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Why do we have so little time these days?

Every now and again, I read statements lamenting how little time we have these days, most recently in the editor’s introduction to Aurealis #125. These statements are usually made as a generally-accepted truth but I got to wondering where this belief actually comes from.

The BBC actually ran a whole radio series on the the phenomenon, including passing reference to actual studies of how busy people are, or feel they are. According to the presenter’s academic sources, the actual amount of work (including paid work and unpaid household chores) undertaken by people has been more or less constant for the past fifty years. But people feel more busy because they expect to be doing so much more than what they actually do, for reasons including perceptions that busyness equals value and that there is always more that one could be doing.

Of course it isn’t literally true that we have so little time these days; the Earth still turns at the same speed that it always has and (in developed countries) we actually live for twenty or thirty years longer than we used to. When the editor of Aurealis supposes that people aren’t reading so many novels due to a lack a time, he really means that people give higher priority to doing things other than reading novels. I actually read lots of novels, because I set aside time to read them while I’m riding public transport and when I’m relaxing at home—whereas I’m frequently a month or two behind in reading magazines like Aurealis because I only snatch an article or short story here and there.

I consciously decided to de-prioritise paid work in taking a part-time job. I probably do feel a little less busy than when I was when working full-time, in part because I can now (mostly) set my own deadlines and priorities instead of having them imposed by the requirements of semester or expectations that I be in the office for particular periods of the day. I do continue to fret a bit that there is always more I could be doing—like writing more blog entries or reading more books—and I can sometimes feel a bit guilty about relaxing.

The presenter of the BBC radio series makes the point that, once upon a time, having leisure to do what one wanted was a sign of status. Somehow we’ve come to see busyness as a measure of how valuable we are. Why this change occurred and what its positive and negative aspects might be are probably worthy of further investigation, but to do that I’ll need to allocate some time.

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