. In the executive ranks of corporate America, it’s very much alive and well. (Hint, women: Take time out of your lives for retreat. It’s essential to your creativity and productivity.)
- Everyone suffers when women, and even men, live under a constant state of overwhelm trying to do more than the human body is actually capable of every day. All over the world, companies and even entire countries, such as Denmark, are experimenting with new ways of working, focusing on results and productivity, versus hours and face time, and there are some bright spots.
- The eight-hour day we accept as dogma (and at least here in Silicon Valley, as the MINIMUM number of hours we should be working), was enshrined in 1914 after Henry T. Ford mandated maximum eight-hour workdays when his productivity studies showed that workers began making a lot of mistakes and working inefficiently after eight hours of work on the line. Cutting back on hours from the typical sixty to seventy hours a week cut errors, and increased employee satisfaction, efficiency, productivity and profits. Ford relied on the data, and got results.
- And how many of us work on a line anymore? The average worker in America is a knowledge worker, and the maximum number of productive hours for them is six hours, according to researcher Sara Robinson. In a 2005 survey of Microsoft employees, reported that only 28 of the 45 work hours they reported were actually productive. The data does not support the widely held notion that working more makes us more productive, over the long term.
- America is a very productive nation to be sure, but only because of the sheer number of hours Americans work. But the American work culture is literally killing its own workforce. So why is working 70-100 hours/week a good idea again?
- Countries such as Denmark have very short, intense workdays, and then people are free to go and live the rest of their lives.
- Companies are experimenting with flextime, integrating work and childcare by even having babies come to work (they found that surprisingly, people were more productive with the baby around, and were also generally nicer to each other, enabling higher collaboration and innovation).
- Even the Pentagon, a paragon of the tough it out mentality, has transformed its work culture into one that meets the needs of anyone who has a life outside work (if you don’t, btw, it’s high time you got one!).
The best question of all in this book was near the beginning. Who is winning in the busyness contest anyway? In our attempts to be the ideal worker, the perfect mother and the providing father, we are competing with each other to see who can tough it out longer and be “best” at all of it.
Have you ever noticed that when you ask someone how they are in our modern society, the response is usually, “Good. Busy, busy!” or “It’s been crazy!”. There is a whole section in the book on a researcher who examines cultural patterns by analyzing family Christmas newsletters. It’s hilarious! She examines the kind of language we use to describe our lives and it’s not pretty when you look critically at it. Who really wins when we are too busy and overwhelmed to be productive at work, present for love and lose ourselves in play?
Jenn LeBlanc, CEO & Founder of ThinkResults Marketing, works with tech CEOs and CMOs to drive results. Whether it is a 350% increase in web traffic, a 1400% increase in online leads, or a 400% increase in conversion rates, Jenn delivers results.
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