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Why Are We So Busy?

Robert Harris
Version Date: January 3, 1997

Abstract: Provides several answers to the question of why we never seem to have any spare time.

Leonardo Da Vinci accomplished amazing things. Of course, back then, there were 24 hours in a day. --Anonymous

The question is often asked why we never have any spare time in modern life, in spite of a glut of "labor-saving" inventions and the growth of production efficiencies. Here are a few thoughts about why we are so busy:

1. Poor Choice Management. Much has been written about proper time management, but sometimes the advice focuses merely on making more efficient use of time: do two tasks at once, get up earlier, delegate everything. Such advice does not really effectively address the problem of too many tasks. In fact, too much emphasis on time management makes one obsessive, always watching the clock and thinking about what task is scheduled next. So perhaps the nervousness over time management should give way to a more thoughtful care about choice management. Manage your life, not your time. Modern society suffers from an unwillingness to say, "No." Faced with too many options and too much pressure, we respond with too many yesses. We are afraid to deny to others or to ourselves the many opportunities, the many options, we face daily. But everything we choose requires Use Time. We buy cable TV, a computer (with an Internet connection!), a model railroad set, a magazine subscription--and all cry out to be used and use requires time. There is an old proverb somewhere that says, "To accomplish more, do less."

2. Inefficient Learning. We rush through things, learn them partially, and must repeat the work. Or what was learned gets pushed out by too much other new information. We have yet to accommodate our ideas of education to the information age. With the aggregate of knowledge doubling annually (someone has guessed), we can no longer expect to cover everything. Yet we try. The fabric of learning that is a hundred miles wide and about as deep as a sheet of paper is not going to be useful. Slow down, and learn a few lasting things.

3. Fewer Support Structures. We do more of our own secretarial work, have fewer helpers, less delegation. Sometimes support workers are not as dependable or committed and cannot be relied on to do a good job. People are so busy with their own tasks that they no longer help us with ours.

4. Higher Expectations. Rather than having more leisure time, we have less because we expect to do more and others expect us to do more. We try to match the pace of a fast society. This is related to poor choice management, since we want it all and want to do everything, thus raising our expectations for activity. "Ah, tomorrow is Saturday, a day for leisure. Let's go to the amusement park in the morning, a movie in the afternoon, and to dinner with our friends in the evening. Then we will still have time to see that video, check our mail, and watch the news before bed."

5. The Freeway Effect: We are so overloaded and tired that we get less done. We waste time frittering and procrastinating because we are too tired (mentally, physically, or both) to get ourselves working. When the number of cars passes the optimal that can travel on the freeway efficiently, traffic slows down into a jam and many fewer cars can travel on the freeway. If 6,000 an hour try, 6,000 an hour can travel, but if 10,000 an hour try, only 4,000 an hour can travel. Look at your desk and tell me if I am not right about this.

6. The Smorgasbord Effect. Our choices are like a smorgasbord at a restaurant, so many, that we try to take a little of each and thus overload our plates. We need to return to the restaurant model, where we make a deliberate choice, and then enjoy a fixed amount of food. It has been noted by someone that we are often afraid to make deliberate choices because we realize that every choice precludes others. If we take the mountain road, we cannot drive by the lake along the valley road as well. So some people put off making a decision (like getting married) just to keep their options open. Others simply try to say "Yes" to everything. "Yes, I'll have some of this and some of that and some of that, and, Oh look, I must have some of that, too."

7. Maintenance Time Costs. The products we buy require maintenance time. Computers, cars, VCR's, copiers, all need attention. The more items we have, the more time we spend maintaining or taking care of them--not using them. Cars, for example, need gas, oil, washing, servicing, tires, batteries. Every nifty computer program or add-on we buy requires substantial time to learn and to use. Want to become a slave? Just buy one of those personal accounting programs that requires you to enter every financial event in your life into the computer.

8. The Change Effect. We live in constant change. The psychological stress of change can be dealt with, but the main effect of change is a time expenditure for a learning curve. New software, a new car, a new VCR, a detour to work, new rules to follow, all require time to learn. 


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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com