Who's Got Time for This?
Regular readers of Everyday Sociology know that I’m the new kid on the block. And I must say I’m pretty surprised to find myself in this position. It’s not that I don’t love sociology (which I do) and it’s not that I don’t enjoy writing about it (which I also do) it’s that I could never figure out how people had the time to read blogs, much less write them. I have enough trouble juggling my job-related tasks (preparing for classes, grading papers, attending committee meetings, working on my research) with my personal tasks (walking the dog, preparing meals, cleaning the house, exercising, following current events). And I know I’m not alone.
According to a Harris Poll, we now have ten less hours of leisure time per week than we did in 1973. If that’s too far back for your memory consider this: In 2007 we averaged 20 hours of leisure per week. But in 2008, the average hours of leisure per week dropped to 16. Four hours may not seem like a big deal until you think of all the things you could do in four hours: go see two movies (some people can barely manage one night out at the movies); read nearly an entire book (the average person reads just four books in the whole year despite this being the most popular leisure-time activity); or work out four times a week for an hour each time (imagine what great shape we’d all be in).
Now like most statistics, these figures should be taken with some degree of informed skepticism. But what’s less important than the actual numbers are peoples’ perceptions. Clearly, people feel like they have less leisure time. And as sociologist W.I. Thomas pointed out in what is known as the Thomas Theorum: “If people define situations as real they are real in their consequences.”
In other words, if you feel you have less free time (regardless of whether you do) then you will feel very real effects of this time drain. You will feel rushed, stressed out, tired, flustered, late, and distracted. And if you’ve never felt these ways consider yourself lucky: More than three quarters (78%) of the people in the United States feel as if they are rushed some or all of the time:
But why do we feel this way? According to the Harris Poll cited above, we are not really working any more hours per week than we did in the past. In fact, there even seems to be somewhat of a slight downward trend from a high of 51 hours-worked per week in 1997 to 46 hours-worked per week in 2008. So what might explain this pervasive feeling of having less free time?
The researchers at the Harris Poll suggest that we are spending more time on our computers and personal devices: texting, searching the Internet, checking e-mail, updating your Facebook status, posting on Twitter, etc. The confusion arises when we try to make sense of these activities. Are they work or leisure? If during your shift at work you occasionally text your friends, watch a YouTube video, read an on-line news story, and maybe even shop for a new pair of shoes, do you count all of that as part of your leisure time or work time?
What I find most interesting sociologically about all of this is the fact that being constantly busy seems to have become the normative state of existence. Not only do we feel like we have less leisure time but we have trouble dealing with down time when we actually find a few free minutes—much less an hour or two. Why is it that when we are having a slow day at work we can’t just chill out for a few moments instead of feeling like we must find things to do? Why is it that when we are walking from one place to another—a time that we might use to (literally) catch our breath and take in the environment—we feel the need to talk or text on our cell phones?
We clearly live in a fast-paced, speed-driven culture where we are all expected to be competent multi-taskers (a word that was not even used regularly until quite recently). Whether we really do have fewer leisure hours in a week or we just perceive that we do, there is no denying our preoccupation with what author Carl Honoré has termed the cult of speed. Interestingly, Honoré came to the epiphany that he had been swallowed up by the cult of speed when he found himself reading his son one-minute bedtime stories so that he could get more work done.
If you find yourself often rushing and rarely relaxing, often feeling tense and rarely feeling tranquil, or often multi-tasking and rarely mono-tasking, then you should consider joining the slow movement. There are slow food groups, slow city groups, slow travel groups, and even a manifesto for slow communication. But you don’t even have to join a group. You can start right now. Try this simple exercise that I often have students do in my Introduction to Sociology class called the Slow Walk . . . that is, if you can find the time for it.