The to-do list will never end: My interview with Brigid Schulte that was like therapy | Women's Agenda

The to-do list will never end: My interview with Brigid Schulte that was like therapy

For all intents and purposes it was a work interview but within a few minutes it was apparent the benefits were to be profoundly personal.

The day before I had felt properly anxious for the first time in a really long time. I felt physically overwhelmed and agitated and recognising I was feeling that way compounded my angst. I have struggled with anxiety in the past so I am as aware of its grip as I am determined to avoid it.  

What was the cause? Realising, in my heart of hearts, that despite every good intention in the world there is no way I can do in a single day everything I would like to do. It’s obvious enough but during this particular week the realisation rattled me. Having spent a few weeks switched off at Christmas – studiously avoiding anything like a ‘to-do’ list – feeling pressured felt particularly stark.   

Time and energy are finite resources. Like everyone else, I balance those finite resources between the things that are most important to me: my family, my friends, my work and my own well-being.

But I can’t  always do everything I would ideally like to. On any given day it is likely that the list of things I have done will be shorter than the list of things I haven’t. I like to think this is not because I am inefficient or ineffective. It reflects the fact that the list of possibilities – in a job, in a home, in a relationship – are unlimited, unlike the amount of time and energy there is to tackle them.

I accept that rationally but, occasionally, the less rational side of my brain is stubborn. How can I cope with not being able to do everything, without descending into anxiety, I was asking myself.

Given that headspace, can you imagine a more appropriate person to interview than the author of the New York Times best-selling book called Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time?

My interview with Brigid Schulte, who is also a staff writer for Washington Post, was a gift from the universe.  

I used to think that I didn’t deserve leisure time, if everything wasn’t done,” she explained down the phoneline from America. “But then I realised it will never be done. I will die and my to-do list still will not be done.”

I was tempted to yell down the line: Yes! Exactly! Can you please be my therapist?!?

I refrained and instead asked how she responded to this realisation?

“I realised I needed to figure out how to make time now for the things I value,” she says.

Things like fun and relaxation. She no longer waits for the perfect moment to read a book or exercise or enjoy some time with her kids. She no longer prioritises the laundry or clean floors or any “external expectations”, over her own enjoyment.

“You should see my laundry! Previously I couldn’t sit down and read a book if the house was a mess but I give myself permission to do that,” Schulte says. “It’s not selfish – it’s self-preservation.”

Hallelujah. And it applies no matter how busy you are. 

Schulte admits the great irony of creating a best-selling book from making and sharing this personal shift is that she is now busier – and potentially more overwhelmed – than ever.

“This year has been one of the most challenging of my life,” she says. “The book has become a second job which is wonderful but it’s also time-consuming and exhausting.”

She is not independently wealthy so walking away from one of her jobs is not an option, but even if it was, it’s not a decision she’d want to make.

“I’d be doing myself and the book a great disservice if I didn’t pursue this,” Schulte says. “It’s opened my eyes and is something I am very passionate about.”

So how does she cope with two busy jobs, two teenage children, a husband and a home without being overwhelmed? How does she do all of that and still enjoy herself? 

Having refashioned her relationship and domestic arrangements with her husband into a “completely equitable” partnership has been critical. (It’s a topic I will cover in detail separately).  But so as her own shift in attitude and expectations.

“One of the things I have done that’s helped enormously as well is an agreement I made with myself that I borrowed from a mindfulness teacher,” she says. “She made a commitment to make time to be mindful every single day but it didn’t matter how long she did it for.”

In an ideal world Schulte might like to exercise for an hour every day. In the real world, if she can only do a ten minute strength routine, that’s enough. If she takes five slow breaths, that’s enough.

And she actively prioritises things she enjoys.

“I try to include the kids into the fun aspects of the book. I have a trip to Turkey and we’re taking the teenagers so they’re involved and that will be great fun.”

She is bringing her young daughter all the way to Australia for the All About Women Festival at the Sydney Opera House on Sunday.

If you, like me, could benefit from a therapy session with Brigid I suggest you buy a ticket.

Her message is powerful. My conversation with her flicked an important switch in me and I have returned to it often. My to-do list may never end, but do I want to be held ransom to it? I don’t. Because there really is more to life than ticking off the to-do list.   

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