'Time-peddling' trend is another symptom of Americans' determination to do it all

November 30, 1997|By Elise Armacost

ABOUT A year-and-a-half ago I began trading money for time.

The shirts I used to iron kept piling up in a basket, so I called the local pick-up laundry service. ''How much for press only?'' I asked. A dollar a shirt, came the reply. ''Done,'' I said. Now I leave the shirts on the porch on Monday; Thursday they come home starched and ready for my husband's waiting closet. This is a wonderful thing.

Yet, the other morning I found myself grousing, ''Darn, I forgot to put out the shirts,'' while rushing from bathroom mirror to breakfast table. A little voice told me to be embarrassed even as I said it. How hard is it, after all, to set a pile of clothes outside the front door? Or, for that matter, to toss them into a machine with some detergent?

Filling time

My point is not that we have become spoiled or lazy; Americans are inherently reverent toward work. The problem is the near-opposite of laziness: We fill time as fast as we make or buy it.

Surveys show that most Americans today feel rushed, as if there are not enough hours in the day to do what needs doing. According to a story in The Sun last week, my decision to buy ironing is part of a ''time-peddling'' trend whereby a growing number of overworked families are willing to pay for all kinds of ordinary chores -- all, ostensibly, for the luxury of a little spare time.

I am not about to deride this trend, even though University of Maryland sociology professor John Robinson notes that labor-saving devices and a shorter work week have actually given us more free time over the past 30 years, despite the rise of the two-income family. Mr. Robinson is co-author of ''Time for Life,'' a meticulous study of Americans' use of time. Based on ''time diaries'' kept by thousands of people, he found that the amount of free time increased from 33 to 36 hours a week for men and from 27 to 34 hours a week for women, a contradiction of the notion that time-wise, women suffer disproportionately from dual domestic and employment responsibilities.

Still, there is no question that family life is more hectic than it was a generation ago. This change is a function of something other than time. Our parents may have worked longer and harder than we do, but they were not constantly rushing around. This is partly because they were less obsessed with doing it all, partly because women typically attended to the full-time business of running their households. Not all of them were happy doing it, but stress levels definitely were lower when dinner was ready every evening, the house was in order, errands and appointments weren't crammed into the weekend and no one worried where the children would go after school.

A majority of American families now manage the chores of daily life on the fly. Who can argue with time-peddling, if paying for clean shirts and delivered groceries buys less harried families with a little free time to listen to each other?

The trouble is that bought time usually doesn't stay free for long. ''Free time is expanding,'' Mr. Robinson writes, ''but not as fast as people's sense of necessity.'' There are too many choices, too many demands.

We complain of feeling rushed, but do we really try to reserve the time we save through machines and hired help for puttering, reading novels or playing Candyland with the kids? Increasingly, a sense of guilt accompanies such truly leisurely pursuits. Subconsciously, at least, people take pride in being constantly occupied. That's partly why ''Busy'' and ''Tired'' have replaced ''Fine'' as the standard response to, ''How are you?'' It's why now, at holiday time, people behave as though they must run themselves ragged in order to celebrate properly.

A packed schedule

So we re-pack the schedule, and the service or tool that gave us the extra time becomes taken for granted, or even a nuisance in itself. The faster things get, the less patient we get. I drum my fingers on the desk during the few seconds it takes my computer to move from one task to another. I phone in a catalog order and think four minutes is a long time to wait for a sales representative.

The key to the more placid life we say we seek cannot be purchased. It is our state of mind. We need to learn to slow down, sit quietly, lower expectations and lose the compulsion to do and have everything.

We need to savor simple moments as they occur instead of letting them pass by while we worry about what has to be done next.

Elise Armacost is an editorial writer for The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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