On The Time Crunch: How our Society Steals Your Time – and How to Get it Back!

Many people in this country are short on time today.  Work, family and other obligations take nearly our entire time.  There is not much left for personal time to ourselves.  Not much time is left to be politically or religiously active or start a business.  For the good of the country, the good of the economy, and most of all the good of ourselves we must recover some of this time. Three areas of opportunity present themselves for recovering some of our precious time. 

WAITING: Airport delays are among the most lengthy and the most variable delays we face.  For example, the last time I flew to Chicago, the airport delays took longer than the flight itself, on both the way there and back.  Certain delays are due to security checks that don’t seem very useful, are invasive, but are also politically touchy to remove due to peoples’ fear of terrorism – (which are not to be ignored or taken lightly).  The airlines themselves are also much to blame for not having planes ready to go on time.  There have been proposals for years for a Fliers’ bill of rights that addresses airport delay due to airlines. It should be strengthened to require airlines to refund some or all of the ticket price depending on how many hours the customer has to wait.

Doctor’s offices schedule patients to maximize their profit, not to get patients in and out on time.  (For the record, I just fired my doctor for this, and her $140 tetanus shot).  A patients bill of rights similar to the proposed Fliers’ bill of rights, specifying free service if the wait is longer than X, would go a long way to solving the problem.

Phone support queues, such as when calling your credit card issuer or phone company can last an upwards of an hour.  To add insult to injury, they also like to play ads while you wait.  Lately some companies have added a feature where you can give them your account # and phone # and they will call you back at a time of your choosing instead of waiting.  It should be required of all companies to give their customers this option.  This need not be an onerous new regulation: just providing an option to leave voicemail would be acceptable.

Checkout lines at stores are ripe for reform.  In the 1990s self service check out was
introduced.  Generally these are no faster than a human cashier, because of all their error.  I believe we have all heard “*beep* please wait for cashier assistance” far too many times.  I know many people like these lines (because they can verify that the scanned price is correct) and do not advocate their removal.  I do advocate that they be made to work properly without waiting for a cashier to be called to assist every 2nd customer.  For example stores like Wal-Mart, allow their checkout lines to form 15-20 minute queues – even when most of their registers are open.  I am not sure how to solve this problem – but it has to be done.  15-20 minutes x 6 stops per family per week = 1.5-2 hours/week x 52 weeks per year = 78 to 104 hours per family per year is more than 3 or 4 entire days per family per year spent standing in line.

Several people I know have proposed some solutions to waiting:
$1 shop online – this is great if present privacy problems can be resolved.  (See my upcoming series on privacy).
$2 make waiting more productive.  This can work to the extent that you can conduct your business, worship, etc, in the checkout line.  I read in lines to improve myself and my skill-base for my career – so I am sure others could do something along these lines.
$3 Finally it was suggested that, a person could record his time spent waiting in line, multiply it by his hourly wage, and have it deducted from his bill.  Heaven help the company that delays a million dollar a year CEO for half an hour.

WORKING:  Presently, the 5 day 40 hour work week is standard.  This leaves 5 evenings and 2 weekend days to service our family and other obligations.  Good luck having any time left for yourself.  (I realize that some blue collar workers earn time and a half by working beyond this, and many white collar professionals and managers are forced to work beyond this by their company for no additional compensation.  They could certainly put in some portion of a 5th workday each week if they chose; perhaps by telecommuting.)

Lately many companies have been experimenting with flex time and the 4 day work week.  Flex time allow employees to schedule their day such that they can service all of their obligations around their work.  The 4 day work week allows the employee to work 4 10 hour days instead of 5 8hour days, thereby gaining an extra useable day on the weekend.  For many employers, this makes sense too.  Any office building operating Monday-Friday 8-5, could have all of their workforce be in at least 1 day a week together so that meetings can be scheduled, and then sign up for any other 3 days they please.  Retail and service operations would especially benefit from this too, because they could have more employees around before and after operating hours to restock shelves, clean and so on.  Likewise, a call center, hospital or a steel mill operating 24/7 with either 3 shifts or 4 turns rotating in every 8 hours could use 10 hour blocks instead to staff their operation just as well.

Employees would benefit by having a 3rd useable day off every week.

DRIVING:  There are about 300 million people in this country.  About half of us work.  Nearly all of us workers commute to our job.  Many of us have long-mileage trips.  Many of those trips take unnecessarily long to make; the average American spends ½ hour commuting, each way, to work.  If we could save some of that time, as a society we would be better off.  Families could spend more time together and people would have more time to relax.   Roughly 300,000,000 people x ½ work x 2 trips per day x ½ hour average per trip multiplies out to tell us that American spend roughly 150 million man hours are spent in a car commuting to and from work each day.

What if we could save some of that time?  25% would be roughly 37 million man hours saved per day.  To the average American, that would mean saving 15 minutes every day.  Multiply that by 250 commuting days per year and the average American would have roughly 2¼   extra full 24 hour days each year to do something other than sit in a car.

Here is another reason to care: the value of the lost time is enormous.  The USA produces $14.27trillion per year  divided by (307million Americans x a workforce participation rate of 64.6%)= $718,424 produced per worker per year.  Divide that by 1920 working hours per year (48 work week per year x 40 hours per work week) shows that the average worker produces about $374 of goods and service per hour.  If those 150million man hours per year were used for work instead of sitting in traffic, our economy would produce an additional $56.1billion per year.

