Monday, February 6, 2012

How valuable is time?

I am not a patient shopper. My approach--totally opposite of that of most women--is to get the job over quickly. As a result of rushing, I make mistakes, as when this week I bought the wrong type of cheese, failing to see the "jalapeno" listed on the label, or bought green beans that my wife immediately saw, upon their arrival home, as long in the tooth, to use her quaint phrase. And so I had to make a return trip to the store and thus "waste" some time.

I talk and write about the importance of slowing down. I keep reminding myself of the power of the present moment and that the little, ordinary things I do around the house are meaningful, ways of being centered in the reality of the now. Yet in practice quite often, old habits of hurrying persist, perhaps because I live in a fast-paced world.

In a recent article, Elizabeth Dunn, a social psychologist, reports on some recent research into why we feel pressed for time. Why do people in affluent cities like Tokyo and Toronto walk faster than people in Jakarta and Nairobi? The reason seems to be that, as incomes grow in such cities, time seems increasingly scarce.

It would seem that the fast pace of life is related to an increase in working hours, but apparently this isn't the case: there is very little evidence, says Dunn, that people are working more and relaxing less than in earlier decades.

Rather, the old "time is money" correlation seems to be involved. When time is seen as worth more, as it becomes more valuable, we feel we have less of it. So, according to the researchers, those with more income report feeling more pressed for time. Much of the studies in this area deal with people's perception of the value of their time, even if they are not highly paid individuals.

Dunn mentions that several companies, in an effort to reduce stress and burnout, recommend that employees volunteer some of their time to good causes. Giving away our time to help others is a good way of reducing the impression that our time is incredibly valuable, so valuable that we must rush from one task to the next, bragging about our abilities to multi-task.

Dunn's brief article in Edge focuses on the relation of the way feelings of time pressure have risen in North America to increased incomes. But I wonder about people like me, whose retired income does not increase much, for whom making money is not important. Is my time more valuable because I know at some conscious or unconscious level that I am running out of it?

I enjoy giving my time to others, and I should do more volunteering. For people in my "senior" situation, the value of my time is not related to money at all but to saving my energy and spending what time I have each day doing enriching, fulfilling things, like reminding myself to slow down and savor the present moment.

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