Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Time Is Binding.

At a time when economic activities are supposedly falling at a rapid rate, even declining in some places, it comes as a surprise to me that people talk more and more about how busy they are. A simple argument would be that they are busy doing nothing, because the economic data does not show them producing much more of anything. Maybe people are running to stand still, but that is essentially the same thing.

“Oh, I can’t do that. I know it only takes 10 minutes but I don’t have them to spare,” is the sort of breathless plaint I hear so often. I just blink. I think I know what it is to be rushed. In the workplace for sure, people love to give deadlines--real or fictional--as a means of controlling activities: I know what you are up to for the next n hours. I know what it is to be rushed because I have not allowed enough time to do something: plane departs at 10; need to be at airport at 8; journey takes at least 1 hour; so I need to leave at 7, and it's now 7.15...Oh, s**t! I know what it is to have time taken away, and a sporting analogy is best: better players always seem to have more time, because they anticipate better, prepare better, and execute better; so when playing against a better player one always seems to have less time. So, this time thing can be constrictive.

I’m a lover of John Donne’s poetry, and adore especially “The Sun Rising”, whose opening stanza is:

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,

Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?

Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run ?

It's not a poem about nature, but about time in the sense that its natural rhythm can intrude, in this case upon lovers, and their time spent well during the night, must end as day break arrives. Time has run out for them, but they had enjoyed the ride, so to speak.

So, what is keeping so many people always on their toes? I’m not really sure. Living in a bucolic place like Barbados, where speediness is not something that one sees as evident in many, if any, activities, I can identify a lot of time lost because of traffic and road works, and the general inefficiency with which things are done. An American friend, who is staying at my house while I am on vacation, sent me a message last week about how he spent nearly two hours in line at the drivers' licensing department. After which time he asked to see the manager, having lost his temper by then. He questioned why there were no persons serving anyone for 45 minutes and told the manager that this was unacceptable and that his fellow Barbadians should not have to put up with this. Everyone cheered, apparently. Then, the line started to move, real fast. So, in Barbados, we can understand that the BPOs ('business prevention officer') can eat into our time.

Having spent the last few days in Washington DC, I did not notice any especially different pace to the way that life was being lived there than I did two years ago, when I last lived there. During the winter months people tend to move around faster to generate some heat or at least not let the cold take hold. People generally do not like the shorter days and want to cram more into what daylight exists, and that would make sense in a world where we did not have electricity to give light whenever we wanted it. But, overall, the pace of Washington seemed about the same. Even a trip to the shopping mall did not seem like a dip into a pool of frenzy. The few who were shopping seemed very relaxed in the pace at which they did it, belying an image portrayed in a current car ad.

Maybe the 'busyness' is a pure scheduling issue. I remember the days in the 1980s when the Filofax made new heights in social status as yuppies showed what it was to have a full diary, that way one seemed both important and busy. The extension of this was to have a personal digital assistant (PDA), a phone that also had features that helped to keep all of these activities in order: ‘to-do’ lists would pop up with their reminders and deadlines. “8am: Coffee with ...”; “9am: Call ...”; “9.30: Organize rodeo riders for birthday party”, and so on. So, when a call comes in and a friend says, “Can we have a coffee?” of course it’s going to be difficult because the day’s time slots have largely been filled. Forget spontaneity. “How about we try next month?” might come a supposedly helpful offer in reply. “No bother. I was thinking of committing suicide and wanted your advice. But given that you’re so busy, I’ll go ahead with the plan I have…” The phone line goes dead. New item for the calendar, "Funeral".

My watch shows me 12 hours and I know that the normal day has two sets of these. I tend to sleep between 6-8 hours, so that leaves me 16-18 hours for other things each day. I always have breakfast—though it seems that this is now a luxury for many, taken in the passage of some other activity—and it does not last long, say 30 minutes max. Later in the day I take lunch—again, a luxury it seems—and that can be between 30-60 minutes. I admit that my lunch is sometimes taken with an eye and ear on other things, but I do eat. So, meals gobble up about 1-2 hours of my day. That leaves 14-16 hours. Time wasters come into the picture—much less than they used to when I worked in an office—and now they are really pleasant with it, as they are usually building-related people; fixers, movers, painters, planters, etc.

My daughter comes from school and for about 2-4 hours I tend to be occupied with what she is up to, not always actively but in a sort of my eyes and ears are peeled for anything, especially when voices get raised and thumping sounds increase. So, where are we? That seems like about 10-12 hours left; I still seem to have half a day to waste.

I write, but I do that in and around all sorts of things, and maybe some 2-3 hours of the day have that as their activity. If I were to treat it as a discrete activity, that would put me down to around 7-9 hours left, enough for another sleep.

Maybe my life does not have that much going on, so it seems a bit ridiculous to me to talk about not having 10-15 minutes to do X or Y. I do not commute, so I do not waste say 1-2 hours in traffic. I do not go to meetings so that perhaps saves a few more hours: I must admit I was always wary of any meeting that went on much beyond 30 minutes, as I found that after that time most of the important stuff had been said and the rest of the time was waffle.

I'm not going to detail things any more, because I'm trying to deal with something in which I don't believe. This talk of no time is just utter hogwash. It may be that people cannot figure out the things to drop that are really not needed so end up like time equivalent of pack rats, having everything to do and no where to put it.

Is what is going on is not some variant of the 'Time bind', the concept introduced by sociologist, Arlie Hochschild (1997), when she published The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work, and dealt with the blurring distinction between work and home social environments? Hochschild found in her research that although every mother and nearly every father said "family comes first," few of these working parents questioned their long hours or took the company up on chances for "family friendly" policies like flextime working. Her conclusion is that the roles of home and work had reversed: work was offering stimulation, guidance, and a sense of belonging, while home had become the stressful place in which there was too much to do in too little time. For sure, I can see those who comment about time shortage that it's work time in an institution that is eating into other things. But, as I said before, working to produce what?

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