Overwhelmed Right Now? Sociology is Here To Help

We are approximately at the midpoint of the semester. Which means that everything is in full swing and your to-do list is almost certainly bulging. In this article Nathan Palmer introduces us to the concept of contaminated time and explains how it contributes to our sense of feeling overwhelmed.

“‘Blorft’ is an adjective I just made up that means ‘Completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum.’ I have been blorft every day for the past seven years.”

– Tina Fey

Stressed Out Student Surrounded by Books

So who’s feeling blorft right now? It’s the middle of the semester, so I’m betting a lot of you reading this are totally blorft. Tests to prepare for, papers to write, online quizzes to tend to, meetings, practice, family functions, and then you’ve got to clock into a shift at work. Oh, and I didn’t even mention your social obligations. It’s easy to get overwhelmed as a student. But have no fear, Sociology is here. You can do a lot to lower your sense of overwhelm by working to reduce “contaminated time.”

Contaminated Time

To be a college student today is to be a person who wears many hats. At any moment there are dozens if not hundreds of things you could be doing. Should you check your email, texts, twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook, or return your mom’s call from earlier? Should you do homework? If so, which of your five classes should you start with? Should you go out with your friends? Should you workout? Are you hungry? Oh and your friend is starring in the play on campus, should you go to that? It’s easy to feel like you’re being pulled in every direction.

If you’re like me, you try to handle this by multitasking. I do email while I watch TV. I check social media while I eat meals. I listen to audio-books while I workout. Furthermore, even when I try to uni-task (i.e. do just one thing at a time) during my leisure time, all I can think about is all of the other things I “should be doing.”

When the rest of your life intrudes on your leisure activities this is what sociologists call contaminated time. Pure leisure time should be unconstrained by your other responsibilities, this is why we call it “free time” (Henderson 1991).

What Should You Do?

In the book Overwhelmed the journalist Brigid Schulte interviewed many of the leading sociologists who do time use research and she came away with some helpful suggestions. First, firewall off some genuine free time. That is, don’t multitask and try your hardest not to dwell on your to-do list during your leisure time. Second, don’t mix business with pleasure. Set aside time to focus on your work and then… just focus on your work. Lastly, stop trying to be perfect. It’s not possible to be outstanding at everything. Pick some areas of your life where you’ll be “good enough.” You’ll save time and perhaps your sanity.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Do you experience contaminated time in your life? Explain your answer.
  2. Think like a sociologist. Say you want to study how people use their time day to day. How could you design a study to get this information from your research participants?
  3. Describe in detail what it looks like when you are studying. Where are you? What is around you? What are you physically doing? What technology surrounds you? Describe any interruptions you experience. Now, reflect on this. Do you see evidence of contaminated time?
  4. At Stanford they are doing research on multitasking. Check out this interview with the head researcher Clifford Nass. What did this research discover about multitasking?


  • Henderson, Karla A. 1991. “The Contribution of Feminism to an Understanding of Leisure Constraints.” Journal of Leisure Research 23:363-377