I don’t know what time it is, and I don’t care.
Okay, lol, that’s totally not true. It’s afternoon, I’m sure of it, and if I just glance at the clock on my laptop…ok, it’s 2:22 pm. But what I’m really trying to say is that I’m in the middle of a 10-day vacation from work, which means I temporarily have the amazing gift of not having to think about what time it is.
My current job, which I’ve been at for about five months, is all about The Clock. Now, I’ve had plenty of clock-watching, card-punching, paid-by-the-hour jobs in the past, but my current job takes time-based work to a whole new level. Not only am I paid by the hour, but I’m also required to maintain a very specific (and very high) level of productivity while I’m on the clock, and if I don’t meet this productivity level I start getting in trouble pretty quickly. My company doesn’t offer an easy way for me to track my productivity while I’m working, so I do a lot of arithmetic on a piece of paper over the course of the day, adding and subtracting and dividing minutes, to make sure I’m on track and to determine how much time I have left to see Patient A and Patient B and Patient Z before the clock runs out, and also do I have time to go to the bathroom or not. It’s frankly exhausting. Some days I feel like I spend as much energy worrying about The Clock as I spend focusing on my actual work. (And if you’re thinking that doing productivity arithmetic on a piece of paper also takes time, skewing my calculations and leaving less time left over for everything else, you would be correct.)
The other notable thing about my job is that the workload can vary greatly from day to day – something I’ve never experienced before in an hourly job. Some days I might have five hours’ worth of work and other days I might have ten or eleven hours’ worth, and either way I’m expected to do my work quickly and then immediately punch out. And since it’s hourly work, I get paid accordingly: if I only have five hours of work, I get to go home early (yay), but I also only get paid for five hours (boooooooo).
I’ve noticed that this whole situation has been reshaping my view of time in a strange way. Specifically, I’ve become fixated on time/money trade-offs, constantly thinking about how an extra hour of work earns me an extra $X, whereas an extra hour of freedom costs me the same amount. When I clock out and leave work, I find myself going through a series of thought experiments in which I pretend to barter with the gods of money and time: If I could stay another hour to earn another $X, would I? Would I stay two more hours to earn $2X? How about eight more hours to earn $8X (plus overtime)? Or, two hours into an eight-hour day I’ll think to myself, Would I pay $X to leave an hour early today? Would I pay $3X to go home after lunch? $6X to go home right now?
I think about jobs I’ve had in the past that were salaried (or stipended, if that’s a word), and I realize what a different perspective I had about work in those situations. When I was a teacher, for example, I spent hours and hours lesson-planning in the evenings, not because I would get paid more for doing so but because I took pride in the work and I wanted to do the very best job I could do. When I was a PhD student I worked on experiments and papers and proposals and presentations until I felt they were done, until I felt they were good, and I was paid the standard (read: low) grad student stipend regardless of time spent. My focus was almost always on the work and almost never on The Clock, and the money actually felt somewhat disconnected from the work – I would spend my time working on projects because I wanted to and then, oh hey, a direct deposit would randomly appear in my checking account. I realize this isn’t always the case with salaried jobs, and also that some salaried positions can take advantage of employees by forcing or manipulating them into working long hours for unfairly low pay. But I also know from experience that in the best of circumstances, salaried jobs have the potential to set you free from The Clock to some extent.
At my current productivity-focused job, work isn’t really about ideas or projects or doing good work; it’s about getting paid for my time, goddamn it! I’ve even started to notice this mindset spilling over into other parts of my life too, in odd and irrational ways. Sometimes I’ll find myself feeling annoyed that no one is compensating me for the time I spend sitting on the bus or the time I spend doing laundry or going to CVS or taking the garbage out.
Maybe it’s not just about having an hourly job though. Maybe my perception of time has changed in other ways too. When I was in elementary and middle school in the late 80 and early 90s, time felt abundant. I’ve seen a boatload of articles lately about what it means to be an Xennial – to be part of the “micro-generation” wedged between Generation X and Millennials. I’m an Xennial, and so are you, perhaps, if you were born between roughly 1977 and 1983. The unique thing about being an Xennial is that we were the last ones to get through our childhoods before the Internet appeared and swept everything up in a tornado of information. As Xennials, we get our facts from Wikipedia and our directions from the GPS, but we also remember how to use encyclopedias and paper maps. Most of us use apps on an hourly basis, but we also remember how to use a floppy disk and how to ford the river and keep our oxen alive (well, sometimes). And most importantly, we remember what it was like when there was nothing to scroll through. When free time was just…empty, until you filled it with something real.
I have free time now too, but I tend to spend it completing tasks. I plan my blocks of free time in advance: this block is for doing laundry and finishing the book I’m reading, that block is for answering emails and organizing my to-do list, that other block is for listening to a podcast while walking to the grocery store to buy food so I can pack my lunches for the week. Each activity is selected for a reason: to foster social connections, to educate myself, to be more organized, to maintain my health. I have a queue of podcasts I want to listen to in my free time, a list of books I want to get through, a list of blogs and articles to read, a list of pre-approved movies and TV shows I want to watch (during specific pre-approved “entertainment/relaxation” blocks of time, of course). Every task has a purpose. I’m either extremely responsible or completely insane.
It’s hard to account for the difference. Do I spend my free time being “productive” because being an adult means keeping myself fed and clothed and healthy and informed? Or is it because I’m an Xennial who had a slow, mostly analog childhood but now lives as an adult in a digital world spinning at breakneck speed?
I don’t know the answer to this, but I do know that I’d like to get back to a place where I could think about my time as more than simply an opportunity to make money or to be productive or to check things off a list. I’d like to feel okay – or even positive – about being a little unproductive. I know I do this sometimes, but I’d like to do it more. And I’d especially like to be able to go to work because I want to, not because work is a way for me to trade my minutes for dollars.
Maybe this is too much to ask. But I don’t care. Time isn’t money. It’s time. And I don’t want to cash it all in.
Any other Xennials out there (or Millennials, or Gen Xers, or anyone else) who want to weigh in on where all the time went? Any other musings on time-money trade-offs? Who else finds themselves irrationally wondering why no one is paying them to take the garbage out? Lol.
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PS: Here’s a quiz by The Pew Research Center that claims to tell you where you fall on the Millennial-Generation X spectrum, based on 15 questions. My score is a 65, which means I’m kind of in the middle, a little more towards the Millennial side.