The other day we went to JumpSpace for a JumpTalk by Chuck Darrah about the work featured in his (along with James M. Freeman and Jan English-Lueck) new book Busier Than Ever!: Why American Families Can’t Slow Down
Busier Than Ever! follows the daily activities of fourteen American families. It explores why they are busy and what the consequences are for their lives. Busyness is not just a matter of personal time management, but of the activities we participate in and how each of us creates “the good life.” While numerous books deal with efficiency and the difficulties of balancing work and family, Busier Than Ever! offers a fresh approach. Busyness is not a “problem” to be solved-it is who we are as Americans and it’s redefining American families.
Chuck gave a compellingly accessible talk peppered with stories from their in-depth fieldwork (like something about of Albert Brooks’ Real Life, they spent a huge amount of time with these families, becoming unavoidably involved with their lives. So different than doing “an interview” as is typical in consulting work).
He handed me a copy of the book, so I’ve got some reading to do, but some cool themes/behaviors he told us about (and this is my scribbly documentation and doesn’t necessarily fully represent their work)
- Everything is work…but what is work? Some companies take 2 hours off to play Dungeons and Dragons, other folks go get a tan. There are stories as to why that is part of work for the people concerned. People define boundaries, proclaim that they don’t take home work with them, but when asked about the briefcase they are hauling out of the office, they explain what category of activity (i.e., reading HR memos) they will do at home that is not work.
- People are taking on more stuff, by choice, but present busyness as an external force
- Coping strategies have emerged (but I wonder if these are in fact the creators of the increased busyness?)
- Planning and routinizing – time spent planning the day or working out processes for dealing with daily activities
- Communicating – seemingly trite phone calls to check in about the plans already made
- Anticipating – energy put into coming up with contingency plans – “what if this happens?” or “what if that happens?”
- Adjusting – being flexible (with layers of power embedded in those negotiations), making last minute changes to the plans already developed and communicated
- Protection – i.e., create a phantom meeting to keep blocks of time free for whatever purpose
- Intelligence gathering – you don’t know what info will end up being relevant, so knowing what is going on with coworkers or family members becomes crucial
- Simplifying – One father looked at every item in the house once per month and if he didn’t know what it was, it went to the dump or Goodwill immediately
- Chunking – using interstitial times to accomplish tasks, i.e., moving items out of a meeting agenda into hallway conversations (although this isn’t always successful depending on the person and the task)
Ultimately, Chuck told us, it’s not about time, it’s about activities.
Meanwhile, a story that struck me a few weeks ago referred to a study (funded by the Alfred P. Sloan foundation, as was the Darrah et. al work above) about convenience food.
the researchers saw that convenience foods weren’t used as a time-saving substitute for the same dish made from scratch. Instead packaged foods offered a way for families to eat more elaborate meals than they would normally have time to prepare.
When families did cook from scratch, they ate simpler fare — like one-pot meals or stir-fry. In the end, dinner took about a half-hour to an hour to prepare, whether it was made from scratch or with convenience foods.
The study showed that meals with little or no convenience foods took 26 to 93 minutes to prepare. Meals that used a lot of convenience foods took 25 to 73 minutes to prepare. While convenience foods were time-savers on very elaborate meals, overall, there was no statistically significant difference in total preparation time.
One difference that emerged was “hands on” time — the amount of time people spent slicing, dicing and stirring foods. Using convenience foods shaved about 10 minutes of hands-on time, but it didn’t make any difference in how quickly the food got to the table.
The study authors noted that the biggest time savings of convenience foods may be at the grocery store, where it’s faster to grab a frozen entree than to collect six separate ingredients to make the same dish from scratch. Grocery-shopping time wasn’t measured in the study. The average American spends about 22 minutes in the grocery store and shops about twice a week, according to the Food Marketing Institute.
Convenience foods also helped cooks offer a greater variety of dishes; cooks who made dinner from scratch offered three or fewer dishes. One family made a simple meal of sandwiches and edamame, using bread, cheese, greens and salmon and tomatoes. That meal took about a half-hour to prepare. Another family had a six-dish convenience-food meal of microwave barbecued ribs, macaroni and cheese, prebagged salad, bagged dinner rolls and a cookies and ice cream dessert. That meal also took a half-hour.