No Time Left For You
August 7, 2012
The day is already full. No matter how much time we spend working, by the time we've added all the numbers for sleeping, eating, dressing, driving, talking on your cell, exercising, searching for misplaced keys, waiting for our computer to boot, glancing at our family, watching TV, mailing a letter, and maybe listening to an old CD, we have far surpassed 24 hours.
Government agencies and think tanks, data measuring services like Nielsen and academic sociologists all create data on how we use time. If you just read a single article or review a data-set it becomes convincing ... until you look deeper where statistics become contradictory, self-serving and inconclusive. For example, if we added all of the televised messages about "what Americans might die from," we'd all die several times over, once the advertised risks are added up. So the use-of-time studies, like diseases, have their passionate and agenda-driven constituencies. Tempting though it seems to visualize our average day as a clock face with 24 hours of frenetic bulk, it's a complete distortion of reality.
Behaviorist James Gleick points out the best way to find out how much time people spend on specific activities is to ask them. If only we could remember! One of the flaws of helping a subordinate get control of their far-flung time management comes with asking them about "how they spend their time in a typical day." A typical day never comes because we're always hacking our way through the available minutes. If you ask, "How much time do you spend reading each day?" and "How much time did you spend reading yesterday?" you will get sharply disparate responses. For most, "each day" is the unreal imagined event, while "yesterday" will always come up short no matter how you slice it.
Today's time-study researchers end up following us around in an anthropological way; it's labor-intensive and only useful with people who seem willing to be followed around. Alas, The American's Use of Time Project conducted in the '90s used data from many sources, finally relying mostly on time-diaries. But this didn't work very well, either. Journals kept by thousands of subjects logging minute-to-minute, resulted in what the project supervisors Robinson and Godbey called "Social Microscopes." Like Arbitron radio-listening diaries, these logs had flaws of their own. Few, for example, had the patience to list beyond 30 different activities, so the project lacked granulation: 5:45-6:00a, did stretching exercises ... 6:20-7a, went to the gym ... 7:15-7:35a, took shower. Keeping track of those broad segments was interesting, but what about the gaps in-between over an entire 24-hour frame?
What does all this mean? The atoms of time can never be tracked and cataloged. Studying time management for ourselves or for a disorganized staff member can become an obsession. As someone said, "Sometimes the American culture resembles one big stomped anthill." From our point of view, people who are poor at time management and organization are that way because somewhere deep down, they're afraid that time-tracking and careful management of time threaten their personal freedom and sense-of-self. We've actually heard it from radio talent.
Our counter-argument for seeking better time control is that it accomplishes just the opposite: Only when you're sharply focused on your time allocation are you truly free from the surly bonds of the day. A time diary is a zero-sum game, leaving room for 1,440 minutes a day. The first entry begins at midnight, the last entry ends at midnight. As Gleick succinctly put it, "Pass go, collect 24 hours."