Finally Found Work-Life Balance? Here’s What’s Next

Posted March 19, 2015 at 4:01am
Schulte and her husband are working on finding work-life balance. (Courtesy Brigid Schulte)
Schulte and her husband are working on finding work-life balance together. (Courtesy Brigid Schulte)

It’s been one heck of a year for Brigid Schulte.

“It’s been overwhelming in its own way,” she says of her year on The New York Times’ best sellers list for her book, “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.” Schulte’s work aims to challenge the way Americans think about work and play. Among her conclusions: Working longer isn’t always better. Taking breaks to recharge — a quick walk, cup of coffee or week vacation — will actually improve work creativity, and flexible work environments are crucial to support working families.

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And while Schulte has data and bright spots to back up her points, and the popularity of her book has elicited “me too!” responses from across the globe, she says the workplace is still lagging to catch up.

“It’s going to take a long time, even a generation,” she says. “There is interesting research that doing it differently is more effective. But a lot of people who are running the organizations now got there by working all the time and think that’s the way to do it.”

Schulte spoke to CQ Roll Call a year ago about the paradoxical finding that working fewer hours can yield more productive, creative and engaged employees. Capitol Hill, in particular, has a culture that prioritizes time spent working in the office, particularly when members of Congress are in town and vote schedules can be erratic, sometimes running late into the evening.

Schulte says now there is a conversation starting about the way people work and live: “It makes people feel that change is possible.”

But finding balance can still be just as difficult.

The success of “Overwhelmed” threw Schulte’s already hectic schedule into overdrive. She had been given book leave by The Washington Post, then granted another six to eight weeks for publicity while still writing for the Post. The response was so great she added events, some as far as Australia and Turkey, and had to work harder to keep up. But rather than defaulting to burnout mode, as she had once feared, Schulte used her own tips to prioritize. She reserved time in her schedule to be “off,” for hikes, walks around the neighborhood and even hot chocolate breaks. She prefers working in 90-minute “chunks,” setting a timer so she can focus on uninterrupted work — one thing at a time — and then take a break to answer emails, or schedule doctor’s appointments for her children.

“It doesn’t feel as jumbled doing everything at once and out of control,” Schulte says.

Schulte says her work habits aren’t actually the biggest change since her book came out — she’s also changed the way she and her husband collaborate at home.

“I’m not responsible for doing it all anymore,” she says. Her husband, NPR journalist Tom Bowman, has stepped in to help with the daily slew of chores and responsibilities that come with caring for two teenage children and juggling their own demanding jobs. They share things “fairly, not 50-50, but what feels fair,” she says. Letting go of some of her home responsibilities, Schulte says, has opened up space to be more creative and focused on her work.

Bowman agreed the post-“Overwhelmed” period has brought changes to their routine. “I think we share responsibilities a little more, particularly with the kids and doctors visits. That was something she always handle[d] and now we split it up more,” he says. He does more of the cooking, while Schulte handles more of the laundry.

Bowman says he learned from his wife’s book, though his own habits work in stop-and-start rhythms. “There will be a flurry of work and then time off. I’ll do my work, file a story, then I’ll kind of walk around the office and bug people, say, ‘Hey what are you working on?’”

He still gets jokes about an anecdote in the book depicting a tense moment when Bowman went to drink beer with a friend as his wife prepared a Thanksgiving feast for 18 people.

“I cover the Pentagon and got an email from a Marine colonel I knew. She said, ‘Tom, I always thought you were a nice guy. I was stunned after I read the book. If you were my husband you never would have made it through the front door.’”

Schulte is still writing about unique workplace situations, about CEOs who institute four-day workweeks, and workers who surf during the afternoon for inspiration. She feels she’s shedding light on creative, entrepreneurial ways to innovate the workplace, but acknowledges it’s still not the norm.

“There is a stigma to working less that will take a while to fully transform,” she says. “Working less is about being more intentional and effective. It’s not about slacking. Most creative people always created space to let a different system of their brain work.” For example, she says, Darwin took afternoon walks, while Thomas Edison was known for taking mid-day naps. Using different systems in your brain allows you to find different insights and ideas, she says.

Naturally, the new forward to the paperback edition out this month offers tips for a sort of speed read to change habits, even if it’s just skimming the appendix or reading the relevant chapters. Not sure how to begin? “Just start,” Schulte writes.

She also re-evaluates some of her examples of success, noting the high-powered remote-workplace oriented law firm Clearspire is no longer in business. It was the business plan that proved unsuccessful, not its innovative technology and flexible methods, she writes. The lawyers she’d interviewed had found new positions in similar-minded firms which they’d dubbed the “New Normal.”

As more people take the time to dig deep into her data, there may be more instances of workplace cultures beginning to change, even slowly. “There’s nothing unique about my story, I’m just the messenger,” she says. “I was just able to capture it for a generation.”