The Book to Read When You're Overwhelmed

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Time is the coin of your life. You spend it. Do no allow others to spend it for you. ~Carl Sandburg

One of my In Gear Career (now Hiring Our Heroes Military Spouse Professional Network) co-leaders suggested we read Overwhelmed:  Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte. The word overwhelmed strikes a chord with many of us as we try to balance our various roles as military spouses, volunteers, employees, parents, and whatever else we have going on.

As I read, I felt like a good portion of the book was geared toward working mothers, but there were enough research-backed insights to make it a worthwhile read to anybody who often feels pressed for time.

I happened to read this book while prepping for my second PCS in less than a year. As part of my prep, I’m going through a couple of neglected bins in my closet containing things I’ve written. One big stack of paper contained emails spanning the time just before and after I got married. I was working full time, going to graduate school full time, planning a wedding, learning about the Army, and planning an overseas PCS.  Those emails are rich with history.

Thirteen years have gone by and I’ve made progress in a few areas, and no progress in others.  Would I have the courage to give up my corporate career and become a yoga teacher? Yes!  Would I learn how to better navigate drama? Yes! Would I learn how to stop endlessly seeking achievement? No. Would I learn how to be more casual about entertaining so I could have people over more? No.

Just after I finished this book, the whole family got sick so we had to clear our schedules of optional activities.   I was able to observe how much better I felt with an abbreviated calendar. I was able to enjoy baking, crafting, and reading with my daughter without feeling the eternal tick tock of the clock in my head urging me on faster and faster to get ready for the next activity.

Here are a few important lessons I learned from Overwhelmed that I will be taking with me as we settle into a new duty station:

  • We choose how we spend our time. (p. 279) When things are spinning out of control, it’s easy to forget that we are in charge. If you feel like important things are missing from your life, take a step back and revaluate your commitments. Take out a calendar and schedule time for those things that matter most, and then let everything else fall into place. We have the power to cut back, set limits, and say no. Constant rushing around is not worth it “if it’s making everybody crazy, no one is having any fun, and there’s no time to connect.” (p. 206)

  • Value living a good life. Constantly seeking achievement is an American value (p. 217) that means “missing out on life, love, and being in the moment” and does not necessarily lead to happiness. (p. 275.) Wow. Whether I am a student, in a full-time corporate environment, working part time, volunteering, or staying home with my daughter, I am programmed to seek achievement. Schulte learned in Denmark that Americans seem to value achievement over all, and Danes make it a priority to live a good life. (p. 217) The Danes she interviewed don’t wait until the house and menu are perfect before having friends over. If all you can offer is spaghetti and ketchup, that’s what you serve for dinner. It’s more important to spend time with friends than to achieve the perfect dinner party. (p. 222) I’m really going to work on this at our next duty station, though I can assure you, spaghetti and ketchup will never be on the menu!

  • Make time to play. Playing can save your soul. (p. 233) “Research is finding that play is what enables humans to create, improvise, imagine, innovate, learn, solve problems, be smart, open, curious, resilient, and happy. We’re in a society where we have to justify play. But play reminds you of your better self and how happy you can be. In play, there’s a wonderful lightness of being.” (p. 234) A grown-up play date anyone?

  • Teach grit. Since we value achievement, we try to get our kids to be high achievers so they can be competitive. We drag them around to this activity and that lesson, but we’re emphasizing the wrong things. Grit is a better indicator of success than the SAT, IQ, or a polished resume of activities. The more grit you have, the more likely you’re going to follow through on doing something you love, and that leads to happiness. Happiness and positivity in the first place fosters achievement. The good news is that grit is teachable. Parents can let kids struggle, try new things, take risks, and make mistakes. (p. 208) Definitely keeping this in mind as we make plans for the new school year.

  • Constantly switching from one role to the next creates the feeling of time pressure. Time feels more collapsed when we are full of starts and stops. (p. 28) This idea came up in the context of working mothers, but I think it applies to all roles. We need to create capsules of time when we can focus on one thing without feeling pulled in lots of different directions. Even 90 minutes of dedicated time can help us feel productive. Avoiding email, texts, phone, and social media during that window of time can help us maintain focus.

  • Find flow. “In flow, humans lose themselves and feel most at peace.” It is a state greater than happiness and it requires undivided attention and uninterrupted time. (p. 66) For me, this happens when I’m doing something creative like writing, or working with paper or fabric. Unfortunately, these are the activities that vanish first when my days get full. It’s time to schedule them back into my calendar.

  • Let go of guilt. “Each one of us is ensnared in guilt and compelled to compensate for the phantom life we’ve foregone.” (p. 177) This is the root of the mommy wars, whether we’re compensating for leaving work or leaving children in someone else’s care. It can also lead to discontent as a military spouse. What would our lives look like if we didn’t have to pick up and move all of the time? I encourage you to ask yourselves what might be possible if you stop overcompensating.

One of the benefits that military life affords us is the ability to frequently pick up and start over. We get to start fresh with every PCS. I really want to shift my focus from achievement to relationships so I can start living the good life.  

Are you missing out on the good life because you’re building a resume full of accomplishments for yourself or your children? What can you let go of so you can begin living the good life?