Brigid Schulte is the author of The New York Times’ bestselling book on time pressure, Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play when No One has the Time. She has spoken all over the world about how to make time for The Good Life by redesigning work cultures to focus on effective work and innovation, by re-imagining gender roles for a fairer division of labor and opportunity at work and home and, instead of seeking status in busyness, by recapturing the value of leisure. She was an award-winning journalist for The Washington Post and The Washington Post Magazine and part of the team that won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize, before becoming the founding director of The Good Life Initiative at The New America Foundation, where she also serves as director of the Breadwinning and Caregiving program. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband, Tom Bowman, a reporter for National Public Radio, and their two children. She grew up in Portland, Oregon and spent her summers with family in Wyoming, where she did not feel overwhelmed. Sign up for her newsletter, Toward Time Serenity, on the art and science of The Good Life at brigidschulte.com and join the ongoing discussion about making time for work, love and play on Facebook and @BrigidSchulte.

1MFWF: What do you think is the most common “aha” moment around the need for workplace flexibility from working moms? Working dads? Companies?

Brigid: Honestly, the biggest “aha” moment is the simple fact that the way we’re working isn’t working. We work among the longest hours of any advanced economy. We don’t have a culture that values taking time off, so we don’t. Or take work along with us when we do. Flexibility is still seen in many companies as a “nice to have,” a perk, a leftover from a “women’s initiative” to try to keep working mothers from leaving, or something grudgingly offered to Millennials, because they refuse to work the “old” way.

Is it any surprise that about 70 percent of U.S. workers routinely describe themselves as disengaged from work? Or that burnout is becoming epidemic – with one in two physicians reporting at least one symptom of burnout. Or that people feel they need sneak out under the radar for the flexibility they need to make their lives work, then work even harder at home, late at night because they feel so guilty, instead of getting the rest, time with family and friends and sleep they need?

To me, one of the biggest “aha” arguments for changing the way we’re working in a way that benefits everybody – working moms, working dads, Millennials, Gen X, Baby Boomers not yet ready to retire but wanting something other than 80-hour work weeks, and companies and bottom lines – comes directly from neuroscience.

In our increasingly knowledge-driven economy, we’re only as good as the next good idea. Well, we’re beginning to understand where creativity, innovation and good ideas come from. They come in moments of rest. When we’re relaxed and in a positive mood. We get a burst of gamma wave activity in the right hemisphere of the brain. That’s where insight comes from.

I’ve been looking more at the science of “effective work.” Instead of glorifying long hours and overwork as a sign of work devotion, science is clearly showing us that really good, hard work is done when we alternate between periods of focused, concentrated work – that uses our analytical prefrontal cortex – and these moments of downtime where our more creative right brain gets to come out to play.

Being clear about the mission of your work. Setting priorities and tackling them in concentrated blocks first thing in the morning, then taking a break is a far more productive, effective and humane way to work that can lead to more work-life balance or integration, rather than starting the day checking email, setting in motion a day of distraction and putting out fires, then staying late at the office to finally get to the big project, or answering emails late at night to show how work-devoted you are. (I know, I know, I’m a work in progress on this myself.)

1MFWF: In your book, you write about time studies that show that mothers today spend more time with their kids than the last generation, and how that completely floored you. Would you summarize what you took away from that data point, and how it’s affected how you view your time with your kids now?

Brigid: Time with kids for working mothers has been one of the most fraught parts of life in the past few decades. There has been so much stigma and guilt. And I unthinkingly bought right into that cultural narrative when my kids were little. The narrative is this: when mothers went to work outside the home, they no longer put their children first, and didn’t spend much time with them. (The words “abandoned” and “neglected” have been bandied about freely in circles that would prefer mothers to stay home.)

I remember feeling so soaked with guilt that it was toxic. And so conflicted all the time. I loved my kids. (And I still do, even though they’re teens and I’m not so sure they like me that much right now!) I loved being with my kids (and still do.) I also wanted to pursue my own dreams and passions as a human, though I did throttle back when they were young. (I didn’t go off to Iraq or Afghanistan to cover wars, as my husband did. I worked a four-day work week for a time. I worked flexibly and often at home, at a time when most people didn’t, but always felt badly about it.) And we had to have my salary to pay the bills.

