If you began your working life more than two decades ago, you can probably estimate how much of your time in those days was spent surfing the Web: zero. It wasn’t that you had the discipline to avoid cat videos. There was simply little Web to be surfed.
Now, of course, you’re reading this. (And there is no shortage of cat videos. Sorry productivity!) A day still has the same 24 hours it had in 1988, which raises the question: Where did that additional time come from? What are you not doing because you’re here on Fast Company’s website, reading this? And what should you do with this knowledge?
The federal government has asked thousands of Americans, annually, how we spend our time as part of the American Time Use Survey, so we have some sense of how we’ve traded off time over the years. A new working paper from Scott Wallsten, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, finds that each minute we spend online corresponds with 0.27 fewer minutes spent working, 0.12 fewer minutes spent sleeping, 0.10 minutes spent traveling, and 0.29 fewer minutes doing other leisure activities like watching TV. We take bits and pieces from other parts of our lives. It’s mostly unconscious; you probably didn’t decide that, since you’re reading this blog post, you’ll spend 17 fewer seconds proofreading a memo and you’ll stay up 6 seconds later, but that is what happens.
Time is a zero-sum game.
While on some level, that’s a depressing thought, what I find interesting about this unconscious time trading is that it suggests a different view about how we allocate time than the usual one. When I tell people I write about time management, I often get questions about how to save time here and there, doing errands more efficiently, sending emails more quickly, and so forth. The thought is that if you save time on things you don’t want to do, you’ll have more time for things you do want to do.
But our actual allocation of time doesn’t work that way. We allocate time to what we find interesting, important, urgent, or necessary, and then everything else gives way to fit that in. I recently reviewed the time log of a woman whose water heater broke while she was at an event. She came home to spend hours dealing with the flood in her basement. She spent the next morning meeting the plumber and part of the next day getting a professional cleaning crew started.
This was in the midst of a busy week with regular work hours and child-care responsibilities. If you had asked her earlier that week if she could find eight hours to work on her house, I’m sure she would have had trouble finding it. But when it had to happen, it had to happen.
This happens with emergencies, but the key to thriving in life is to behave this way with things you want to do, too. If you figure you’ll start that business when 10 free hours appear in your weeks, you’ll be waiting for a while. But if you simply do it—much as we all find time to surf the web—every other category will bend to accommodate that reality. You can’t create the life you want simply by saving time. You create your life—and then time saves itself.