Overcoming “Overwhelm”: A Review of Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

At mid-life, Brigid Schulte found herself drowning in “overwhelm.”  “Overwhelm” is her term for the sense that was never had enough time to do all the things on her to-do list and certainly never time for anything resembling leisure.  That’s a complaint I hear constantly from the clients I see in my personal and career coaching practice. In fact, a client told me about this book.  A Washington Post reporter and mother of two, Schulte took leave from her job and set out to explore why so many American women are overwhelmed. 

                Organizing her book around work, love, and play—the three categories of activity that legendary psychologist Erik Erikson identified as the key components of a satisfying life—Schulte consults experts and ordinary folks to learn why so many of us are overwhelmed and to discover some strategies for overcoming “overwhelm.”


                Schulte argues that the roots of the American cult of busyness can be found in the twentieith century emergence of two ideals: intensive mothering and a workplace culture that values face time above all else.  She says that busyness has become a religion in America, and she finds ample evidence of the costs of all this busyness to our workplace productivity, mental and physical health, family lives, and personal satisfaction.

                 Living in a state of “overwhelm” is not inevitable or irreversible, according to Schulte. She interviewed many Americans who have successfully overcome rampant busyness, and she uncovered heartening examples of large and small companies who have implemented policies that reward workers for productivity rather than face time, in the process giving them more time for life outside work.  For example, at Menlo Innovation, an Ann Arbor, Michigan, software design firm, the company’s founders reengineered the work culture to provide workers with more flexibility to care for their families, discourage long hours, and organize work in ways that inspires creativity and enhances productivity.  The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has also made strides in helping workers balance personal responsibilities with their jobs by encouraging employees to work remotely at least once a week.  A number of law firms, including the highly regarded Valorem Law Group, have rejected the tyranny of the billable hour by instituting fixed and alternative fee arrangements and allowing associates to set their own schedules.

                As she explores the American cult of busyness, Schulte shares details of her own journey out of the mire of “overwhelm.” Admitting that overcoming “overwhelm” is a process, Schulte nonetheless finds some strategies that help her use her time for her own priorities. She urges readers to use three guiding questions as they make their own decisions about how to allocate their time:

                How much is enough?

                When is it good enough?

                How will I know?

                Overwhelmed offers important context for understanding how Americans became engulfed in a swamp of busyness as well as useful strategies for taking control of one’s own time. For any woman who feels that carving out time and energy for family, hobbies, and self-care is an impossible dream, the book is worth your time.

Brigid Schulte, Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Picador, 2014.