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Can’t Get No Satisfaction

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But the problems wrought by technological advancement go far beyond trespasses into our homes. They’ve done something to how we perceive time—and, by extension, work and leisure—itself. There’s a way New Yorkers often describe this, actually. They say they’re busy. It’s hard to find New Yorkers who don’t believe themselves to be really, really busy, whether they have six kids or none, and whether they’re trading bonds or driving cabs. “Busyness”—a homophone of business, which cannot be an accident—has become the defining sensation of city life. If busy meant “fulfilled,” or “engaged,” that’d be one thing, but it seems, in most cases, to mean “overloaded” or “frazzled.” In Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, James Gleick points out that doctors and sociologists even have a name for this harried sensation: “hurry sickness.”

The great paradox of efficiency is that the more we speed up, the more acute our frustrations when we’re forced to slow down. Is it not possible that these ambient frustrations function as chronic stressors, and—in some subtle but crucial way—contribute to feeling worn out? Americans, Gleick writes, spend an estimated 3 billion minutes a year waiting on hold with the software industry; they race to airports only to wait for hours; they start to jitter inside elevators if the doors take more than four seconds to close. (Elevator engineers even have a term for how long it takes—door dwell—before people start jamming their fingers on the door close button, which is usually a placebo, a function already disabled by litigation-conscious building managers.)

“Gridlocked and tarmacked are metonyms of our era,” Gleick writes. “To be gridlocked or tarmacked is to be stuck in place, our fastest engines idling all around us, as time passes and blood pressures rise.”

Though it’s not quite the same thing, I often feel gridlocked when answering my e-mail. My friends would probably be startled to learn this, because my e-mails ricochet back within seconds, as if attached to a rubber band. But it’s hard to escape the sensation, as I answer each and every one, that I’m being stopped at a tollbooth.

If one of the surest recipes for burnout, as Michael Leiter has said, is the sensation of inefficiency—particularly if we’re still expending energy and seeing little in return—then there may be something about the modern office that conspires to burn us out. In 2005, a psychiatrist at King’s College London did a study in which one group was asked to take an IQ test while doing nothing, and a second group to take an IQ test while distracted by e-mails and ringing telephones. The uninterrupted group did better by an average of ten points, which wasn’t much of a surprise. What was a surprise is that the e-mailers also did worse, by an average of six points, than a group in a similar study that had been tested while stoned.

That’s right. Stoned. Those people were literally burned out, and they did better.

“There is something about interruption that makes people especially unproductive,” says Suzanne Bianchi, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland and co-author of the new book Changing Rhythms of American Family Life. “And technology interrupts us all the time—e-mails, cell phones. It feeds into our sense of control”—another key factor in burning out, feeling a lack of control—“and highly educated workers all will talk as if they’re terribly overworked, how they feel as if there’s never enough time. Partly, we’re supposed to say it, but I think people also genuinely feel that way, even though they have the time. That’s what’s intrigued us. The subjective and the objective don’t line up.”

Indeed, that’s her colleagues’ most startling finding of all. Most Americans believe they work more today than they did 35 years ago. Yet according to the American Time Use Survey, an ambitious project that for 41 years has been asking thousands of participants to keep detailed time diaries, Americans now have five more hours of leisure per week (38) than they did in 1965. Certainly, there are academics who reject these numbers—in The Overworked American, published in 1992, the economist Juliet Schor calculated we were working nearly an extra month per year, setting off a rather sharp debate about her methodology—but even those who agree our leisure time is increasing will readily concede that Americans experience their leisure quite differently and therefore may feel as if they’re working more. For one thing, it’s non-contiguous leisure time, time meted out in discrete increments. Human beings have always resisted the fracturing of time. Gleick points out that Plautus cursed the sundial. Now, he says, we gain 90- second reprieves with our microwave ovens. But do we do anything meaningful in those 90 seconds? Or do they vanish in the same particle puff?


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