So how could we save this time?

First we should establish some ground rules:  (1) whatever changes are made should not increase driving fatalities.  (2) whatever changes are made shouldn’t cost a lot of money.

There are many things that could be done.  Most commutes involve a mix of highway and city driving, so both should be addressed.  Many of the worst commutes involve long delays due to high traffic, construction or poorly designed intersections – which makes these ripe opportunities to work on.

Highway driving is an easy fix: raise the speed limit to 85mph on all highways.  Insurance companies compile a slew of statistics showing that higher speed is associated with higher fatalities.  More careful researchers note that it is the difference in speed between the many cars on the road that lead to accidents and fatalities.  So when raising the speed limit, we should also raise the minimum to 70 or 75mph .  Excepting certain collectors’ antique cars there are no cars on the road that can’t do at least 70 or 75mph.  It doesn’t cost hardly anything to do this.  Many motorists already drive at these speeds in defiance of the law, and seem quite safe doing it.  Indeed, the British Medical Journal noted in 2006 that British highway fatalities per year actually increased slightly after installing speed enforcement cameras (studied 1996-2004) to slow their drivers down -i.e. speed is not the dangerous and important factor that we are led to believe. Obviously, in severe weather, one would drive at a safe and reasonable (slower) speed – no one wants tp do 70-85mph on snow and ice.  Also, local government would have to stay on top of potholes, read: Canton, Ohio, where the potholes often seem to be more numerous than the sands by the sea, and they can appear to be large enough to float ocean-going vessels.  All other things equal, the average American motorist, could save a maximum of 8 minutes a day or 1 ½ days per year.

City driving is more difficult.  It depends very much on delays due to traffic and intersections.  1 possible reform would be to raise the speed limit on most roads that are not highways to 40 mph.  Critics argue that in certain situations involving on-street parking or older (small dense) residential neighborhoods, that 25mph makes sense.  I agree with them on this.  No one wants to run over a child or have any other kind of accident.  But everywhere else, 40 mph would make sense and make a big difference.  Enacting this reform would save the average American commuter a maximum of a third of a day per year.  It would save us even more time when running our errands.  This is not an expensive change either.  It would also help for all the cities in a given metropolitan area to cooperate in synchronizing their stoplights.  Pairs of multilane 1 way streets with timed lights have significantly reduced travel time in many cities across the nation.

Reducing delays are the biggest improvement opportunity of all.  When I first started my previous job, my 30 mile commute took 65 minutes on average – event though it was 2/3 highway driving with a 65mph speed limit.  By leaving for work at 6AM instead of 6:55AM, I found I could reduce this time to 35 minutes.  I avoided traffic, drove 40 and 80mph instead of 25, 35 and 65mph and had more favorable stoplight cycles.  In practical terms, I saved 10½  24 hour days each year.

Herein lies a large part solution: it’s cheap and easy to change the time at which we commute.  As companies allow more flex time and telecommuting, this reduces the peak traffic densities on our road ways.  We can improve this by having governments pass ordinances that non-customer service buildings open before 7:30 or after 8:30 in order to spread out the load.

This still leaves the matter of construction delays.  Most delays form when a roadway is reduced by 1 or more lanes to be worked on.  2 innovative solutions have appeared lately, but not yet widely.  (1) do the work at night, and reopen the entire road each morning.  (2)  Rather than close down many miles of highway all at once, just close down the section that needs to be closed in order to do work and cure the cement properly.

More creative ideas yet are worth exploring.  Many professional people could telecommute to work at least 1x per week, thereby saving at least 20% of travel time.  Moving to a 4 10hour day work week would certainly save 20% of commuting time for everyone.

If all these ideas were implemented, the average American could easily save at least 1 to 2/3  of his driving time each year.  Imagine what you would do with an extra 20-40 minutes every day.

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2 Comments on “On The Time Crunch: How our Society Steals Your Time – and How to Get it Back!”

  1. C Says:

    Who goes to Wal-Mart six times a week?

    • No one gos to Walmart 6x/week. That said I do go to enough places that I can support my figure of 6 large waits per household per week.

      My household does these things 1x/week: grocery (wait #1), some crap-mart whether its Target, Biglots, Walmart or who-ever else (wait #2), a Hardware store (wait #3). I get a haircut every 3 weeks (lets figure the average household has 3 point something people in it, so that is at least another 1x wait per household per week (wait #4) Consider that 1 person can buy the groceries with only 1 wait, but when 4 people wait for haircuts together that would = 4 waits. So that is 4 store delays per household per week just to meet regular household needs.

      Being a man living alone, I guessed the average household spends an additional 2 store delays per household per week on average. These are incurred by some or all of the following: shopping for hobbies, at warehouse clubs, for clothes, stuff for the house, books, school supplies, toys, etc, for the kids, special vet-recommended-food, etc. for the pets, electronics, gifts for birthdays, weddings etc., specialty/ethnic foods, car repair waits, going to the bank to pay the car loan (they claim its late, and charge a fee, if I don’t pay it in person and get a receipt) and so on. Some people also tend to incur a significant amount of waiting in medical offices, pharmacies, etc…

      So… that is how I came up with 6 waits per household per week. Should it really be 5 or 7? Who knows? 6 seemed safe to me.

      Thanks for asking,


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