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How Can We Deal With the Overwhelming Demands of Modern Society?

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What are ways to mitigate the feelings of being overwhelmed and overworked? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Feeling overwhelmed is such a common experience. And the first and most important thing to do is simply be aware. Be aware that you're not alone. That it's not all your fault. That there are external forces that are driving you toward feeling overwhelmed and overworked. And most importantly, be aware that there are solutions, both for you as an individual trying to navigate and enjoy life in the swirl of overwhelm, and once you have your own oxygen mask on, you can work with others for some of the larger solutions that will help everyone breathe.

So first, the water we're swimming in: workers in the U.S. clock some of the longest work hours of any advanced economy, save South Korea and Japan. Those hours have been rising, particularly for knowledge workers, since the 1980s, long before we were all glued to our smartphones and answering emails at 11 p.m. So something culturally began to shift in the 1980s. Until then, if you worked long hours, you were basically working for free. You weren't rewarded for it. That changed in the 1980s, when we began financially rewarding overwork, and culturally, we began seeing people who worked long hours as the best workers.

That coincided with a massive shift in family life. Rather than the 1950s ideal (that really only ever applied to middle class white families) of one breadwinner and one homemaker, women entered the workforce en mass. But the workplace and its expectations of long hours and the "ideal" worker didn't change. So people were working longer hours, expected and rewarded for working longer hours, and feeling the strain of trying to make time for family life, kids or no. For those with kids, the standards for what we considered the "good" mother also started to ratchet up in the 1980s, partly as a reaction to more mothers working and the fear that such mothers were "abandoning" their children. That's led to the crazy-making statistic that today, all mothers, even those who work full time outside the home for pay, are spending more time with their children than at-home moms did with theirs back in the 1960s.

Couple those shifts at work and at home with a growing culture that glorified busyness, that rewarded those who never took vacation, or proved their dedication to the office by taking work along. It's all added up to a toxic stew of overwhelm for everybody.

So what do you do about it?

  • Be aware of those external overwork pressures. Watch for them in yourself and how they may be influencing you in ways that you don't like or don't realize. (Like the fact that those who work flexible schedules tend to work longer hours. Sociologists think it may be because they feel guilty, that they've gotten a "gift" from an overwork culture, so they have to repay it tenfold.)
  • Create open space in your calendar to pause, to think, and to breathe. It doesn't have to be long. But get in the habit of taking time to get clear about what's really important to you, and where the external pressures end and you begin.
  • Work in pulses. Take breaks. Understand that neuroscience shows you'll be more creative and productive if you do.
  • Take vacation. It can save your life. Honestly. One of the longest longitudinal studies found that men who didn't take vacation were thirty percent more likely to have a heart attack than those who did. For women, it was fifty percent.
  • Park the helicopter. We're not doing ourselves or our kids any favors with intensive parenting. In fact, we're robbing kids of the ability to learn, develop resiliency, grit, and a sense of self and independence. One of the best studies about whether all that additional time has mattered for kids found something surprising: it didn't. It's not quantity that matters, it's quality. So put down the phone, and make the most of even ordinary moments. That's where we live life anyway.
  • Share the load. We are still all so influenced by powerful gender roles of the past. Use that time for open space to be clear on what you want in your family and with your partner. Get clear on where you are now, and try an experiment for how to get from here to there.
  • The best time management/overwhelm management tool is something my kids learned in preschool: Plan. Do. Review. Experiment. Try something. Evaluate how it worked. Try again. Practice. Think of it as play. And have fun. It's life.

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