Just getting out the door in the morning was a psychological battle. I’d feel so awful, it would take me awhile to get started on my day. And all the while, I’d be beating myself up – thinking, ‘You’d better do something extraordinary, because you just left your wailing two year old at child care.” Whenever I’d write about working mothers, at the time, there wasn’t a lot of serious journalism about how we work and live, I’d get blasted by readers that I was “selfish” and wanted money and a big house and that my kids would never get into a good college. Honest. Check out some of the comments on my stories awhile ago.

So, obviously, I wasn’t working very effectively. I’d be distracted through the day. Then, when the kids would get sick, or there’d be an issue at school, I was always the one that got called, not my husband. And the crazy thing is, neither my husband nor I thought twice about that. I was so guilty, I just thought that was what I needed to do to make up for the fact that I was this mean, working mommy. Pediatrician? Me. Dentist? Me. Bake the preschool turkey for the Thanksgiving feast? Me. Stay up until 4 a.m. doing the slideshow for the 5th grade graduation? Me. Twice.

And I was always so stressed out. Rushing to get to school events. Chopping my days up. Yelling at everybody. Always late.

I just wish I knew then what I know now. And that’s a big reason why I wanted to write the book, why I speak about what I found, why I keep writing about these issues. That old, powerful narrative is absolutely wrong. And by sharing the truth, it can help all of us live better, saner, happier lives.

OK – that’s a long set up. But there are a couple really critical studies that every mother should know about.

1) There was a time-use study in the late 1980s that found that working mothers were, indeed, not spending much time with their kids, as everybody feared. The media went wild with stories of neglected children, and hand-wringing about how awful working mothers were. But this is the critical point: that study was wrong! The researcher made a miscalculation. But by the time he discovered it, and corrected it, it was too late. Nobody listened, and thus the myth was born.

2) Another massive study of parent time with children found the exact opposite. Everyone – working mothers, at home mothers, dads, single parents – is spending more time with kids than in previous decades. In fact, working mothers today are spending as much or more time with their kids than at-home moms did in the 1960s and 70s. In fact, working mothers spend three times as much time with their kids in high quality, interactive time , compared to at-home Moms in the 70s. And the more education, the more time working mothers spend with kids.

How? Mothers have given up time for sleep, personal care, and they spend about every moment of their free or leisure time with their children.

Why? Part of it is that guilt, and the worry that mothers aren’t spending enough time with their kids. And part of it is, because of that early wrong-headed mythology and stigma, the standards for what we think it takes to be a good mother have never been higher. We push helicoptering, even as we scoff at it.

3) This is probably one of the most important things to understand. What has all that extra time with children meant? Not much, according to another large study came out earlier this year that was another big eye-opener. For children 3-11, the researchers found no relationship between the quantity of time a mother spent with her kids, and the child’s outcomes, behaviorally, cognitively and academically. For teenagers, time with mother, and time spent with the family was related to less risky behavior and higher math scores. But the amount of time needed to make a difference was about the amount of time for a family meal.

What does matter, other studies have found, is not so much the quantity, or the amount of time we spend with our kids, but the quality of it. That when we’re stressed around them, rushing, yelling, late, guilty – that’s what’s bad for kids. (And yes, of course, though I’m happy to know this and spread this message now, I feel badly that that’s what so much of my kids’ early lives felt like…)

1MFWF: You’ve noted that many of our workplace policies are stuck in the 1950s. Given some recent local and state movement on issues like paid leave and paid sick days, as well as the approach to work that many millennials hold, is there reason to be hopeful that more true work flexibility is gaining traction? 

Brigid: Yes. Just from the time I began researching my book a few years ago, the national conversation has really changed. People are thinking and talking in serious ways about how we work and live, whereas before, it was always denigrated as a “mommy issue,” and something that whiny mothers needed to get over and shut up about.

