Take a break

Throughout the 20th Century, prognosticators predicted that Americans would enjoy more leisure time. Technological advances would mean shorter workweeks, they said, leaving laborers free to frolic and muse.

Those forecasts turned out to be dead wrong, just like the ones that said we'd be flying around in Jetson cars by now and controlling our weather. High-demand, high-stress jobs mean we're working more than ever. Leisure time remains as elusive as world peace.

Brace yourself. I'm going to throw some numbers at you now.

--Americans labor more hours than workers in any other industrialized country. We clocked an average of 1,966 hours in 1997, up nearly 4 percent from 1,883 hours in 1980, according to a study by the International Labor Organization. That's nearly two full weeks more than workers in Japan, where average hours on the job dropped from 2,121 hours in 1980 to 1,889 in 1995. The French logged 1,656 hours in 1997 and the Germans worked 1,560. Those dynamos of productivity, the Norwegians and the Swedes, worked 1,399 hours and 1,552 hours, respectively.

--A recent Roper Starch Worldwide Inc. poll of 2,000 Americans found that leisure hours have declined from 38.2 per week in 1993 to 35.3 in 1998.

--In that poll, commissioned by Hearst Magazines, respondents were asked what they would do with an extra hour or two per day. The No. 1 response was sleep, followed by spending time on a hobby, reading, exercising, doing nothing, watching TV and making love. (How's that for priorities?)

For the 10 percent of Americans who work in home offices, the situation is even more severe. Many of us feel a moral imperative to work, work, work, partly because our spouses are the ones bringing home the real dough and partly because our work surrounds us all day. Along with the profit-making work, there's the housework and the yardwork and laundry and cooking. Throw a couple of kids into the equation, and it adds up to maybe 10,000 hours a year. (Let's see the Japanese top that.)

Since a year has only 8,766 hours, at-home workers soon learn there's not enough time to do all the jobs and do them right. The only way to include any sort of leisure activity is to let some things fall by the wayside. Mopping, for instance.

To find time for leisure, you have to prioritize. I suggest making a list of the jobs you must accomplish each week. Rank them in order of importance. Then lose the list. That way, maybe you'll get lucky and forget some of the chores you'd planned to do.

Or, you can squeeze leisure time into your workday. Use your lunch hour to exercise or pursue a hobby. Use all those minutes spent on hold to read a favorite novel. Peruse the newspaper while your computer reboots. Sleeping at your desk, I'm sorry to say, doesn't count.

However you do it, you must make time for yourself. For example, I skip out one night a week (while my wife bravely ferries our sons to Cub Scouts) to visit my best buddy. We play Scrabble and drink Cokes and eat M&Ms -- a couple of wild and crazy guys -- and try very hard not to think about the work we should be doing. It's true leisure time. And it's one activity that helps me keep my precarious grasp on sanity.

Follow my lead, you at-home workers. Get out of the house, get away from the piles of paperwork and dirty laundry. Find some activity that takes your mind off work. Plunge into doing nothing productive, at least for a few hours a week.

It'll keep you from going crazy. It might even make you a better worker and a better parent. But most importantly, it'll make you a better poll respondent. When the pollsters come calling, tell them your leisure hours are on the rise, that you're working less, that you've never been happier.

If we all pull together, we can at least make it LOOK as if we're not working all the time. Otherwise, Americans eventually will say they've had enough. We'll see a brain drain as we lose productive workers to other countries.

I'm considering Norway myself.

(Editor's note: The data in this column are old, but the situation, alas, is unchanged. I didn't move to Norway, but I moved to California, which is sort of the same thing.)

No comments: