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Overwhelmed: Why we need to take back leisure time

Brigid Schulte studies how people spend their free time in her new book.

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Brigid Schulte has often put off leisure time, like it's something she needs to earn first. "Too busy to live," is how she puts it.

Like many of the subjects in her new book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time, Schulte never used to slow down long enough to consider what true, unencumbered leisure time would do for her. Now, her book charts the strained relationship that so many North Americans have with their leisure time. Schulte argues that we are suffering from "time sickness," and that our culture, our technology and our employers are making it difficult to experience anything but "contaminated time." Health, quality of life, productivity and, not least of all, curiosity are taking a hit.

Schulte cites contemporary complaints about how, for so many, time has shrunk to a life of work and caregiving. And that while technology was supposed to liberate us, it has instead created a sense of ceaseless responsibility and basically spelled the end of a truly work-free environment.

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Still, for all the kvetching about having no time, she contends the sickness is partly our own fault: North Americans would rather achieve than relax. In a culture that worships work, busyness has become a badge of honour. "To be idle is to be irrelevant," she writes, pointing out that many people mistake leisure for laziness and frivolity.

So just what is true leisure? Having studied everything from the relatively nascent field of time research to the ancient Greek philosophers, Schulte offers this answer: It involves being in the moment, cultivating yourself and connecting with people. The idea is to do something for its own sake, without obligation. It is meaningful human experience – refreshing the soul, if you will. The Globe recently spoke with Schulte, a reporter with the Washington Post in Alexandria, Va.

Why do we have such a hard time relaxing?

What is it about having open space on the calendar? It's the one thing we say we want, but what's become so clear in North America is that we are not only work-focused, we are work-devoted.

In the '30, '40s and '50s, philosophers, economists and some of the greatest thinkers of the age described an era not far off when everybody would have so much leisure time: We'd only work 30 hours a week, four days a week, maybe half the year. Some were worried about that – what would we do to fill the time? Others believed it would be the next great advancement in human civilization: the things we could invent, the art we could create, the time we could spend with other people making relationships richer and life better.

Well what happened then? Why is it that we value work so much? If we don't value leisure, or if we treat leisure as a time to 'rest up' so we're better at our work, we've really lost the point of living.

At the same time we complain about how work conspires to ruin our weekends and our vacations.

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We complain about how little leisure time we have but we're humble-bragging, aren't we? "I'm so fried." "I've been working so hard." We one-up each other on how busy we are or how much we work.

The complaint that you don't have time is a way of showing your status. If we aren't busy, we start getting nervous that maybe we aren't important. When you have a cultural value, you start to create it, to look for it. You start to fill your time with busyness. Time-use researchers talk about the "harried leisure class." Even if you're very wealthy, to be harried and busy in your leisure is viewed as a sign of status. I would question the quality of that leisure.

What do North Americans tend to do with their free time?

When we get a square of free time we're usually preoccupied and worried about the next thing we have to do, these laundry lists of stuff. We're also tired. That's how you get such huge TV-watching numbers in North America. We use our leisure to turn off rather than to prospectively choose to do something. True leisure requires freely choosing something. We're not really making anything of that time.

What was your reaction to the women you interviewed who claimed their last speck of leisure time came when they read their toddler to sleep, or, seriously, the woman who said she experienced leisure during her last mammogram? Did you buy it?

To me this was an indication of, "Look how busy I am, I don't even have time for myself. I'm putting myself last. Aren't I a good woman?" But women's leisure time has changed in both quality and quantity. For mothers, they spend almost all of their leisure time with their children. Pure leisure time is considered time for yourself, time to refresh your soul, time to do what you choose for you. That kind of time and also time spent with other adults have really fallen off the cliff in the past 30 years, particularly for women. If you have leisure time, it's usually spent on the sidelines of a soccer game or schlepping kids around to music lessons or driving the carpool. It's a very different quality of time.

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Time research is a fairly young social science and when the early time-use researchers were dividing up activities and labelling them, they considered childcare to be leisure because they were men. They figured staying at home and playing with kids was fun. While there is an element of joy to it, anybody who's had to take care of kids for more than 10 minutes will tell you it's hard work. It's rewarding and joyful, but it's work.

Even though men are doing so much more at home now, women are still seen as in charge of the domestic sphere, which means that you have to keep all of that in your head. You've got what sociologists call contaminated time – stuff just going on in your head all of the time. You can be on a bike-ride with your family and you can be completely distracted so it doesn't feel very leisurely.

Let's turn to tech. We know that it feels bad when your boss interrupts family dinner with e-mails, but what about when we voluntarily interrupt our own time using technology? When we tweet off the cottage deck or Instagram a restaurant meal? These are intrusions of our own making, no?

We are on the bleeding edge of so much technology that we don't really know how to use it yet. It doesn't feel refreshing. William Powers writes about this in his book Hamlet's BlackBerry. We've had breakthroughs in technology throughout human history when it feels like this ocean of new information is pouring in on you, and there is a general sense of overwhelm and distraction. Over time, you adapt to it and develop strategies for shutting it off and getting away from it. Socrates would take a walk in the woods when he felt overwhelmed by the city, which at that time was itself a new technology.

Today, people try to have technology sabbaths. There are black hole resorts where you can't get on Wi-fi. I think over time – I'm hoping – we'll adapt and become smarter about how we use technology. It is using us right now.

The dopamine kick that comes with a new Twitter follower or a "like" on Facebook – is that our new stupid brand of leisure?

You can stay connected to people, learn things and be part of really interesting conversations on social media. But I do feel there is an element of it that 'it's easy.' There's also a huge element of distraction that takes us out of whatever our priorities might be. If all you do is answer e-mail and get into that distracted, reactive cycle, what have you fallen into, and what have you chosen?

Tell me about the Danes, who seem to really understand leisure.

To me, the Danes chapter was so instructive. In Denmark, work is focused but bounded with short, flexible work hours. Everybody values that work but not to the exclusion of everything else. They value sacred family time and gender equality, so much so that they have a minister of gender equality at the cabinet level. They value leisure enough that women there have more pure leisure time to themselves than Italian men in their little cafés stirring their cappucinos. The whole country takes "catalogue classes" in areas that they're interested – "for the wisdom of humanity," is what they say. Leisure is a cultural value.

Are the Danes less ambitious than North Americans?

Ambitious for what? I didn't see that they wanted to be slackers. They're highly educated and they want to do good work, but that's not the only thing they want, and they don't feel that their work suffers as a result.

The most convincing piece of data to me came from the OECD. The United States is highly productive, but we only count how many hours we spend at work. When you look at GDP per hours worked – how productive you are per hour – there are other countries that are more productive per hour. How many good hours are there, and how many are you sitting in your chair because your boss values you being there, and you're conforming to the culture?

There are a lot of assumptions that we make about ambition and doing good work that are very wrong-headed. The 40-hour work week is an artifact of manufacturing workers: it's the amount you can work before you start getting tired, stupid and start making really costly mistakes. Henry Ford discovered that. We're knowledge workers now. We have no idea how far you can push a knowledge worker so that your brain is most effective. Working in shorter pulses and taking breaks, we're realizing, you think more clearly and you're more productive.

I fall into the trap of sitting at my desk until I am just literally a butt in a chair. Old habits die hard and it goes back to, "Look at how busy I am. Look at how hard I'm working."

Are you too hard on North Americans? I think Canadians heading to the cottage would consider themselves leisure experts.

For people who escape to cottages in the woods or by the lake for the weekend, I say more power to them. But I would ask a couple things about both the quantity and quality of that leisure time. Sometimes our leisure is what some call "power leisure" – racing through activities, posting photos of the mad dash through the weekend on Facebook – competing in what leisure scholars call the "harried leisure class."

How many times have you seen a group of young people hanging out and yet everyone is silent and on their devices – kind of an alone-together moment? If you're distracted and not paying attention to where you are, you're not fully in the moment. And being fully present is how the Greeks would have described true leisure.

Even without technology, if our thoughts are churning with anxiety, doubt, worry, the to-do list stuck in rumination – what social scientists call "contaminated time" – no amount of fun-looking-on-the-outside leisure is going to feel like leisure on the inside. It's like you're living beside the moment, not in it.

Given the North American culture of achievement worship, can policies instituting shorter work days, more vacation time and longer subsidized parental leaves change how we view leisure here?

Would I love to see massive shifts in the way we think and do our work? Yes. Do I want to see us revalue leisure? Absolutely. Is that going to come in my lifetime? I don't know.

I wanted to go out and find bright spots, but I also discovered how ignorant I had been of the forces shaping my own life. I was so ignorant because I got so busy. I would have days when I was stuck in what I called "virtuous busyness." I was checking stuff off my to-do list like mad but there were lots of days where I couldn't remember anything. At the end of my life, what was this gift of a day?

We all need to take a few moments to disrupt that automatic thinking: "Boy I'm busy, I must be productive, I must be having a good day." And then you get to the end of it and you don't know what the heck you've done. How have you spent that time and what has it meant, or is it really lost?

Getting lost in technology and the next beep on your iPhone and whatever's trending on Twitter and the next thing on your to-do list that you can cross off, sometimes I do wonder if it's just a way to put off thinking about the inevitable. The fact that our human lives are so short is really hard to bear.

And yet you suggest spending more time with old people, which can recalibrate priorities.

That was a fascinating thing to learn from Stanford University's Laura Carstensen, who'd done so much work with older people who had a very short time horizon. She said there's a lot we can learn from people who recognize that time is finite. What they choose to do in a day comes with that in mind, that they may not have that many days left. As hard as that is, it does shift your priorities.

What's the last true leisure time you had?

I have been under a lot of pressure. I work full-time for the Washington Post and I've been readying for this book, but I took a Sunday off. We went for a family walk in the woods even though my children are 12 and 15 and protested mightily. Then my husband and I saw a movie and reconnected over dinner. It was fantastic. I needed that not just to refresh to get ready to go back to work, I needed that connection time with my family. The joy of that moment, of walking in the snow in the woods. I left two weeks worth of laundry unfolded in the downstairs hallway and we just went.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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