I think several large forces are at work that could change the way we work – with both up and downsides: Millennials will soon be the largest segment of the workforce, and they are not only demanding, but expecting to work in a different, more flexible way. And studies are finding that the flexibility that Millennials want, is actually what everybody wants, but didn’t think it was possible to have. Technology is making flexibility much more of a possibility than ever before. Baby Boomers are living longer and healthier and want to stay engaged in meaningful work, but don’t want to be slaves to the office, so are looking at alternative ways of working. Neuroscience, human motivation studies and productivity and innovation data are also chipping away at the old Ideal Worker norm of all-work, all the time.

At the same time, there is increasing pressure to be always on, with a more global economy, and the technology that connects us all the time. And the growing contract, freelance or “gig” economy may have real flexibility upsides for highly trained workers, say computer engineers who can command high fees, but could give lower-skilled workers unpredictable hours at low wages masquerading as flexibility. That’s something we need to watch carefully.

1MFWF: What do you think is the most important change/movement going on right now to help break some of the gender barriers that surround real and lasting change in our workplaces? How can we counter what you call in your book the idea of the always-available “ideal worker?”

Brigid: To counter the ideal worker, science and innovation and productivity data, as well as very successful companies working differently and show the way, is doing that. (see answer #1!)

And honestly, the most important change that I see going on to shatter some of the gender barriers is this: men. Men are changing. Young men not only have ambitions in the workplace, but clearly want to be fully involved and full partners at home. And when their workplaces want to freeze them into the traditional, distant breadwinner provider roles, many of them are leaving.

Dad bloggers, Dad books, father meet ups and play groups are proliferating. They’re changing the national narrative – pushing for more paid parental leave for Dads, calling out companies that portray them as inept Mr. Moms. The International Labor Organization said the changing role of men and fathers is shaping up to be the most important development of the 21st century.

Men are now experiencing as much or more stress from work-life conflict that women. And, while I’m sad for them, it also shows that addressing how we work and live is not just a “mommy issue” – it’s a family issue, an economic issue, an ultimately, a human rights issue.

What’s fascinating is, in countries that have made solo paid parental leave “normal,” and just part of the fabric of society – and that’s what national policies do, they set the standard for what the society values, and considers important – they’re seeing real shifts toward the egalitarianism that we’d hoped for in the early 1970s.

In Iceland, and Quebec, where they implemented “use it or lose it” policies to encourage more Dads to take solo parental leave, what studies are finding is that, three years later, couples are fully sharing child care. And both men and women are working more equal hours. Whereas in countries like the United States, where there is no national paid parental leave, there’s unpaid leave, and certain companies tend to give maternity, but not much paternity leave, women are still doing twice the housework and child care, and men are putting in more time at work. That contributes not only to the wage gap, but the dearth of women in leadership positions, and has kept us in what social scientists call The Stalled Gender Revolution.

Family dynamics get set in these early months. So if you shift the dynamics from the start, you’ve created a more equal playing field for men and women at work and at home.

1MFWF: There is a great story in the book about the Pentagon (!) implementing some flexible workplace policies — can you discuss how that was successfully implemented? Can that be a case study for other organizations?

Brigid: I think the Alternate Work Schedule story at the Pentagon is incredibly meaningful. I highlight it in the book as one of many “Bright Spots” where things are already shifting, and not only is work-life integration better for men and women, but the work itself gets better.

The story is this: When Michele Flournoy was talking to Defense Secretary Robert Gates about coming on as one of the top civilian leaders at the Pentagon, she had three fairly young kids. She told him, in effect, ‘I’ll work my tail end off for you, but more often than not, I’m going to have to be home for dinner.’ And Gates didn’t hesitate. He said, ‘OK.’

He set her up with secure communication systems that she could use at home, if needed. She hired a driver, so she could get work done on her commute. She said she felt so supported – that the system enabled her not only to do great work, but to have a life and time with family, that she wanted to turn around and do the same for her employees.

She looked around and saw how so many were working really long hours. Many didn’t see their families, yet were on “home leave,” after being in a combat zone. This was supposed to be their time with family before deploying again. She saw that people were burning out. And she also read research that showed, to get real productivity gains, you need to invest in human capital – in your people.

