Too busy? How to get time back on your side

Weeks after reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic cover story, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, one aspect has especially stuck with me. It’s not whether women can successfully juggle a marriage, family and career, and all at the same time, but rather the very idea of time and how it’s a commodity that there never seems to be enough of.

“We all agree that time is more valuable than money,” writes Maria Lin, former editor of the personal finance site LearnVest. Yet many of us don’t seem to invest wisely in that part of our lives.

In a recent piece from the New York Times’ Opinionator feature, Tim Kreider argued against The ‘Busy’ Trap we find ourselves in. He writes:

“If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: ‘Busy!’ ‘So busy.’ ‘Crazy busy.’ It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: ‘That’s a good problem to have,’ or ‘Better than the opposite.’ ”


Kreider continues: “Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They schedule in time with friends the way students with 4.0 G.P.A.’s make sure to sign up for community service because it looks good on their college applications.”

As someone who has a to-do list for every part of my life -- and who makes plans with friends weeks, sometimes months, in advance -- it’s hard to read Kreider’s observation without a bit of self-loathing. “It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school -- it’s something we collectively force one another to do,” he writes. And he’s spot-on.

Yes, we live in a busy, 24/7 world where we’re plugged-in, reachable and most likely scheduled at all times (here’s another article I’m not proud I relate to: “Out on the Town, Always Online”), but surely there is something we can do about our unnecessary busyness. And we should, writes Kreider: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.”

For working parents, though, idleness may not be an option. (Here’s a snippet of the backlash against Kreider’s piece.) The next best thing, perhaps, is a ban on working at home.

In a June article for the Home section, Alexandria Abramian-Mott wrote a piece on the new trend: “House rules may vary -- no iPad at the breakfast table, no laptops during prime time in the living room, no BlackBerrys in bed -- but the goal is the same. Stop work life from seeping into family life and be fully present for one another.”

Even tech innovator Tiffany Shlain, who founded the Webby Awards, is on board. In November, she told columnist Patt Morrison that her family unplugs weekly for 24 hours. Said Shlain:

“I do these technology Shabbats; they’ve been really life-changing. Friday night, we unplug all of our technology. All the screens go off for 24 hours, and we’re present with each other. I’ll tell you, it’s very profound for me to do it, and every week I feel like I get to reset my mind and be completely present with people. It’s really wonderful. I definitely feel like disconnecting is going to be more and more valued. For me, it’s the unplugging that’s a very big boundary. And I [have] a land line. I tell my family, if it’s urgent, call me on the land line, which they think is very funny. It’s Shabbat for the 21st century.”

Others, however, would argue for bringing work home as another approach to achieving a work-life balance. In The Secret Shame of the Working Mother, the Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin writes:


“Economist Claudia Goldin has made a career out of studying what she calls the ‘career cost of family.’ The industries that thrive and hold onto talented women are the ones that figure out how to minimize the cost of taking time off for your family. It’s not all that complicated. They take advantage of technologies to let parents work at home or be more efficient, they schedule shifts, they minimize face time, they let people do what [Facebook’s] Sheryl Sandberg says she does: go home at 5:30 and pick up again later after her kids are in bed.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s advice? A shift in the workplace culture. In an interview on “Fresh Air,” she told Terry Gross, "[We assume] that the worker who works longest is most committed as opposed to valuing time management and efficiency at getting things done over the length of time. And second, [we assume] that that time has to be spent at the office.” Slaughter recommends privileging time management over time spent, “to look at my employees not in terms of who logs the most hours in the office” but, she says, “at who gets the most work done in the shortest amount of time; the most, and highest-quality work, done in the shortest amount of time.”


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Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier. Follow Opinion L.A. on Twitter and Facebook.