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April 14, 2016

Make time to play, author urges

Brigid Schulte

Brigid Schulte

“When was the last time you played?” author Brigid Schulte asked women in her keynote talk at Pitt’s annual Women in Medicine and Science Forum. Schulte, a former Washington Post journalist who now directs the New America Foundation’s Better Life Lab, urged her audience to shed the idea that leisure time is wasteful and recognize its value to productivity, creativity and health.

The ancient Greeks contended that the reason why we work is to have leisure, upon which all happiness is based, Schulte said. “In modern life, we think of leisure as sort of silly, stupid or nonproductive.”

Americans work some of the longest hours of any advanced economy in the world. In today’s world it’s hard to know when the workday ends. “It’s not like you make your quota of widgets, stamp the time card and go home.”

Technology is both a blessing and a curse. The emails that keep us connected also pile up into an overwhelming crush of messages.

“All of that busy-ness is impinging on our ability to have family, to be a part of our community,” she said.

Schulte’s 2014 book, “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time” emerged after she challenged a time-use researcher’s contention that women have 30 hours of leisure time a week.

“Some guy told me I had all this free time and it really pissed me off. … But then this other part of me was terrified, because what if he was right? This is my one and only life and I want a good life,” Schulte said.

She kept a diary of how she spent her time and when the researcher analyzed it, she was surprised at the things he classified as leisure:

• Exercise.

•Time spent trying to wake up and get out of bed.

• Being stuck on the side of the road for two hours awaiting a tow.

“That didn’t feel too leisurely,” she deadpanned.

Everyone, but women in particular, experience what she calls “contaminated time” — when the to-do list and never-ending responsibilities run like a nonstop news ticker through your head.

“You can be in a moment that looks like leisure but inside you feel very scattered and crazy: You’re everywhere and nowhere at the same time,” Schulte said. “It doesn’t really matter what it is that you do. What matters is how time feels. And if time feels crazy, busy and stressed to you, it is crazy, busy and stressed.”

Neuroscientists are finding that chronic stress and feeling overwhelmed and out of control are harmful and linked to many physical ailments. Researchers at Yale have discovered the prefrontal cortex of stressed people was 20 percent smaller than in individuals who hadn’t been stressed out.

Conversely, new research on mindfulness-based stress reduction finds it’s a useful tool for making positive structural changes in the brain. “I find it really hopeful that you can change your brain and your experience of time,” she said.

Multitasking is a myth, she said, citing a U.K. study that found it is the equivalent of being stoned in terms of effects on performance. In actuality, it’s just the brain rapidly switching attention, draining mental resources along the way.

Neuroscientists also are discovering that when we are idle, our brains remain very active in a “diffuse mode” in which weak associations come together and connections are made. “That brings the ‘aha’ moments of insight. It is in rest, in leisure, that we have our best ideas,” she said.

It is in this third space — not burdened by work or by personal chores and responsibilities — that creativity can flourish. “In this third space of leisure is when we have the time to create art, philosophy, literature — the finer things that really make our civilization what it is,” she said.

Why aren’t there more women artists or writers? “I would argue it’s not that women haven’t had the talent, women haven’t had the time,” Schulte contended. “Throughout history, women’s time has been fragmented, scattered into bits and pieces. Women’s time tends to be interrupted mainly from child care and housework.”

Our feelings of being overwhelmed and overly busy sometimes are the product of our own thinking and choices. “And sometimes there are constrained choices that are not really up to you,” she said.

“A lot of times we have unrealistic expectations of what we can do,” which adds to our feelings of being overwhelmed and failing, Schulte said.

We set ourselves up for failure by enslaving ourselves to the never-ending to-do list, she said. By promising yourself leisure time only if the list gets finished, ‘”you never get to have fun because there’s always more little stuff to do.”

She recommends selecting one item from the to-do list as the thing to be done today. “Pick one thing and do it first. And then the rest of the day feels like a win,” she said.

And, “find the things that are important to you, that give your life meaning — and put them on your to-do list.”

We also tend to think that the best workers are the ones who spend the most time at work. That’s not borne out by research that shows the U.S. is third in hourly productivity.

The most productive in 2011 was Norway, where workers are limited by law to a 37.5-hour workweek, she said. At the bottom of the rankings were Japan and South Korea, where workers spend long hours at the office, “but it’s not good work,” she said.

“We really need to start questioning what do we really mean by good work. If you’re just physically there but not getting a lot of work done, you’re just inefficient,” Schulte said.

Even in high-powered or demanding professions, people work better when a culture of balance replaces one of having to work all the time, she said.

Schulte called attention to Michigan-based Menlo Innovations, a software company whose CEO has based its corporate culture on joy, and where work-life balance is expected.

“To be joyful, you have to be authentic. To be authentic, that means you recognize humans need work, love and play,” she said. After work hours, employees are expected to leave work behind and have a life, she said. Giving the brain’s diffuse network a chance to function allows employees to return to the office rested and refreshed “and perhaps with the ability to solve an old problem in a new way,” she said.

Family-friendly changes at the Pentagon, prompted by former undersecretary Michele Flournoy, instituted flexible schedules and encouraged efficiency during work hours over face time and 8 p.m. business meetings.

“It wasn’t just nice to have. It was actually a smart thing to do, because people’s work got better. They were able to think more clearly because they were rested,” Schulte said.

And a pilot “time bank” program helped the Stanford medical school combat high attrition rates, she said. Both men and women were getting burned out, and women weren’t advancing, she said.

Participants could earn credits for time spent covering for a colleague or mentoring a student, for instance. Those time bank credits could be converted to work supports, or for housekeeping or emergency babysitting, for example. The result: people felt more supported, had less intention to leave and were happier and more productive. What’s more, participants had a higher percentage of funded research grants, Schulte said.

“We’re still very much wedded to outdated social structure, social policy and workplace culture, and that’s what needs to change,” she said.

A persistent 1950s-style view of the family makes it easy to slip into traditional gender roles of man as breadwinner and woman as keeper of the home and family — even if she’s working full-time too.

“In many ways this is what fuels a lot of our workplace culture. This is still what fuels our national policy and this is still a very powerful image for what keeps women from advancing in the workplace. And it really traps men in place as well,” Schulte said.

“We need to value caregiving,” she said. Research shows that diverse groups are smarter. “Think of all the talent and minds we’re losing because we can’t figure out how to configure work that takes into account time for caregiving.

“We tend to think of these issues as women’s issues. It’s really for everybody because if this is the only way we’re supposed to live, men are just as trapped as women are by these constrained roles,” she said.

“Women have never had a history or culture of leisure,” she said. “If it’s hard for you, don’t be hard on yourself. If it feels selfish, it’s because culturally that’s what you’ve been taught. It’s time for a new way.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow 

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