“The Way We Live Our Days, What We Do at 10 A.M., Really Is the Way We Live Our Lives”


Interview: Brigid Schulte.

I’m fascinated by habits and happiness, so I’m very interested in how we can use our time wisely, get the most out of every day, include everything we value into our ordinary routine, and so on.

So I was very interested to read journalist Brigid Schulte’s book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. The title says it all! The book discusses a crucial issue:  how we can make time for the things that really matter. It just came out in paperback, so it seemed like a good time to ask Brigid Schulte some questions about her own habits and happiness.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded on the subject of habits?

Brigid: That time is power. As trite as it sounds, but the way we live our days, what we do at 10 am, at 3 pm, how the evening flows, like habits, it really is the way we live our lives, as the writer Annie Dillard said. And that to live a meaningful life, means making meaningful choices for what to do at 10 am and 3 pm and in the evening. And that means taking time to pause, to step out of the swirl of crazy busyness and think about what really matters most to you. Then put that on your To Do list.

So often, we think we’ll get to the big stuff after we get to the end of the To Do list – that’s something I still struggle with, living what I call an If/Then reality – IF I finish all this drudgery and little stuff, THEN I can get to the stuff I really enjoy or is really important. Then we get so caught up in the IF, the doing, the stuff, we never get to THEN. So I’m trying to flip it, and put the important stuff, the things that give meaning and joy, not just on the list, but at the top.

The other thing about time being power: psychologists say that peak human experience comes from getting so wrapped up in something that your experience becomes timeless. That’s the state when art, literature, philosophy, and civilization gets created. It’s the kind of time that, throughout history, men with status have typically been the only ones to have.

Women’s time has always been fragmented and interrupted, by child care, by housework, and now, with work piled on top, because gender roles haven’t changed as much as we have.  And I found fascinating studies that show women feel they don’t deserve this kind of flow, they have to earn it by getting to the end of a To Do list of chores first. (Remember the If/Then mentality!)

So I’m arguing, it’s time now for women, too, for everyone, to carve out concentrated time for the things that give them joy, and get them into flow. And with technology splintering everybody’s time and attention, we all need to be aware of that pressure, and find ways to knit time together to concentrate, get lost in something we love, and just pay attention to our lives. It’s a skill, and it’s something we can get better at the more we practice. I’m practicing!

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Cocktail minute with my husband. We don’t even have cocktails. He’ll have a beer or glass of wine, and I may or may not. It’s just what we call that small space to check in with each other every day.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

 I wish – boy – I wish I’d known a lot of things. Though I’m sure I’ll feel the same at some future point, looking back now. But I guess I wish I’d known how powerful baby steps are. I would think of something that needed changing, and feel like I had to do it all at once, and I’d start, make a herculean effort, and usually give up.

One of the most powerful strategies for changing behavior, changing the way we think and use time was this: Just Start.

Sometimes we overthink things. And sometimes, the brilliant Udaya Patnaik of the design firm, Jump Associates, told me, it’s easier to act ourselves into a new way of thinking, than it is to think ourselves into a new way of acting. You just start where you are.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

I still don’t sleep enough. I know how important sleep is, but I’ve developed a lifetime of bad habits from thinking it wasn’t important. I’ll stay up too late, pushing to finish something, then get up too early to try to get a workout in, then feel jetlagged through the day. I know it’s nuts – that it takes me longer to do things, that I’m not thinking as clearly, that I make more mistakes, that I’m not giving myself the space for creative thoughts and innovation to rise – that they’re more likely to come when I’m rested and relaxed – so – ON THE LIST! Work in progress.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

I wish! I keep hoping that will happen. It seems like it would be so much easier to be hit with that flash of clarity. But maybe  I’m a slow learner, or a little thick headed, so I just keep slogging forward in the fog and uncertainty, sometimes backward, sometimes falling on my butt. I guess what I’m learning as I get older – sometimes the point is to just keep going.

  • Gillian

    Great post!! Brigid serves up a lot of valuable wisdom. The If/Then comments are so true and I love the phrase “it’s easier to act ourselves into a new way of thinking, than it is to think ourselves into a new way of acting. ” Even after almost 5 years of retirement, I’m still trying to get a handle on how I spend my time every day. I have much more time now than when I was working for what matters to me – reading and the work I do for my community group – and that is a joy but I still feel overwhelmed, still waste a lot of time and don’t seem to find the calm to enjoy life’s simple pleasures – taking a spontaneous time-out to just enjoy being.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    Occasionally, you can make a bad thing work for you. Yes, women’s time is more fragmented. So many bases to cover. But ‘important things’ don’t have to be put off until we have five or eight hours, or several days at once.
    As a routine, I’ve learned short intervals are NOT USELESS! You can get an amazing amount of creative, restorative work in intervals of 15 minutes or a half hour. Gretchen describes creating photo albums using the Shutterfly program — 15 minutes a day.
    I know I have mentioned a boring number of times how much I love my kitchen timer. I use 30 minute intervals. I get far MORE accomplished if I alternate a half hour of must-do activity with a half hour of want-to-do activity through the day. I do not check the time or self-distract with other tasks or procrastination. Whatever I have decided to do for the timer-allotted span, I do that wholeheartedly. Then I switch. No dreaded task gets more than 30 minutes at a time, and surprising number can be completed before the 30 minutes are up!
    When I go back to creative work after a half hour of duty work, I am fresh and have not lost my grasp on the project. Other types of work (I quilt) might need different intervals.
    True: Single parents or parents of toddlers and small children will likely find this really hard to do. Yet in two-adult homes it might be possible to get your spouse to give you a 15 minute break even on a week night!

