April 26, 2009

Faster: How To Deal With The Rat Race

There's more to life than increasing its speed.
--- Mahatma Gandhi

We don't notice slow change until we step back. Who has time for that? James Gleick, author of Faster: The Acceleration Of Just About Everything. Example after example, shows how our lives have been speeding up.
  • eating (fast food on the run or home delivery)
  • home cooking (pre-shredded cheese, pre-sliced mushrooms)
  • video (faster edits, digital editing)
  • mail (letters to couriers to email)
  • Internet (from dialup to always-on high speed)
  • search (from libraries to realtime with Twitter)
  • coffee (from brewing a cup to buying a cup from a drive-thru)
Quicker often means more expensive. We spend time to earn money. Then we spend money to save time. To save more time, we work more hours to earn more money. Circular. Earlier, we looked at how much we really earn, when we consider how much of our lives we pay. Maybe we got the coffee for the caffeine that keeps us going when our bodies shout STOP!

What Time Matters?
We look at time in different ways. Think of the airport. You can arrive early to reduce the risk of missing your flight. Or you can minimize wasted time at the airport by rushing to get on the plane mere moments before the doors close. What if you're an early bird travelling with a last minuter?

Too Fast Already
Have you ever noticed? Anybody going slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac. --- George Carlin
Some things are already faster than they need to be. You can drive many vehicles well above the speed limits. Most times, traffic and road conditions limit your speed. The Porsche goes at the same pace as a Yaris. Adding more horsepower has little practical benefit (though a larger vehicle is generally safer)
Red light stop, green light go, yellow light go very fast.
--- Starman (1984), observing how we drive
So many factors affect travel time. I've decided to enjoy the journey, which is pleasant because I listen to audiobooks. Delays mean more time to enjoy. Pedestrian walking signals now have countdown timers. When a few seconds remain, rather than racing through the yellow, I slow down to stop.

Computers used to be compared by chip speed. As netbooks show, weight matters more than waiting. We can be happy with slower but lighter. Design also matters. 

Faster = More Wastage
WWW? Nice toy, but what a waste of time --- Bill Gates
Do you remember the days of dot matrix printers? Speed was measured in characters per second. Now we look at pages per minute. I laser printed 48 pages (four 12-page proposals) and accidentally dropped them on the floor. They scattered. I should have re-sorted them but time was limited. I tossed the jumble into the recycling bin and reprinted. The time saved vanished in traffic on the way home.

We're capable of doing more than one thing at a time. So we do. For example:
  • eating and talking
  • watching a movie and snacking
  • listening to a teacher and taking notes
  • driving and listening to the radio
  • walking and talking on the phone
  • jogging and listening to your iPod
  • cycling on an exercise bike while reading a magazine or watching tv
Sometimes we do too much: driving + listening to the radio + talking on the phone + reading billboards + watching people. 

Slowing Down
Time is what we want most, but what we use worst. --- William Penn
We kill the time we struggle to save. 

You'll see lines at Tim Hortons and Starbucks. Video games consume oodles of time. So does email, instant messaging, talking on your phone, web surfing, gardening, golfing, playing bridge, reading, ...

We scrimp here to splurge there. We distort the way we spend our money in similar ways, as described by Michael Silverstein in Treasure Hunt (an earlier blog post). 

Lily Tomlin says that if even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat. Lovely. The book Faster makes you much more aware of time. At first, the audiobook (who has time to read?) seems too slow. This leaves too much time to ponder. Hurry up! You soon realize that time spent reflecting isn't time wasted --- a valuable lesson as the rats race around us.


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