Contaminated Time

Remember when the promise of technology was increased leisure time for all of us working stiffs? How has that` worked for you?  My guess is that you’re LOL right now.  What leisure time, you ask?  If you’re like millions of us, you can’t figure out why you have so little leisure time. Contaminated time is your problem, my friend.


Contaminated time is a relatively new concept that refers to your “free” time being contaminated by running errands, child care, housework, responding to emails and texts, and other non-relaxing activities.  These days one gets a sense of the prevalence of feeling overwhelmed by the language we use.  Overwhelm is often used as a noun as in, “I’m in a constant state of overwhelm.” 

Not only has technology allowed work to spill into leisure time, but, in many cases, the productivity bar has been raised.  When journalists “filed” their reports by submitting paper documents that were typed and retyped on IBM Selectric typewriters (yes, I remember those well), there was a natural limit to how much copy could be generated.  Enter computers, then email, then digital drop boxes.  The sky is the limit to how much work can be generated in 24 hours.

A Slippery Slope

Few white-collar workers these days are totally unplugged for long stretches of time.  The expectation is that you can be reached 24/7.  This wasn’t always true; not too long ago, one could leave work Friday evening and return Monday morning.  Even if you took work home to complete, you weren’t contacted by supervisors, coworkers, clients throughout the weekend.

I remember the first time I was made aware of the slippery slope on which we were sliding.  This was shortly after email became de rigueur: an internal client emailed me over the weekend and again Monday morning with a “this is the second time I’m emailing you” message.

Poco a Poco

No easy solutions for decontaminating your time exist. In the early 90’s, one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, wrote Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. To carve out some uncontaminated time you must begin bird by bird.  Scheduled walks (of any length) at the beach, in the woods, anyplace where you can be free of obligations, distractions and chores are good first steps.

Shortly after the 2016 election, I was contaminating my time by checking news feeds on my phone many times throughout the day.  I was sure our planet was going to implode and I wanted to be among the first to know.  I became a total anxiety-ridden mess.  A therapist suggested I schedule breaks from the news -- one day a week as a non-news day.  For a period of time, I put myself on a strict diet of no news in any form every Saturday.  It helped break the addiction and I looked forward to my uncontaminated Saturdays.

Even simple steps (such as non-news days) help decontaminate time.  Perhaps you, too, can create rituals that allow you to enjoy your “free” time. As Annie Dillard wrote in her book, The Writing Life: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”