    • Gillian

      I so envy you being able to do this! It really doesn’t work for me. Firstly, I need a fairly long transition time between activities. Secondly, when I am engrossed in something I enjoy, especially if it is creative, I can’t stop until I reach a logical break-point. Switching activities every 30 minutes would drive me totally nuts! Another case of everyone is different and “know thyself”.

      • Penelope Schmitt

        An extended time to work is really wonderful, I agree! Twice a year, I go on a sewing retreat with friends. We rent a block of rooms and a conference room in a hotel, and sew as much and as long as we want for four days. I got SIX quilt tops pieced at the last retreat. There is no doubt that this focused time is terrific. Even as a single person, retired, I have to admit that this is a big luxury, as well. When I am at home there are so many daily tasks clamoring for attention that I can’t just sew. The half hours really do work for me. Hope you can find a middle way that works for you!

    • Melly

      Holy crap. I’m definitely not having kids. That sounds, well, miserable.

      • Trixie

        Interesting. I have kids, and I sometimes feel I’m juggling too many things and am time-strapped, but I also have friends without kids who feel the same way. Many people who have kids figure out a balance. I just have trouble with the fragmentation of time, too. I like starts and ends, but that doesn’t happen these days, and not just for people with kids. I think it’s the always connected mentality.

        I just started Brigid’s book, and in the third chapter, she references a woman who is getting her PhD and works full-time. Her office is hours from home and she has to go in. She says that she and her husband have chosen not to have kids because there’s no time. The author also mentions conversations with other women whose daughters look at their mothers’ harried lives and decide they don’t want kids for that reason.

        • Mimi Gregor

          Indeed, I decided in my late teens that I did not want children because as I looked at the women around me who had kids, they seemed constantly harried, and, well, it just didn’t look like something that was fun. I’m 59 now, and I have never regretted my decision. I find it difficult enough to do everything I want/need to do in a day. I don’t know how someone who has to juggle kids/career/home can possibly do it all, let alone have a good time doing it.

  • Kelley

    Great interview! Loved Brigid’s book so I enjoyed hearing her thoughts on happiness and habits.

  • Santie

    This is really full of insight and truth. I was a stay at home mother and a homemaker, and suddenly I found my home made, and my children grown. I didn’t want to give up the peace that fell on my heart and home by chasing a nine to five job, and I decided to slip some writing into my mornings. About two hours, at nine in the morning. It hardly made a ripple in the flow of my day, but a year later I have a published book, and another one is ready to go to the printers. Now I am slipping in twenty minutes of exercise. Two hours and twenty minutes is a small chunk of my day but it redefined who I am and propels met towards who I need to be.

  • Maggie

    Great post, some really clear expressions. I copied the phrase “it’s easier to act ourselves into a new way of thinking, than it is to think ourselves into a new way of acting. You just start where you are.” straight into my FB status. I have been through my first “lightning bolt” in the last month, when I sadly lost a friend to excessive drinking and then gave up alcohol on the spot. Two weeks in, and I haven’t even craved it once. And, as predicted in the Happiness Project, now my husband has given it up too. 🙂

  • Dianne Ochiltree

    Great interview! I’ve replaced the old adage, “time is money” with “time is power” in my consciousness. Thanks for posting.

  • Shannon

    This article is a great start to my day! I have been feeling the pressure to get my list of To Do items pared down so that I can fit in the fun. It is great to hear that this is a practice for Brigid. Thanks for sharing this Gretchin.

  • Msid

    Thank you for sharing! I can’t wait to read this book. I’m a busy Mom with a kindergartener & and our daughter is two. Our daughter has CP, and I spend my day shuffling her to appointments and therapies. I usually head to the gym after my husband gets home from work. Even though its a late work-out, it’s the only chance I have to get some ME time & do something great for myself. Fortunately, I began this routine/habit after she was born, and now it’s part of my routine. I agree, it’s so hard to step out of the “chaos” of my life, but I feel so much better when I do. Again, excited to read your book and Gretchen’s new book soon.

  • Susan Mary Malone

    I simply love: “it’s easier to act ourselves into a new way of thinking, than it is to think ourselves into a new way of acting.” How fabulous is that!

  • Emily

    Love this! I was just laughing at Forbes’ “Thought of the day,” which is, Everyone has his superstitions. One of mine has always been when I started to go anywhere, or to do anything, never to turn back or to stop until the thing intended was accomplished.
    and I thought — oh, that HAD to have been written by a man, and in fact it was. Ulysses Grant.

  • Anna

    This resonates with me: only allowing yourself to get to the big stuff/creative stuff after you have done all your chores…….. I was wondering whether this is exacerbated by being an Upholder? After all, those things on your to-do list are expectations to meet, either for yourself or for others.
    I find myself carving out 10 to 30 minutes of creative time in the evening, indeed after all the chores are done. It is stupid, because I don’t have daylight anymore at that time. And I can’t stay too long, as I also ‘uphold’ that I have to go to bed at a reasonable hour.
    I love the idea of the poster below who organizes a ‘retreat’ for her creative activity and then concentrates on it for several days…….I’m going to see if I can arrange something like that! Thanks for the tip 🙂

  • Loved the post. Thank you again for the reminder that we truly are the creators of our life story. How we desire for our story to read and play out is within our ability to choose. I confess that at times with our busy family of five, it can at times feel crazy. However, a question that can help refocus me is, “What is important now?”

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  • Andria

    Very interesting interview with lots of good advice. I just wrote that Annie Dillard quotation in my planner the other day… a favorite of mine! Some of the best advice is “just start” and never underestimate the power of small steps. Simply put, nothing at all will happen unless we get it started and keep on with forward motion! That’s a good motto, perhaps: Forward motion!

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