Thieves of Time

In the dark days of winter, we have a little more time to spend doing the things we love, like reading or listening to music, or taking naps. Or at least we have the time if nobody steals it from us. The theft of time has become almost as much of an epidemic as the theft of smartphones. I don’t have a smartphone, so that’s not something I need to worry about. But I do have a small and diminishing amount of time, which I would rather not lose, and the world seems full of people who want to snatch it away.

We were in a lawyer’s office last week, waiting to deal with a trivial piece of paperwork that should have and did eventually take less than five minutes. Our appointment was for 9 a.m., which came and went, along with 9.15, 9.30 and 9.45 before the great man deigned to see us just before ten, with no explanation, no apology for the fact that our day had been shortened by one hour.

During the same week, we wasted a great deal of time waiting for an electrician, who was hours late, and a plumber who never kept his appointment at all. So I began to keep track, rather obsessively I admit, all the people and organizations who seem to take it as their mission in life to waste our time.

Doctors, of course, are notorious. Their appointment times are merely fanciful, like stock market predictions, and they reinforce the insult by having us wait, undressed, in a freezing examination room with nothing but depressing medical illustrations for entertainment.

Big companies have found ways to waste our time automatically, without any human intervention at all. When you need to get information from the humorously named telephone “help line” of a bank, a credit card company or a computer manufacturer you can be sure of losing a whole morning or afternoon. If you put the phone down for a moment you will immediately be assaulted by unsolicited calls from unknown people demanding money for a political party or a charity, or trying to sell you some nonexistent product or imaginary service.

It is tempting to unplug the phone and turn to the computer, but then you are at the mercy of the greatest time-wasting device ever invented – the internet. Everything that used to be quick and easy has become slow and difficult, verging on impossible, now that we have this wonderful resource. Booking a flight or placing an order, once a five-minute job, can easily swallow up a frustrating hour once you enter the Alice in Wonderland world of the internet.

My mother wasted countless hours of her time standing in line in shops in the 1940s, when there were shortages of everything. Now there’s no shortage of anything, except time itself. The question is: how do we get it back?

Here’s my idea. Our time, yours and mine, is definitely worth something. It’s obviously not as valuable as the time of a notorious politician or an ephemeral TV celebrity, but it’s worth something> – let’s say $50 an hour. When we keep an appointment or initiate a communication, the clock should start running at that moment. After an hour of waiting in the lawyer’s office we should have the right, and indeed the duty, to bill him for $50 and expect payment. Two hours on hold with a software company, listening to vile music should be worth $100. The thieves of time would get the message eventually: if you waste our time, it’s payback time.

David Bouchier

” In a childish world, someone has to do the dirty business of growing up.”

Howard Jacobson

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