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America's Real Deficit Crisis

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Are you busy right now? Are you already behind on what you wanted to accomplish today? Or this week? Or this year? Are you hoping this will be a short post so you can get back to the million things on your to-do list that are breathing down your neck? Okay, I'll get on with it: Our culture is obsessed with time. This is our real deficit crisis, and one that, unlike the more commonly discussed deficit, is actually getting worse.

In order to manage time -- or what we delude ourselves into thinking of as managing time -- we rigidly schedule ourselves, rushing from meeting to meeting, event to event, always just a little late and trying to save a bit of time here, a little bit there. We download apps for "productivity" and eagerly click on links promising time-saving life-hacks. We fear that if we don't try to cram as much as possible into our day, we might be missing out on something fun, or important, or special.

We're all suffering from an epidemic of what James Gleick, in his book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, calls "hurry sickness." As any reader of my Twitter feed likely knows, I'm among the afflicted. "Our computers, our movies, our sex lives, our prayers -- they all run faster now than ever before," Gleick said in an interview in 2000. "And the more we fill our lives with time-saving devices and time-saving strategies, the more rushed we feel."

In fact, researchers have given this feeling a name: "time famine." And feeling like you're experiencing a time famine has very real consequences, including increased stress and diminished satisfaction with your life. On the flip side, one can enjoy "time affluence," the feeling of having enough time, or even a surplus of time. As Keith O'Brien wrote in the Boston Globe, "studies have shown that feeling 'time affluent' can be powerfully uplifting, more so than material wealth, improving not only personal happiness, but even physical health and civic involvement."

Some people are naturally time affluent. My mother, for instance. She wasn't just time affluent, she was time-filthy-rich. For her, the world was truly timeless. She moved through her days like a child does, living in the present, stopping, literally, to smell the roses -- a trip through the farmers market might be an all-day affair -- with little thought of All The Things That Must Be Done. My sister and I once tried to give her a watch -- she gave it away almost instantly. And I still often think of the advice she'd give my sister and me when we were faced with a hard decision: "Darling, let it marinate." In other words, give yourself the luxury of time.

As it turns out, my mother's sense of time is backed by science. As Paul Davies wrote in Scientific American, though most of us feel time is something that flows, that it is always coming at us and then rushing behind us, that's not actually what's going on. "Physicists prefer to think of time as laid out in its entirety -- a timescape, analogous to a landscape -- with all past and future events located there together," Davies wrote. "It is a notion sometimes referred to as block time."

Sadly, time affluence turns out not to be an inherited trait. While my mother agreed with the physicists, I've always been more in tune with Dr. Seuss:

"How did it get so late so soon?

It's night before it's afternoon.

December is here before it's June.

My goodness how the time has flewn.

How did it get so late so soon?"

Happily, however, even if you're not born time affluent, there are things you can do to turn your time famine into a feast. Studies have shown that, as Keith O'Brien puts it, "small acts, simple emotions such as awe, and even counterintuitive measures like spending time doing tasks for someone else -- essentially giving time away," can make us feel more time affluent. "It's not just that people felt less impatient," said Jennifer Aaker, a Stanford business professor and co-author of one of the studies, "but... they reported higher levels of subjective well being, that they actually felt better in their lives."

Interestingly, according to a 2011 Gallup poll, the more money you have, the more likely you are to suffer from time famine. "The more cash-rich working Americans are," the poll concluded, "the more time-poor they feel."

Not surprisingly, when it comes to winning the war on time famine, we are our own worst enemy. To win the war, first we have to declare it -- we have to want to change. According to a 2008 PEW report, when asked what was important to them, 68 percent of Americans replied: having free time -- which ranked even higher than children, which came in at 62 percent, and career, at 59 percent. Yet the way we live doesn't reflect those priorities. As long as success is defined by who works the longest hours, who goes the longest without a vacation, who sleeps the least -- in essence, who is suffering from the biggest time famine -- we're never going to be able to enjoy the proven benefits of time affluence.

We just need to redefine success. But right now we're passing down our time famine habits to the next generation. Though getting enough sleep doesn't guarantee a feeling of time affluence, not getting enough sleep definitely puts you on the road to time famine. Writing in the New York Times last week, Vatsal Thakkar, a psychiatry professor at the NYU School of Medicine, suggested that many cases of ADHD in children are, in fact, sleep disorders. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an astounding 11 percent of school-aged children have received a diagnosis of ADHD. Feeling lethargic from not getting enough sleep is more of an adult symptom. Sleep-deprived children, writes Thakkar, "become hyperactive and unfocused." In one study he cites, of the 34 children diagnosed with ADHD, a sleep disorder was found in every single one.

Sleep, he notes, is especially crucial for children, who need the deep, slow-wave type called "delta sleep." But compared to a hundred years ago, today's children get a full hour less. "And for all ages," writes Thakkar, "contemporary daytime activities -- marked by nonstop 14-hour schedules and inescapable melatonin-inhibiting iDevices -- often impair sleep." In other words, solving the sleep crisis is not as simple as choosing an early bedtime -- it's about changing how we overschedule our children's days so that they can begin their nights sooner. We helicopter over our children, ensuring their physical well-being in unprecedented ways -- from car seats, to BPA-free plastic, to organic food. But we don't apply the same level of care to our children's time diets as we try to do to their food diets -- so that we make sure they grow up to be time affluent. That's something we should be passing on to them, the benefits of which will likely outweigh all those trips to soccer and violin practice. As Quentin Compson's father says to him while giving him a watch in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, "I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it."

So what can you do to fight back against "hurry sickness" and the American worship of speed and rushing and the resulting time famine? You can walk -- don't run -- and join the slow movement. It began in Italy in the mid-'80s when a Slow Food group was formed to protest the opening of a McDonald's in Rome.

Since then, the movement, with almost inappropriate speed, has widened to include Slow Travel, Slow Living, Slow Cities, and, now, Slow Thinking. In 2009, the book In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, by Carl Honore, was my first pick for the HuffPost Book Club. "Slow Thinking is intuitive, woolly and creative," wrote Honore on HuffPost in 2009. "It is what we do when the pressure is off, and there is time to let ideas simmer on the back burner. It yields rich, nuanced insights and sometimes surprising breakthroughs." And, he notes, it also has particular relevance to the financial crisis and what will come afterward. "Returning to business as usual is not the answer to this crisis," he wrote. "The future will belong to those who can innovate their way back into shape -- and innovation comes from knowing when to slow down."

In Gleick's Faster, he writes about how timekeeping devices "served as agents of social organization," a process that intensified in the industrial revolution, which required mass coordination in factories. "No wonder," he writes, "some historians describe the spread of timekeeping in terms of dehumanization and enslavement." In fact, the word deadline is thought to have its American origin in Civil War prison camps. Instead of a physical perimeter, there would often be an imaginary line -- the dead line -- that the prisoners were not to cross. Much like our own sense of time: an imaginary construct that we use to enslave ourselves.

So how about redefining success to include a third metric, beyond money and power -- time affluence, which will lead, without doubt, to greater well-being and deeper wisdom. Not a bad thing to put on top of our to-do lists.