A Lesson on How We Spend Our Time

As my life has gotten exponentially busier in the last decade, I began to find myself desperate to cram as much quality time in with the loved ones who had suffered as a result of the increased demands of my professional life. So I planned shopping days with my mom, elaborate guided fishing tours with my Dad, sporting events with my Brothers, and golf outings with my closest friends. A free Saturday meant we could head up to Tahoe for a quick day of skiing, who was in? A free weekend meant a serpentine route through the Napa Valley wineries should do the trick. All this in an effort to squeeze out quality with my loved ones, and create memories with the little free time I had.

After years of chasing my own tail in this fashion, I felt tired, and no closer to the ones I was desperately trying to stay tied to. I complained about this to a friend of mine over a dinner I was hoping to be filled with quality time we’d never forget, when he sets his utensils down, cuts me off, and in as polite a fashion as one can deliver says, “You’re nuts Jay. All this talk about trying to achieve quality time with family and friends is chasing a specter (he used words like that). Quality time is a myth, and to look for it, is a waste of time. Time, we all know you don’t have. Instead, try focusing on quantity time.”

This all sounded too rational for me, and so I challenged him. “Quantity is exactly what I don’t have. I’m trying to make the best of the limited time I do have. So how am I supposed to produce more?”

“No one’s asking you to produce more. Just show up and be 100% present when you are there.” We talked some more and my friend indicated that quality time is produced from quantity time. Just showing up. In fact “quality time” isn’t usually even realized until after the fact, when one fondly looks back on how meaningful that experience with another was.

He further challenged me to consider my most cherished childhood memories. What were they? Were they the expensive trips to Hawaii or the time you got that one big toy you were begging for on Christmas? They weren’t. Instead they were Sunday breakfasts where my Mom would play Enya on her Sony cassette player. Giants games on Friday nights with my Dad at miserable Candlestick Park. 4:30 am car rides with my best friend Mike on our way to rowing practice in college. These were the moments that defined me. Moments carved, not from a desperate effort to make them meaningful, but from simple routine. They were special to me because those people were there, they showed up, and you could come to expect them, and look forward to the experience. That was what made important moments.

The last three years I’ve come to value and become manic about quantity time. Taking the earlier flight home to spend an extra night at home with my wife, even if she’s already asleep. Inviting my Dad over to watch the game while we catch up on the last couple weeks. Watching the Oscars with my Mom, and squeezing a little online shopping in during commercials. Inviting my brothers on one of my business trips, educating them further on what their big brother does all year. These are the moments that I’ve, not only grown to cherish recently, but so have my loved ones.

We’re all busy, but forcing moments to be memorable and indelible is a fools errand, and one I participated in for years. Instead, show up. Be there when you say you will, and be 100% present with that person when you are. Chasing the ghosts of quality time leaves you with nothing but a headful of foggy memories you can’t quite remember, instead of a heart full of moments you’ll never forget.