Sunday, December 30, 2007
My wife is constantly reminding me of things. About what night she goes to her Pilates class, so I don’t worry if I try to call and she doesn’t pick up. Or about the family reunion with relatives on her side I’ve mostly never met that’s in three months, like I need to stop now and get dressed. I act annoyed when she does it, when she reminds, but the fact is, if she didn’t, I wouldn’t remember.
There are notes everywhere, “Do Not Eat,” for example, on every tasty item in the refrigerator. Why not save a tree and just label the things I can eat? When I do the dishes, I can’t see the woods out back because of the “stickies” on the window panes over the sink. Even the toiletries in my medicine cabinet and in our bathroom closet have homemade inventory control labels on them for me to remind her to buy more when I use the last one we have in stock. Ingenious, certainly, although more than a bit annoying, but then it’s the persistent verbal reminders that really drive me crazy. How many times can she remind me not to lock the inside garage door behind her which I think I did once, four years ago? My wife – the love of my life, no kidding – is a human Post-It.
It’s a sign of the times. Whether we use Post-Its, PDAs, Day-Timers, or calendars on our personal computers, we’ve become a people who can’t keep track of our lives without help. More to the point, we’ve got more to do than we can possibly get done. More e-mail and voice mail than we can answer. More paperwork at the office and at home than we can do. Is it my imagination, or are our households becoming small, micro-businesses requiring more and more time to run? Don’t believe me? Try arguing a doctor’s bill with your medical insurance company. No wonder Internet shopping is becoming so popular. Who has time to go anywhere? And the more time you spend on-line at work, the less you get done there, the longer the hours you work, and the more you need to shop on-line. What a mess.
When was the last time you went to bed having accomplished everything that came in that day for you to do – not to mention what was left over from the day before? When was the last time you could honestly say to yourself, “Finally, I’m all caught up.”? As far back as you can remember, have you ever taken a day off, especially in the middle of the week, without the feeling that you were two days behind when you went back to work? For that matter, when was the last time you took a day off and didn’t use at least part of it to catch up on personal business? When was the last time you actually took a day off, a worry-free, no chores, no e-mail, no calls, honest to goodness break? …I thought so. Me neither.
Let’s do the math together. The day is still 24 hours long. Scientists who study these things tell us that Americans are getting too little sleep, less sleep now than the generations before us. We have, in other words, actually increased the amount of awake time we have do stuff – and yet we’re still running behind. The simple conclusion is that something has happened to give us more to do than our parents. A lot more. What could that be? What’s different about these times, than those times?
Well, for one thing, more of us live in large, sprawling metropolitan areas nowadays than we did a generation or two or three ago. It takes more time to get places than it used to. I live in the suburbs between Baltimore and Washington. The other day, my wife grabs her coat on her way out the door to the garage. (I stand up to lock the door behind her.) “I’m just running up to the Giant,” she tells me at such speed the tone of her voice has a Doppler Effect. “Back in 5 minutes, tops.” It was only a figure of speech. (For those of you from someplace else, “Giant” is chain of grocery stores around here, and the one in our village center. It’s maybe a quarter of mile from our house.) In fact, door to door it’s 10 or more minutes just getting there. It takes three or four minutes getting in the car, out of the garage, assuming she takes the time to put the door up first, and on her way up the street.
Get there, find what she needs – assuming they’re not out of it so she has to go to another grocery store – wait while the person in front of her in the self-checkout line bags his groceries that have piled up and over the end of the conveyor belt, check out, get to the car, return the grocery cart (rather than roll it into another car or leave it to take up a space of its own), drive back and get in the house. Five minutes, even figuratively speaking? I don’t think so. When I was little kid growing up in Annapolis, my mother would take me with her when she did her once a week shopping at the A&P. She in her house dress, me in charge of reaching up to push the cart as best I could. It was a job I took very seriously. It was a very different time, with a slower, less pressured pace.
It didn’t take as long for most of our parents to get to work, or to run out and grab a quick lunch. There were fewer people, and less time wasted waiting in traffic or in line. And there were fewer two income households, which meant that many women were working at home, taking care of that component of their personal or family business their daughters and granddaughters now have to do in addition to a full day on the job somewhere else. That’s all part of it, but I don’t think that’s all there is to it.
I think there may also be negative consequences, a counter-productivity from the very technology we’ve created to save ourselves time. I wonder if it actually saves time, or just emboldens us to take on more work, creating the illusion that we can do more in the same amount of time, which turns out not to be true. It’s gotten to the point that I’m spending a significant amount of my time just managing my schedule, time I’d prefer to be using to actually do the things I’m scheduling.
It takes me more time, for example, to go through my inbox than it does to respond to the few e-mail in there that are really important. Periodically, of course, I force myself to respond to the e-mail I get as it comes in, rather than letting it pile up like paper mail used to in the in-basket I no longer have on the corner my desk. So what happens? What happens is that, while I’m responding to all these e-mail and taking calls on my cell phone rather than letting them roll into voice mail, I’m not getting anything else done – or what I am getting done, I’m not doing as well as I could. I’ve got less paper to deal with, sure, but way more information.
And it’s not just the volume of it all, it’s also the way it pokes at us, disrupting our concentration. In a way, it reminds me of when my children were little and would keep interrupting me when I’d be trying to work at home – except that I really like my kids, still do, and felt that talking to them, and seeing the ideas flash in their eyes, were the highlights of my day. E-mail and my cell phone are a different story. New technology aside, it still takes time, uninterrupted thinking, to figure out complicated things and to be creative.
Some of us, I’m not one of them but I get it, like to have music playing in the background while they work. Personally, I prefer the sound of things happening, the honk, honk, beep, beep of the city, so to speak, outside my window, the noise of stuff going on in and around my office and home. But that’s all at a distance. How much thinking can anyone wearing earphones really do with his favorite group live on stage in the middle of his head? As a patient, you might not mind your doctor having music playing in the operating room, but how would feel about him listening to his iPod with your life hanging in the balance? Too dramatic? Ever turn on your car radio or talk on the cell phone on your way to or from work, arrive safely, but without being able to remember the trip? It’s all too distracting, too up close and invasive.
No question about it, we’re suffering from over-communication, from too much information coming at us from too many sources. Did you know that my new cell phone holds 500 contacts? Heaven forbid any significant number of them would want to call me. I only know 18 people, 18 people I’d want to talk to more than think about something else, or actually pay attention to what I’m doing – 19 before my cat, Scooter, died. (I think I need to get another cat, but there’s no replacing “The Scoot.”) The other 482 can wait until I get to my office, or send me an e-mail.
I’m not sure, but I think our new technology may have taken a wrong turn, or maybe we need to learn to relate to it differently. Note to wife: “Honey, would you please remind me to… To, uh… Sorry, I’ll think of it in minute. I had it before I stopped to write that last paragraph. …Honey? Where are you?!” Nuts, there’s never a Post-It around when you need one.