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Time. We all get 24 hours in a day.

What makes the distinction between success and failure, happiness and misery, being busy versus being productive, is how we use those 24 hours. So, time is not the problem. How we use that time matters most. Many of us confuse being busy with being productive. It seems that every time I ask someone how they are doing, their response is “busy”. Many think bragging about how busy they are makes them appear important and all I can think about is how it must be so sad to have been reduced to simply THAT in life. But, not all cases of busy equal a miserable existence. Certainly, if you are busy doing things that bring enrichment and happiness to your life, you are not wasting time. We all make a choice in how we use our time. But, it really boils down to what you are willing to exchange for your time and time is the one thing that we want the most and seem to have the least of. It is also the one thing that once spent can never be returned.

In the wise words of Henry David Thoreau, “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”

It is profound to consider the price of life when it comes to work. As adults, we will spend nearly 85% of our waking hours at work. We engage in this practice of work in order to provide for ourselves and our family. Our food, shelter, security and general well-being are directly tied to our ability to earn an income. For most of us, we work in order to earn the money we need to pay for the things that sustain our life. In exchange for that paycheck, we offer up a certain number of hours of our life to the company who is willing to pay for the use of it. We enter this arrangement without much thought of anything other than how much will we get paid and how much time will we give up in exchange for that pay.

The number of hours one works has evolved over time. With the advent of wage and hour laws, the number of hours one worked during the industrial revolution rise and the number of hours one works today has drastically declined in most civilized countries. This certainly isn’t the case for all places on this planet. But, here in the States, the average number of hours worked per week range from 40 – 60 hours for most full-time positions. It is astounding to me that this number of hours is a reduction from the industrial age. I can’t even imagine what life would have been like if the standard work week was 90 – 100 hours per week.

While I can understand the motivation for long hours back in the industrial age, I’d like to think we have learned a few things since then that would improve our productivity and therefore require fewer hours of work. That, unfortunately, has not been the case. It seems in this “do more with less” market, employers simply pile more duties on top of those efficiency improvements to make sure the biggest bang for the buck is realized without regard for the well-being of employees. So, in other words, it doesn’t matter how hard you work and how many efficiency improvements you make, you’re never going to be able to work fewer hours. How is that motivating in any way?

I have always found it curious when the standard of 40 hours minimum for full-time work is never really questioned. When a staffing need is created, very few actually take the time to consider whether the number of hours needed to complete said tasks is actually valid. We simply assume and accept. When thinking about the number of hours we dedicate to our jobs, are we not bound to end up disappointed with a hollow life toward the end of our days?

I prefer a different path and the choice of that path was largely influenced by my upbringing. I have long enjoyed hearing the stories of my grandparents and even my great grandparents long ago when they talked about what was important to them. They worked incredibly hard on the family farm, but always made time for family and church. They were actively involved in the community and often gave their time and resources to others.

It was fascinating to learn how a simple balance of priority made the difference between a fruitful and fruitless life. They had the same 24 hours in a day that I have.

They not only had to balance the need to provide their own food and shelter for the family, they also had to earn a living and share with others. The ability to share with others was a measure of success for them, as was the wellness of their children. Everyone worked and they worked very hard. But, they also had extremely strong community bonds. They enjoyed spending time with their family and friends. They did all of these things without the benefit of modern technology. So, when we consider that technology has allowed us to accomplish more than ever before in less time, one would think we would be able to use that time building relationships with family and friends.

As my great grandmother aged and came toward the end of her days here with us, she never once complained that she wished she could have spent more time with those she loved. She was grateful to have those bonds and we certainly benefited from that strong family structure.

Yet, today, when those in their later years look back on life, they often regret not spending more time doing the things that mattered most to them.

They spent the prime years of their lives chasing after things that didn’t matter. Often material things that once glittered with newness and excitement are now either discarded or gathering dust as they are replaced by the newer shiny thing. We seem to be stuck in the quest for more. But, how much of “more” is enough? Will we ever have enough? Does more stuff bring us happiness in life? Is the quest for “more stuff” worth the amount of life we spend to acquire it? If we recognize the regrets of not living a fulfilled life and realize that having “more stuff” doesn’t equal a happy life and wish there was more time to spend with the people we love, why don’t we change the way we spend our time?  We sacrifice so much time for things that don’t matter. We give up the balance in exchange for the “busy” as if that somehow validates our existence.

Personally, I have chosen a different path. When asked how things are going, I respond “happily” or “fulfilling” and even sometimes “busy,” but I tend to avoid extended periods of “busy” in general. I changed my priorities and re-evaluated the true cost of time. What I want most in life is to spend time with my daughter. To soak up every precious minute of my time with her. I want to share my life and experience with others in my community. I want to spend time with my husband and family because I know days are numbered and those 24 hours each day slip by in a moment.

In the change of priorities in my life, I took valuable lessons from my ancestors. You can make a living and still enjoy the living part. I have been blessed in ways that I know others do not have the good fortune to enjoy. I have a strong family network and I am surrounded by those who support me and my life choices. I couldn’t find that path in the corporate environment of my early career days, so I went out and made my own path. One that has allowed me to use time to my advantage. I got creative and focused on what matters most.

During this process, I have often wondered, “why can’t we create workplace structures that balance the need for financial security and living a life worth living?”

It can be done and there are several companies out there who do it. They don’t think in terms of hours clocked, but rather what outcomes are achieved. By doing this, they actually get better results and their employees get more time to do the things they value in life. These companies are paving the way for a future where we will be able to balance the need for financial security with the need to live a life that amounts to more than just our jobs. A life where we are not reduced to “busy” doing things that don’t matter, don’t bring us happiness and don’t leave a legacy of purpose. We must get creative with how and when things get done. Then, we may truly be able to pay the price of happiness in the currency of time.

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