When it comes to the idea of quality time, have we got it exactly backwards?
The conventional thinking – instilled in law school and reinforced in the workplace – is that professional success requires putting in long hours at the office. Really, really long hours.
We show our commitment by being physically present as much as possible. We are rewarded for arriving early and staying late. We are expected to meet – and exceed – annual billing quotas.
Which leaves precious little time for family.
And so we compensate by cramming as much activity as possible into our down-time. And not just any old activity, but meaningful, high-octane activity.
We go camping. We surprise our partner with tickets to see the Rolling Stones. We take our kids to the zoo. We try to make up in quality what we lack in quantity.
The only problem is it doesn’t work.
No Time Like The Present
This point was eloquently made by New York Times writer Frank Bruni in a recent column. As a byline writer for a major publication his work life his challenging, his free time scarce. And so he would approach his family’s annual beach-week getaway with trepidation.
“I used to think that shorter would be better, and in the past, I arrived for these beach vacations a day late or fled two days early, telling myself that I had to when in truth I also wanted to — because I crave my space and my quiet, and because I weary of marinating in sunscreen and discovering sand in strange places. But in recent years, I’ve showed up at the start and stayed for the duration, and I’ve noticed a difference.”
“With a more expansive stretch, there’s a better chance that I’ll be around at the precise, random moment when one of my nephews drops his guard and solicits my advice about something private. Or when one of my nieces will need someone other than her parents to tell her that she’s smart and beautiful. Or when one of my siblings will flash back on an incident from our childhood that makes us laugh uncontrollably, and suddenly the cozy, happy chain of our love is cinched that much tighter. There’s simply no real substitute for physical presence.”
The Greatest Gift is Being There
It is certainly true that we can make moments more special by investing them with our undivided attention. A few focused minutes are better than a slew of distracted ones.
But Bruni says we are deluded to think we can “plan instances of extraordinary candor, plot episodes of exquisite tenderness, engineer intimacy in an appointed hour.”
This is not a new insight. Eighteen years ago, Newsweek ran a long article on “The Myth of Quality Time,” which opened with a description of a New York lawyer arriving at the painful realization that spending “quality time” with her children wasn’t working – for her or her kids.
That article focused on child-rearing. And while it acknowledged that quality time with babies – talking to them, making eye contact – boosts their cognitive and social development, it also pointed out that a baseline of pure time must come first.
“Children need vast amounts of parental time and attention,” said Ronald Levant, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. “It’s an illusion to think they’re going to be on your timetable, and that you can say OK, we’ve got a half hour, let’s get on with it.”
In fact, the most important elements in a child’s life – regular routines, family rituals, consistency, the assurance that our loved ones are there for us – are often sacrificed when quality replaces quantity. Not to mention the fact that busy professionals are physically and emotionally drained at the end of the day, which limits the quality of whatever time they have to give.
That’s why it’s encouraging that companies like MicroSoft and Netflix are adopting more family-friendly policies that allow extended leave and other family concessions.
Life, as they say, is what happens when you’re busy making plans.
Bruni found this out when he stuck it out for the duration of his family vacation and, as a result, learned about his nephew’s college concerns and shared an intimate conversation with his niece while jogging. He returned to work more tightly bonded with them than ever.
“[T]hat’s not because of some orchestrated, contrived effort …. It’s because I was present. It’s because I was there.”
- Newsweek http://www.newsweek.com/myth-quality-time-172948
- Dr. Robert Evans http://www.hrshelps.org/Pages/4education/4articles/qualitytime.html
- New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/06/opinion/sunday/frank-bruni-the-myth-of-quality-time.html?_r=0
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man has practiced in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.