People are constantly wishing for more hours in a day (myself included). But it recently occurred to me that we address the issue of time, as we do countless other human problems, from an entirely too human-centric point of view. Why are wishing to change the laws of the universe, which is utterly impossible, rather than altering our flexible mortal schedules to fit the laws of time? Rather than wishing time would change to suit our needs, maybe we shouldn’t try to fit so many things into a single 24 hour period. Maybe we need to change the way we allocate our time, since we hold it so precious that we beg for more. Maybe we need to adjust how we think about the finite number of hours we’re given if the current model just doesn’t stand up.
I don’t mean to say that we should get rid of our hobbies or devote less time to the things that fill our lives with joy and levity. While plenty of people wish for more time in the hopes of squeezing an increasing number of these delightful pursuits in, many others want a few extra hours so as to mark more tasks off their ever growing to-do lists. Work, household chores, commuting, errands – I would argue that these are the things consuming far too many of our precious 24 hours each day. The effort of making a living should not interfere with our ability to lead a meaningful, enjoyable life. Our relationships, diversions, and experiences should not be cumbersome burdens to shoulder after putting in our eight hours, secondary to our working lives.
Putting in a typical 9 to 5 saps up more than just those requisite eight hours each day. For many people, nine, ten, or even eleven hours a day are consumed with the job itself, in addition to time spent commuting and preparing ourselves for work. And what is lost when we spend countless hours in preparation for, at, or recovering from a day on the job? Our health, wellbeing, happiness, relationships. We run ourselves ragged from work and the effort of getting to and from it, that we have little time to ensure we are actually fit to work, mentally, physically, emotionally, and socially.
This has been ringing far too true for me lately. The prospect of a weeknight dinner date with friends consistently takes on overwhelming proportions when 4:30, my daily quitting time, draws near. I’m not only overcome with exhaustion at the thought of driving home, gussying myself up, and heading back out again, but I also find myself entirely incapable of calculating how the benefit of seeing my closest friends could outweigh the cost of getting to them. Sure, I trudge home through traffic, change into my post-work outfit, get in the “How was your day” conversation with my husband, battle traffic to a restaurant, and ultimately enjoy myself. But then I head back home to find that my night has been completely wiled away, with a mountain of household tasks awaiting me upon my return and no time for restoration or relaxation.
Every day certainly does not follow this pattern, and maybe I need to lighten up on myself when it comes to keeping a clean household. But I find myself exhausted, sleep-deprived, and backed up on chores when I spend even a mere two nights of the week outside of my house. I value my alone time more than most, but it’s not just my me-time that’s being sacrificed here, it’s catching up with old friends time, family time, cleaning house time, blogging time, volunteering time, dog walking time.
Life is not nearly as long as we desire and there are far too many things to see and experience in the ephemeral lifetimes we’re granted. I don’t expect to get everything I want in this life. My every whim should not and will not be satisfied; I will never be able to see all the movies on my wish list, to sample all the restaurants whose menus I salivate over, to read all the books I pine after in the library, or to travel to every destination I’ve dreamed of visiting. But what is realistic, practical, and achievable is to take a more modest approach to the work of our lives. By glorifying career paths, magazine-perfect homes, and the elusive American dream, we have denied ourselves the opportunity to languidly delight in the time we’re given. If we allow ourselves the freedom to work less and play more, we just might take a healthy indulgence in our lives.
I count myself extremely fortunate to have stable employment, to work a fulltime job, to receive passable benefits. I consider myself one of the lucky ones – I only need to work one job to squeeze by in this world, I don’t have to worry about supporting a family beyond my husband, my dog, my cat, and myself. Even though I have less free time and more stress than I would prefer, I still exercise more than a modicum of control over my own circumstances and my ability to enjoy and entertain myself outside of work.
But I represent a small minority. The vast number of people who are forced to work multiple jobs in an effort to simply make ends meet have it much worse than myself and probably have more responsibilities than me as well, from kids to mortgages to medical bills and student loans. By allowing busyness to be an everyday staple of our days, by regarding our careers as the most important aspect of our lives, we not only grow disconnected from ourselves and others but also fail to realize the toll this mindset takes on those less fortunate than us. If it becomes so common for people to put in upwards of eight hours on the job each day, we’re also prolonging the time on the clock expected of low-wage workers, mothers, fathers, volunteers. If and when overworking becomes the norm, families will suffer, largely in the form of absent parents putting in long hours on the job and people struggling to balance their 40 plus hour work weeks with children and other familial obligations.
What is it all for in the end? I distinctly remember a conversation my older sister and I had with our parents during my final year of college. My dad explained that he and my mother made a conscious decision to model themselves after the traditional male-breadwinner, female-housewife blueprint of American family life so as to ensure the best lives for myself and my two sisters. Their unfaltering logic was that my father would work on his career, no matter the sacrifices, in order to provide for the rest of the family. Those sacrifices included but were not limited to lots of travel during our childhood and long hours logged on a daily basis. My relationship with my father was largely nonexistent until I reached young adulthood, when he made certain lifestyle changes that brought us closer, and I found myself better able to relate to and respect the person he was. But as his young daughter, I failed to grasp the intentions behind his career choice and saw only a father to whom I never felt close enough. But is it fair and realistic, let alone worthwhile, for people to make such sacrifices in order to make a living? If working so tirelessly just to support the people we love requires that we spend so little time with them, what is the value of working to support them at all?