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The Relentless Demand For Time

Submitted by on October 26, 2010 – 6:16 am12 Comments

I have been in three countries and four cities within the last 6 days. Nearly every moment has been spoken for – whether preparing for meetings or attending meetings, in client dinners, waiting for taxis, planes or sitting in taxis and planes, packing, unpacking, shaving, flossing, brushing… waking up and beginning all over again.

The supply of our time remains fixed, so when demand soars you are left with but two options; cut back on the demands or reduce wasted time anywhere you can find it. If you opt for the latter – as I have – then your life becomes centered on a kind of ruthless efficiency; reducing any friction that wastes time or saps energy. You fly business class, you outsource any routine that you can – expense reports, travel arrangements… eating out instead of cooking, a single line email response instead of a more thoughtful, courteous one.

This approach works and, by and large, is the one taken by everyone I know who is in similar circumstances. And yet, for me, there are enormous long-term consequences of such a reordering of one’s relationship to time.

The pace of work becomes consuming, often to the exception of family, friends and the good things at hand. Present living is sacrificed for an ill-defined future (that’s the only kind of future there is). Paradoxically, the more money you make the more pressure there is on your time and the more you generally need to reduce friction – which in turn costs money. Thus you can find yourself in a strange loop where you value and seek more of the very things that are both cause and consequence of this way of life.

What’s more, it makes you eminently susceptible to annoyance – the taxi driver who doesn’t yet know the city, the coworker who replies-all to a staff email just to say “LOL” is wasting your time (as are all staff emails by the way!) and on and on.   Your inbox moves from discreet, incoming messages to be processed, to a river flowing past that you selectively address based on a hierarchy of personal importance.

Modern life in the way I am describing it is probably best summarized by this relentless demand on our attention. How we manage that demand is not just a mark of our character – it marks our character. Like being deprived of oxygen, I am not sure how long anyone can live in such an environment before these side-effects become more or less permanent.     I have observed myself with some alarm over the past weeks as I have internalized these external pressures with less grace than I would like.

Time will tell how I continue to manage.

This was written last month during a particularly hectic few weeks. I held off posting it until now.   I am feeling a bit better now but still thought the general observations were worth sharing.


  • Joshua-Michéle says:

    Hastings! I am flattered that you made the time.

  • Hastings says:

    I find it apropos that I first read your post on my BlackBerry while in the bathroom at the NY Hilton at a conference working unbelievably long days but had no time to comment. Also apropos that I am finally commenting while flying home and trying to deal with 138 unread e-mails. I take it you won't be offended if I just say, “nice post.” Sorry; gotta go. 😉

  • joshuamross says:

    Hastings – I am just flattered that you made the time for it. Safe travels.

  • Alex Bowles says:

    People who do this and survive are ruthless about something else; personal vacations. At least once per year, take a week for yourself, disconnect completely, and just let your head clear. Set your inbox to 'reject' with a auto-respond note saying that not only will you not be checking messages, you'll be deleting the backlog without looking at it upon you return. If the subject still matters then, people can write back then.

    Your colleagues, boss, wife, kids, and even friends may object to how 'selfish' you're being, but that's before you go. Once you're back, the'll notice how much calmer and focused you've become. More importantly, they'll see you've got a lot more clarity about the future, and will find that you're considering them in all sorts of kind and thoughtful ways that just weren't part of the picture when you were in The Rush. They – like you – will enjoy serious dividends.

    Not so paradoxically, the more people depend on you, the more time you need for yourself. This probably tops out at one month per year – two weeks alone, and two weeks with family. And of course, every seventh year should be set aside for sabbatical. This is less important if you're fundamentally extroverted, but if you're at all introverted, it's critical, since it's the source of the value that introverts are uniquely suited to create.

  • Wilbur2 says:

    tl;dr, but like topic

  • joshuamross says:

    I thought this might be spam – but the opted for assuming these are acronyms best left unsaid?

  • joshuamross says:

    Alex -Thanks for the insightful comment. I completely agree. I have been pretty rigorous about vacations and in the US. that made me somewhat exceptional. I am working in Europe right now and this seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

  • David Burk says:

    I challenge you to push back at the relentless corporate demands to make the relentlessness come only in spurts and to be able to say to yourself that you took care of yourself and your family. That is the only long term value, as what you do at work, as you know, is destined for oblivion.

    • If you worked 24 hours a day, you wouldn’t be able to do all the work asked of you.
    • Getting annoyed and irritable is the first sign that you need a vacation, and *never* check vm or em on vacation.
    • Sacrifice the present for the future only in terms of retirement savings.

    Time will tell how you continue to manage the demands. In the den of the lion, grace and calm under pressure is what earns respect. In the big scheme of things, visit a cemetery. Most headstones say this: “(Adored) friend, husband, uncle, brother. Always in our hearts.”

  • joshuamross says:

    Amen DB. I have always taken longer vacations than my colleagues – but a vacation is just that – a vacation. It feels to me like the loss of control day to day – for that is how we spend the majority of our life – is what is at stake. I like the long view that you take at the end — how will we be remembered. Certainly not for the stellar PowerPoint presentation on how to restructure the organization in the face of technological disruption…. Some equivalent of the slow food movement for work is what seems to be required no?

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