Where does the time go?

Published in the March/April 1998 issue of On Wisconsin Magazine, written by Jeff Iseminger

Look up the definition of leisure, and you’ll see meanings that spin around the axis of free: free of work, free of worry, free of haste, free of pressure. Its Latin root, licere, means “to be permitted.” You are permitted to jump from the Good Ship Toil for a time and row your way out to a coral-reefed island of leisure, beribboned with shimmering sand and wrapped in breeze-rustled palms.

Or so the theory goes. But for many Americans, leisure is just another word for work, scheduled to the hilt and managed to a T. This kind of leisure is a master, not a servant, and can leave its earnest practitioners supine and spent. For others, leisure is what work leaves on the plate, and work seems to be ravenous. And for yet others, leisure is usurped not by work, but by the incessant scampering about called Errands.

However you and leisure get along, it’s worth thinking about. Leisure, after all, can be your anchor in the stormy tempests of business and busyness. Nestled in that eye of the hurricane, leisure provides a place where you can “front only the essential facts of life,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, who wanted to “see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

So let’s explore leisure not as mere abstraction, but as practice. Think about what you do with your free-of-work time. It’s up to you to puzzle out how this thing called leisure goes together and whether it’s working to your liking. Even the experts in academe don’t agree on the answer to a very basic question: Do Americans have less leisure time today than in the past, as many people think?

Absolutely, says Juliet Schor of Harvard. Absolutely not, say John Robinson of the University of Maryland and Geoffrey Godbey of Pennsylvania State University. But it may be instructive to look briefly at both sides, not to judge their merits, but to flush out some phenomena of leisure that may tie in to your own life.

Schor, in her book, The Overworked American, says that Americans are putting in more hours at work than ever before. White-collar overwork in corporations has become epidemic due to retrenchment, economic competition, and management techniques that ratchet up the pressure to produce more. Blue-collar hours also have increased due in part to workers’ never-ending spiral of work-and-spend. Then there’s the mushrooming presence of women in the workplace; many of them get little help at home, allowing housework to chew up chunks of evenings and weekends.

Schor also says that paid time off in America has shrunk in recent years – the opposite of the common European practice of long vacations and generous holiday time. And commuting takes more time as people live farther and farther from their jobs. The past forty years, she insists, “have brought us nothing in the way of leisure time and a saner pace of life.”

Not so, say Robinson and Godbey in their book, Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time. After analyzing detailed time diaries that Americans of all ages have kept since 1965, the authors found that we have gained nearly an hour of free time every day. They cite two little-noted trends countering the well-known increase in work hours:

  • Fewer Americans are married today than a generation ago, and fewer still are parents, thereby reducing family- and child-centered duties.
  • Americans are retiring at earlier ages or reducing the hours they work, voluntarily or otherwise.

And where has this free time gone? Robinson and Godbey looked at the time diaries and found an answer: television. Virtually all the free time gained over the last thirty years has been sucked up by sitting down – in front of the tube. They calculate that TV now consumes more than forty percent of Americans’ free time.

The researchers also found that we routinely overestimate the time we spend at work and dramatically underestimate our free time. According to their study, Americans figure that they have about eighteen hours of free time a week. Yet their time diaries show that they have more than twice that amount.

But let’s take a look at all this measurement and labeling of time. Punching pigeonholes in time and calling them “leisure” and “work” – even the very notion of segmented time – is a new phenomenon. Until the industrial revolution, life was not a grab bag of time-use slots. It was a fusion of hunting, gathering, eating, loving, caring for kids, and other things that defy the dichotomy of leisure and work. Even agrarian culture, itself a fairly fresh wrinkle in human culture, is based on seasons, not clocks.

Time-use researchers, however, boldly plunge ahead and brand activities as leisure or work. For you, it may not be so simple. Consider this frenzied after-school choreography. You drop off your son at soccer practice and move quickly on to the skating rink to pick up your daughter and then rush home to start dinner and, well, you may know the routine. That, says UW-Madison’s Robert Ray, is a time when you might think, “I’m not working, but I’m working.”

Ray, a professor of forest ecology and management, studies and teaches both recreation administration and psychology. He suggests that leisure is a more protean concept than the procrustean definitions that time researchers would imply. “Instead of accepting someone’s labels,” he says, “you can look at leisure as the perception of freedom.” That’s your perception, not someone else’s.

Using freedom as a touchstone, you can avoid the trap of assuming that leisure is good and work is bad. After all, for you work may be liberating, while leisure is suffocating. But if something makes you feel free, whatever you call it, you may gain succor for your soul.

Discerning the qualities of truly free time lifts another set of blinders from your eyes – the assumption that what counts is what’s countable: the hours of time you have. “It’s not just the amount of time you have – it’s how you spend it,” says Ray.

He suggests asking some questions: What do I like to do? Do I actually do those things? If not, how do I get to do them?

The things you do and like to do may prove resistant to replication, however. One year your summer vacation may be a smashing success. The beach is uncrowded, the weather is golden, the kids are great. But by the next year the beach has been discovered by the unwashed masses, the weather turns a cold shade of gray, and the kids decide that alienation will be the dominant theme of their puberty.

“All of you are a year older, including the car, so it may be hard to repeat the original success,” says Ray. Leisure is a dynamic phenomenon, so be ready to find joy whenever it wells up – but don’t expect it to be an Old Faithful.

Time can also change your evaluation of a leisure activity. What originally was a boot-sucking, spirit-draining, mosquito-slapping slog along the edge of a marsh can, in miraculous retrospect, turn into a character-building trek.

Thinking about leisure leads you into thinking about life – your life. Look at it with your night vision, as if you’re gazing at the stars and letting your peripheral vision tease out of the skies the constellations of freedom that leisure can form.

As the poet Matthew Arnold once wrote: “What shelter to grow ripe is ours? What leisure to grow wise?”