For some questions, you don't really want answers.
Do we really want to know how and when we will meet our demise?
Or what others really think of us?
And perhaps most unnerving: Where does all our time go?
We are a nation obsessed with time. We search for ways to maximize our productivity -- to earn more, to accomplish more -- while stressing about ways to maximize our leisure -- to sleep more, to relax and connect with others more. There are life hacks, parenting hacks and technology hacks, all promising ways to improve our efficiency.
Modern parents are a tribe of shufflers and schedulers, with our color-coded calendars and lists. My God, the lists. The current lifestyle affliction is organexia; you can never be organized enough! You may not feel entirely in control of your life, but you can channel those displaced control issues into hyper-organized systems and Pinterest projects.
Christine Linder, a St. Louis-based co-founder of grantmamas.com, recently co-published an e-book called "Are You Controlling Your Family's Schedule, Or Is It Controlling You?" ($4.99). The section on "How is your family spending its time?" begins by asking if you often feel "stressed and scattered, like you're bouncing from one activity to the next -- like a human ball in a pinball machine."
Why, yes, there have been a few quarters spent in the Sultan arcade.
The manual advises estimating how many hours each member of the family spends at work or at school, commuting, running errands, cooking meals, involved in extracurriculars, you get the picture. There's a worksheet with line items such as "watching television," "chores" and "sleep."
The manual suggests taking this exercise a step further, printing additional copies and asking each family member to complete a form.
"It's fun to complete them as a family so you can discuss each activity," the instructions say.
About as fun as a blindfolded sword fight in some homes, I'm sure.
Our perceptions of how we spend our time may be wildly skewed from reality. Linder, whose goal is to help mothers have better-organized lives and schedules so they can be more involved in their children's schools, filled out her own "time spent" worksheet and shared the results with me. I wasn't shocked by her findings.
"I spend a lot of time doing activities that I could cut back on or multitask or hand off for someone else in my family to deal with," she said. In addition to working about 60 hours a week, she and her husband have a 2-year-old daughter.
"I didn't have a lot of 'me' time," she said. "I don't have time to read. I found I didn't have a lot of hobbies ... I didn't have a ton of downtime. I was constantly filling my time." She has attempted to change that by delegating a few chores and taking more hikes with her family.
"I"m still trying, let's be honest," she said.
Keeping detailed and accurate time logs, which seems to require even more work and honesty than a food journal, is a daunting prospect. But even the guesstimate activity proposed by this worksheet could be useful, if only as a reality check.
If you're tired and feeling stressed, chances are good you're doing too much and expecting too much.
There are 168 hours in a week. That sounds so concrete for something so ephemeral. If we can figure how many hours of that are devoted to various activities, it's tempting to see how the numbers align with what we claim to value. But, there's also a danger of realizing that the entire foundation of what we expect -- time for working, time with our children, time with our partners, time for chores, time for friends and time for our own interests -- is not compatible with the reality of how our society runs.
I'd like to try to log all my family's hours for a week, but I'm scared of what I might discover. What if I discover I'm frittering too many hours aimlessly on the Internet? What if I'm not spending nearly as much time with my children as I think? What if there is an imbalance in the division of labor in this household? Perhaps I really don't want to deal with the consequences of those answers just yet. Maybe the problem isn't that we aren't organized enough, but that the organization is too much.
Ben Westhoff, a writer with 7-month-old and 3-year-old sons, says it could be interesting to get a more specific idea of how he and his wife use their time. But he captured the truth of our fixation with time with his honest ambivalence about the idea.
"I'd like to get a handle on that," he said initially, then considered it a hot minute longer.
"I mean, not really, but theoretically, yeah."