So she brought in consultants, trained everybody on working flexibly. If you worked a certain number of hours within a two-week period, you got the rest of the time off. They began rewarding performance, not hours. Unless it was an emergency, meetings were held during work hours, not late at night, as often happened in the national security world, which disadvantaged working parents. She had two young fathers run the program – managers who didn’t get it were retrained, or removed. (And that’s key, isn’t it? You can have a great policy from on high, and middle managers who act as if they’d never heard of it, or they’re doing you a big favor if you work flexibly, or go on vacation.)

Not only were people more refreshed, spending more time with their families, happier, more well-rested and healthier, their work got better. Their ideas were sharper and clearer, Flournoy said. They were more productive and efficient. Even Gates noticed.

And that was in the middle of two wars.

What I found in my book is that there’s no one right way to do flexibility. The best programs are thoughtful reflections of each industry or company, and the work they need to do to thrive. They all do have one thing in common: it’s flexibility for all. The reason doesn’t matter. So whether you’re a parent with a teacher conference, or someone who needs to take a parent or sibling or friend to the doctor, or you’re going back to school, or you have a side business, project, or you want to go surfing – it doesn’t matter. It’s all about finding what works for your team for both the people and the business.

1MFWF: As parents everywhere get ready for back to school, any advice for how best to survive the new juggle of schedules and activities? 

Brigid: 1) Find the Sweet Spot. Some activity is good for kids – and for us. Our brains are wired for novelty. Trying new things is how we grow. And research shows people who’d tried new things as kids, are more open to trying new things as adults. That said, more is not better. Be really mindful about how you schedule activities for yourself and your kids. Talk to them. Lay out the options of what’s available. What are they interested in? What might they want to try? Don’t just push them into things because you think they should do something, or because everybody else is. Look at the whole system – the whole family’s activities while you’re making decisions. Is what you’re choosing sustainable for the whole family, or are your expectations unrealistic – that’s when things can get stressful What are the logistics and support you’re going to need? Then Share the Load. Partners, plan and execute together. Kids, be responsible for your schedule. Put it on a master family calendar. Or keep a family calendar that everyone can access in the cloud. Don’t make this mom’s job to arrange and manage.

2) Let kids follow their passions. And fail. Parents, be mindful where to draw the line between scaffolding your children, and giving them support, and overstepping, rescuing and doing things for your kids. It’s tempting, when every other parent is doing the science fair project. But kids need to learn resilience, grit and persistence. And the only way to do it is to figure stuff out on their own.

3) Make the most of the small moments. We tend to think we have to make grand gestures – throw big birthday parties, take big trips. But life gets lived in the small, ordinary moments. Make the most of the carpool. The drive with the kids in the carseat, or with the teen learning how to drive. Have kids share chores, which gives them a sense of responsibility, that they’re part of something greater than themselves. And recognize that doing the dishes together can be a great avenue for talking, laughing or just sharing a simple moment. Be present for it.

4) Calm down. We’re all so freaked out about the future. We all want our kids to do well. So we hover, we drive them to lessons, we help with their homework, we’re disapproving when they don’t come home with a good grade. We’re stressing our kids out, and we’re stressing ourselves out. And we’re ratcheting up the standards for our kids to impossibly high levels.

Understand that research shows when we parent for happiness first, achievement follows. But when we parent for achievement first, neither happiness nor achievement is guaranteed.

Realize that there are 3,000 colleges out there. And that research is clearly showing, it’s not where you go that matters as much as what you put into your experience. If you’re happy where you are, chances are, you’ll make friends, build a network of support, seek out mentors, be motivated to follow a passion and do well, try new experiences that will help your kids clarify what they’re interested in and their own goals in life.

Recognize that kids need down time. Some of it may be on screens doing things with virtual Sims families or making weird potions, but you probably watched more TV than you’d like to admit as a kid (endless Star Trek reruns for me.) But some of it may be unstructured. Let your kids get bored. And figure out for themselves how to get unbored. You’re not neglecting them, as long as you make quality time – anchoring rituals like family story time, family meals, an outing on the weekend – you’re giving them time to figure out who they are and what they like, and the skills to build successful, happy lives for themselves. And what more could we want for our kids than that?

photo credit: Brigid Schulte