Where has everyone’s time gone?

February 29, 2016


We would love to exercise more frequently, but who has the time? We would love to read more, but where’s the time for that? Don’t even think about something as crazy as learning to play a musical instrument, or learning a new language, or photography, or writing that book you’ve always thought about writing, or any of the other hobbies you might dream about pursuing one day. Maybe in retirement, but certainly not now. There aren’t enough hours in the day.

“People are too busy to…” Fill in the blanks, a ton of things apply. The book business is in decline… people are too busy to read books. Golf is in decline… people are too busy to squeeze in an entire round of it. The market for boats is a fraction of what it was ten years ago… people are too busy for a hobby that takes an entire afternoon or entire day out of their schedule. The list goes on.

But it wasn’t always like this. Why has everyone become so busy? Where has the time gone?

We could point to some of the usual culprits. People often blame “technology,” that amorphous catch-all. Undoubtedly it plays a role. My family and friends can call or text me any hour of any day and send a vibrating signal straight to my left front pocket. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that giving people such a power could produce some cultural shock waves.

Social media has us connected to thousands of people. It used to be only the unfortunate person sitting in the same room as me would have to be subjected to my random thought of the moment, but now it’s as many people as are silly enough to sanction having a direct pipe from my brain to their devices (devices plural, think about that).

And don’t get me started on work email and the horrendous cultural shift that’s ensued as a result. It’s almost an impossibility to unplug when it’s an occupational expectation to remain connected. The slipperly slope of after hours email is also a gateway to after hours phone calls. Imagine back in the early 90s… if your boss wanted to reach you at 6:30pm, they would have to call your family’s one household phone and ask for you when your spouse or kid got up from the dinner table and answered the phone. That would certainly slow me down from picking up the phone and dialing up my direct reports. On the other hand, if you know you’re directly beaming my left front pocket, what’s stopping you from placing what is effectively the very same call? (“I mean, he doesn’t have to answer if he doesn’t want to, so what’s the harm?”)

There are other forces at play when it comes to these busy lives we live. I look at how kids are enrolled in a thousand and one activities after school and on weekends… that seems to be the new normal. When did that start and why? Because of some competitive urge to give kids a competitive edge so they can eventually get into the best possible college and get the best possible job?

But the job they go on to will most likely be in some organization that is in constant search of “doing more with less” because of some strange belief in a continuous state of scarcity. And that certainly seems to contribute to our lack of time as well. Nothing like a healthy dose of “do more with less” to keep people loaded up. Gone are the days of the true 9 to 5 for many people. When did we sign up for that?

The reason this troubles me is that it seems to be happening to us rather than it being our conscious decision. It would be one thing if, when we talked about how busy we are, we did so proudly and happily. Being busy is not always a bad thing, there can be a good level of busy.

But most of the time when someone tells me how busy they are, what they are really saying is I wish I had more time. They are stressed. They feel like they are running around with their hair on fire. They say things like “there aren’t enough hours in the day.” This doesn’t seem healthy.

I see the costs in my own life, no question. When I’m too busy, I get stressed, and when I’m stressed, I’m short with people. When I’m too busy, I try to race through things to cram as much in as possible, and when I race through things, I become impatient.

And then I notice things like this:  My son asks me if we can read a book on the couch. We sit and read the book, but I am battling an urge to check my phone, or I am nervous and twitchy thinking about all the things I need to get done. Even if I muscle my attention in his direction through sheer force of will, I have no doubt he senses my attention is divided. And that makes me sad. Plus I’m just teaching him by example to grow up and be the same way. Don’t worry who you’re with or what you’re doing… if you’re bored or busy, just take out your phone and distract yourself or catch up on email. It’s an awesome lesson to teach a 3 year old, I’m really proud of it. Maybe he, too, can grow up being too busy and stressed, missing out on the important things in life.

The thing is, being as busy as we are is not something being done to us; in most cases we do it to ourselves.

And that means we can undo it. 

Even when it’s being done to us, like in the case of a demanding job, we still have the power to unwind an overly hectic lifestyle. It might not happen overnight, but it can be done. It might take some significant rebalancing of priorities. It might take finding a less demanding job. Finding a less demanding job might mean taking a pay cut, and taking a pay cut might mean scaling back spending. These are not necessarily small changes.

But call me old fashioned, a slightly slower pace of life might do us all some good.


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2 responses to Where has everyone’s time gone?


    Beautifully written. Sooo true…where has al the time gone?