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where do you find the time?

April 15, 2010

“Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink,
dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.”

Clay Shirky

“Where do you find the time?” is a question I hear a lot. Actually, it is not often asked as a question but more often delivered as an incredulous statement when I talk about whatever else it is that I am doing at the time.

As my About page says I am or have been “at various times a Chartered Professional Engineer, mediator, Barrister, actor, director, father, art gallery guide, Fate of War, friend and husband.” I am a student of Aikido, an avid reader and a fan of ABC Radio National and TED. I don’t meditate nearly enough and have as many books and podcasts on my iPhone as music (which creates the possibility for the most amazing connections to be made from a random shuffle). I am re-learning guitar and piano with my daughters and am about to re-release a meditation CD I produced a few years back. I have undergraduate qualifications in Chemical Engineering and post-graduate qualifications in Chemical Engineering and Law. I hope to continue my studies in Kinesiology, create a bronze sculpture and build a guitar from scratch when I get some spare time.

Now if that sounds normal to you I recommend that you read Refuse to Choose – What Do I Do When I Want to Do Everything? by Barbara Sher, because we are not alone and there are others in the world like you!

If it sounds completely insane then you are probably one of the people who want to ask “Where do you find the time?”

For the first few years I didn’t have an answer. I did most of my law study and assignments at night – after work and after the kids went to bed – so I started joking that I just stopped watching TV and got a degree. Then today I came across a talk given a couple of years back by Clay Shirky about what he called a cognitive surplus and I found out I didn’t need to joke any more.

He argues that the five-day work week created for people something they had never had previously – free time. But then television came along and provided a way to spend that time. Passively. The constraints of the medium meant that you could not interact with it let alone produce it and share it with your friends. Many people developed a habit of consumption that continues to this day and is often passed down to their children.

What struck me about Clay’s talk was the statistic that over 100 million hours are spent each weekend in America just watching the ads on TV. With over 300 million people in the USA it is easy to see how that could be.

The question is what could be produced and then shared, if those hours were spent a different way? Apparently the effort required to generate every Wikipedia page that existed in every language in 2008 was roughly 100 million hours. I can tell you that a couple of years on a restricted TV diet (some early episodes of Desperate Housewives were pretty good and you do need a break sometimes) can get you most of the way to a University degree. An episode of Survivor – Good vs Evil gets you most of the way to a new blog post.

And while you might argue that sitting here alone at my Mac while I write is no more active than watching TV I would agree with Clay. The act of writing is a creative one and one that I can share with the community who read my blog. My intention is to contribute by creating something of value that occasionally touches something in you the reader. To be fair, I am sometimes touched by the programs I see on TV … but hardly ever by the ads.

The challenge comes about when you consider what a 1% change in our collective behaviour could create the space for. The cognitive surplus in the USA alone would be in the order of 2 billion hours a year. Just think of the music and the books that could be written let alone the letters and emails to the people we are always going to get in touch with “but just never have time.” The relationships that could be built or just maintained. The conversations that could be had. The life that might be saved.

So now when people shake their heads at my latest activity and ask me “where do you find the time?” I will be able to answer confidently “I just don’t watch that much television” and know that I am not alone.

What will you be able to achieve and share now that you know exactly where to find the time?

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