June 28-July 4

Have a look at the best of the week, including posts about romantic habits, the death penalty, second opinions, and more.

Time's Tyranny

What Does Efficiency Cost?

Hard work and efficiency get things done — no argument there. Professors like me, for example, need a detailed calendar and focused attention to achieve a high output of teaching, writing, and service to our institutions. Each of these activities serves worthy goals and multiple people, including students, colleagues, readers, and possibly wider communities as well (or so we hope!). But it’s worth considering: In the press of obeying the iCal, the alarm, the deadlines, — and carrying the burden of stress involved — what gets missed?

The question is hardly unique to professors. Despite current levels of hard work, millions of workers are being asked to add overtime. In these cases, time tyranny may not serve worthy goals. It may even further someone’s unworthy goals, depending on the work involved. Other millions, the low-wage workers, have to work overtime simply to keep their families fed. Their time crunch has a worthy goal, but an unjust situation compels neglect of other aspects of life—including time with the family they are feeding. Anyone who has seen a physician recently is likely to be aware of doctors’ professional pressures, and of what is lost: the demand for high patient load leaves little time for deep questioning or conversation, and the loss is too often inadequate or depersonalized care.

What’s at risk, then, when output is our goal and “wasted” time the enemy? A prime risk is inattention—and possibly serious consequences. Single-mindedness takes us straight to completing a task, but it’s a narrow road. It passes by our own insights and imaginings — how many creative ideas never get thought? And it refuses detours or slowdowns to hear someone’s distress or requests. In a famous study of helping behavior, Darley and Batson found that only 10 percent of people in a hurry stopped to help a person in distress (acting, for the study), compared to nearly 2/3s of unhurried people. Which students, patients, children, friends, and colleagues — not to mention those less close to us — go unheard?

Time pressure also squeezes our chances to build relationships. No time for lunch with colleagues or friends, no time to prolong the business-first conversation with your student, patient, or colleague, no going “out of your way” to talk to your neighbor, or to someone new. Avoid the phone at all costs — email or text instead. Quickly.

Sacrificed, too, is openness to novelty more generally. Observing or creating a new way to do things — or a new thing to do — takes time. It takes even more time to figure out how to do that experimental thing. Even if the change is a clear advance, time pressure often steers us from it.

Finally, many people also forgo mental and physical health in the name of productivity, temporarily relieving stress in ways that backfire: alcohol or drugs to relax, television rather than exercise.

Being beholden to the clock, then, puts our own well being at risk, and it often erodes our contributions to others. That last is an ethical concern — if we’re too busy to reach out to help or to build community or friendships, we’re probably too busy. Some people, especially the poor, have no choice. That’s a justice issue that needs addressing. Those of us who have some degree of choice need to thoughtfully consider a balance — what good does our efficiency and time management bring to us and to others? What are we evading and avoiding? And at what cost do we obey time’s tyranny?