January 20, 2020

With all of our tech, why are we still so short on time?

In the technologically advanced first world, we somehow still haven’t reached this expected utopia when it applies to our mix of work and leisure. With all the time-saving resources at our fingertips, why do we still feel starved for time?

Three theories on time starvation

Writing for the Atlantic, Derek Thompson offers three theories of why Americans are finding themselves short on time. Unsurprisingly, they all relate to work and society has been here repeatedly throughout history:

  • Better technology = higher expectations: Inventions like automated washers and refrigerators meant better standards for cleanliness and food preservation, but meant more time re-invested in buying more clothes (larger loads) and more trips to the supermarket for fresh produce.
  • Class and status maintenance: our fear of downward social mobility through a loss of status, class and future income means we are constantly working to ensure we and, if we have or decide to have children, that they don’t face the same.
  • The powers that be, set the standards: the government sets policy, policy sets the workweek, bosses set the workload. All of these are carried out independently of technological improvement or stagnation.

Thompson also explains that underlining a similar discussion on the lack of time is the ongoing push and pull between Self-Helpers and Socialists (or put another way, individualists and collectivists). The former believes everyone has the ability to “solve their problems and can reduce their anxiety through new habits and values” while the latter holds that “all modern anxieties arise from structural inequalities that require structural solutions.”

Contentment needs to follow

For those who already enjoy a degree of financial stability but still find themselves feeling starved for time, there is at least one answer: contentment. We have to ask ourselves if we’re okay with what we have or if we’re okay to “do a little worse than the Joneses” if it means having more free time and the freedom to actually enjoy it.

Technology has both the power to make our lives easier but also to put us ahead in the race; how we use this power is up to us. For instance, if you found both habits and technologies that accomplish your main work in half of the time, what would you do with the remaining half saved? If you feel compelled to fill that half with a new task and then used the same means to halve that time, you’re left with some extra time yet again, albeit significantly less to allocate to leisure.

And what about our status? Are we comfortable with the social cost of no longer investing time and money in the same activities as our peers or worse, suggesting new ways of doing things together that might be seen as boring or dumb? If you feel your personal relationships wouldn’t survive downgrading the elaborate network of time-consuming image maintenance, this might also be able to explain those feelings of time starvation.

The Takeaway

Regardless of what causes the anxious sense of being without enough time, it’s important to realize that society has been here before through history with each major shift in culture or technology. To be fair, there will always be people who want more and will happily do more to get that.

But for those where the ‘want’ isn’t coming from a deep-seated conviction and more from of a more pervasive case of FOMO, it becomes what’s been called time famine. Without honestly addressing our own personal intents and actually pushing back against culture with our decisions, that famine risks starving us before we realize we’ve already had our fill.

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