When I was in school, the book Cheaper by the Dozen was assigned reading. It’s the mostly true story of two efficiency experts raising way too many kids. The mom and dad spend their careers figuring out how to juice the productivity of workers by changing the way they get the job done. The parents bring their theories home and test new ideas on their kids. The book is full of can-do attitude and funny quips, and not a little propaganda concerning the value of eliminating wasted time.
You can see why teachers want their students to read it. The school day would be so much easier if children bought into the idea of striving to work smarter and faster. I can’t imagine the uptake on that message is very successful, but I fell for it hook, line and sinker. Decades after reading the book, I remain fascinated with the idea that people can accomplish more in a day simply by analyzing their tasks, adjusting their movements, and reordering their priorities. I prize efficiency, and I spend my time trying to be more efficient for the sake of my kids and the endless tasks I need to perform on their behalf. But my daughter taught me why my thinking was dumb.
I inherited my interest in efficiency from my mother. As far as she was concerned, there was always a schedule to keep. Events far in the future were recorded in planning calendars. Daily chores were kept in her head, doled out verbally on a need-to-know basis. She often spoke with reverence of a friend who lined up her tasks, written on sticky notes, in a row across her dashboard, snatching each one away as it was completed. Mom never achieved that platonic ideal, but she was no slouch. Like Tom Coughlin, she often made this face and insisted that if we didn’t arrive at our destination 15 minutes early, we were as good as late.
Every day, these two kids of mine generate chores to complete (laundry, dishes, grocery shopping) and create distractions that delay the completion of those chores (bickering, coloring the walls, exploding a bag of goldfish crackers all over the dining room.)
Back then, there was no Google Maps to save us from traffic jams. When we got in her Plymouth Horizon and drove across the suburbs of northeast Ohio for a dentist appointment, it was all guesswork and happenstance. There’s no way to fact check this, but I feel confident that we were never late for those appointments. At least, not late in the way that normal people understand the word. We often breached Mom’s 15-minute firewall, and when that happened, no amount of mom-cursing (“Oh for cryin’ in the bucket! Criminently!”) could ease her mind.
I keep her memory alive by maintaining her commitment to efficiency. I do this because it’s comforting to me and because I fear that if I don’t, I’ll be yielding to chaos. Every day, these two kids of mine generate chores to complete (laundry, dishes, grocery shopping) and create distractions that delay the completion of those chores (bickering, coloring the walls, exploding a bag of goldfish crackers all over the dining room.) Criminently!
Each weekday morning, I make four breakfasts, two cups of coffee, and one lunch between 6:45 and 7:30. I also feed and medicate two cats, sign any nearly forgotten permission slips, locate that one t-shirt my son absolutely has to wear and dismiss all off-topic questions that threaten to distract me. During this morning ritual, I consider the movements needed to remove ingredients from the pantry, dishes from the cabinets, utensils from the drawers. I make little refinements day to day, experimenting with methods that will let me do more with less effort. I am always thinking about the step I will complete five steps from now and what I can do to complete that step faster. I do this for the sake of my kids. When I was young, the way my mom ran her house made me feel calmer. Things didn’t just happen. They happened for a reason, and in the correct order.
I am always thinking about the step I will complete five steps from now and what I can do to complete that step faster. I do this for the sake of my kids.
But I’ve known my kids for a good long while now, and it’s clear that they don’t take after me and my mom.
My daughter spends 25 minutes eating a bowl of cereal. This is a problem at school, where her entire day is scripted in 20-minute increments. Lunchtime is for shoveling tater tots into your pie hole, and if you’re too slow, too bad, so sad, you’re going to be hungry by dismissal. Remember on Seinfeld when Kramer didn’t know how to shower? That’s her too. It can take her all day to clean her room, and when I come to check the progress, her desk looks like this.
Her dallying pace makes me crazy because the task is left uncompleted, the box unchecked and the schedule in the shitter. For a long time, I was convinced that I was right and my daughter was wrong, and I’d be damned if I couldn’t get her to see it.
Then we moved to a different part of the country. When I say different, I mean entirely. The trees are different. The birds are different. The terrain is different. People dress differently and act differently. I’ll give you an example. Here, grocery store cashiers slowly unfold paper bags one at a time and carefully stack each of your purchases inside, building a meticulous Jenga tower. They talk to you as they do this, asking about your weekend plans, initiating real conversations. If you try to pitch in with the bagging, they shoo you away. They don’t mind the five shoppers waiting with their full carts behind you. They are unhurried.
The parents in Cheaper by the Dozen would be apoplectic. At first, I was too, but this way of being in the world — slow — was so pervasive in our new hometown that I had no choice but to do as the Romans do. I yielded. I forced myself to stop thinking about my next errand as I chatted with the cashier. I noticed that shopping didn’t feel so dreary anymore. Sometimes, I even felt happy at the checkout line. Happy while being delayed. Imagine!
Nowadays, the workplace never closes, and you find yourself answering client emails during the Saturday matinee living-room performance of The Princess and the Dragon, an original work starring you (The Princess) and your daughter (The Dragon).
If you prize efficiency like I do, you think that completing the task quickly leads to happiness. But I’ve realized it’s not true. Efficiency is a god that can never be satiated. At the end of every completed list of tasks, there are only more tasks to complete. If one project is completed ahead of schedule, the next one simply starts earlier. The conveyor belt never stops.
What really changed my thinking was considering my daughter’s face, so agitated and cloudy as I listed all the chores I expected her to complete, as I called out the number of minutes she was falling behind in the schedule. When I was her age, working toward the goal of efficiency made me feel good. For her, it was doing the opposite.
We were locked in the eternal struggle of management and labor. When efficiency experts were trying to figure out how to get factory workers to make more widgets in less time, the goal was not to cut their workdays in half in order to create more time for leisure. The goal was to double their productivity in order to make more money for the factory owners. Faster was better because more was better.
Nowadays, the workplace never closes, and you find yourself answering client emails during the Saturday matinee living-room performance of The Princess and the Dragon, an original work starring you (The Princess) and your daughter (The Dragon). You are obligated to the conveyor belt even outside of work hours because you must prove that you are productive. Look at job postings and you’ll notice that all of them require a multitasker who thrives in a fast-paced environment, a tenacious problem solver with a limitless desire to improve, a go-getter who goes out and gets results. Even when it’s the weekend and the Dragon is waiting on your next line.
Packing your hours to their fullest, all day every day, just makes those hours go by faster. Time can’t be saved, but it can be wasted. The surest way to do that is to focus your attention in the wrong location while those you love try with all their might to distract you. Because life isn’t the task. It’s the distraction.
When you’re spending this moment thinking about the next thing you have to do, you’re never actually experiencing this moment right now, when your daughter emerges from her room, still messy after she’s spent hours “cleaning” it, holding a poem she’s just written, a poem that brings you to tears with its emotional insight, and you realize that what comforts her, what brings her peace, is not bringing order to chaos, but creating beauty from nothing. And so you rip up your uncompleted to-do list, you quiet the voice of obligation in your mind, and ask her to read the poem aloud again — slowly, now that you’ve finally made time to hear.