2014 Economic Forecast: The Fatherhood Edition
This post is primarily for my former students—most of whom are guys in their twenties. But if you know someone in his or her twenties, you might like reading it, too.
I’m not an economist, but I have a friend who is. And he told me this once, when I asked him over a beer what exactly an economist does: “We interpret the value of things.” He went on to explain economics in what I thought was a pretty interesting way—in that he didn’t once refer to money. Instead, he offered insights about human desires, aspirations, and the priorities we place on abstractions like time and freedom as well as material possessions. Of course, he then went on to explain how interconnected concrete items are with these abstractions, and how perceptions, priorities, and shifting desires vastly affect their value.
Mr. Hastreiter’s twelfth grade economics class taught me (and perhaps a few of you, since his famous notes live on in the curriculum) about the basic principles of supply and demand, which are pretty easy to understand on an academic level. But oh, the reality of economics didn’t settle in ’til later in life. Because it’s when the economics of time become more prominent than that of finance that the true understanding kicks in. Hence this blog post, which, as I’ve said, I dedicate to all my former students who are now in their twenties. Guys: Unless you are one of very few exceptions, such as a member of the Armed Forces, I’m going to suggest, at the risk of sounding presumptuous, that you have no idea how much you can do with your time. Sad thing is, despite my telling you (and probably lots of other older people you aren’t inclined to listen to either), you won’t figure that out until you have less of it. I sure didn’t. Let me explain.
My son is a year and a half old. Megan and I have our second child due in March. And so I find myself at a stage of life where the economics of everything is changing. Obviously finances are a part of the picture, in a whole new way. But that’s not what I mean. No, the most striking discovery I’ve made since becoming a dad is the shifting economics of time and productivity. Naturally, dollars and cents are intertwined with both, but I’m going to forget about those for the sake of my point.
Here’s that point: A sneaky little irony about parenthood is that you suddenly have less time but you get more done than ever before. Since becoming a dad, I’ve become a lot more productive. And the irony here is that I have far less time to myself. Which would leave one thinking that it would be nearly impossible to get anything done. But ya do.
The clearest way I can explain what I mean by this is to offer the following comparisons.
Before I was married, in my mid-to-late twenties, I had an average of six hours daily of what I’ll call “disposable time.” This is roughly comparable to the concept of “disposable income.” That is, it was “extra” time that I could reasonably spend as I pleased, after other obligations were met. That’s right: after accounting for sleep and work, I had about six hours each day with which I really could do what I pleased. Now granted, I filled most of that with responsibilities by choice. For me, it took the form of coaching. But still, that was a choice. I could just as well have spent that time reading books, working out, watching sports, or playing video games.
When I got married, I’d say that average fell to about four hours. The difference? Obligations to my wife, of course. Time spent doing things of mutual interest. Forming a household. Preparing the foundations for a family. Home improvement. Living for and in each other’s interests and not just our own. It’s hard to quantify or list exactly what consumes the time; it’s simply the system of being a couple that does it. You consume each other’s time, just as you somehow redefine each other’s desires about how to spend that time. The economy of time begins to change.
And now? Fatherhood. I’m not exaggerating when I say that average amount of disposable time has fallen to approximately two hours a day. That’s right. There are about two hours out of every twenty-four that I can spend as I choose, freely, without some other immediate responsibility, and they are usually either before 7:00 am or after 10:00 pm. Some days this number is higher, of course, and sometimes it’s even lower. But it’s the truth. And in many cases I’ll choose to spend them sleeping, which means nothing else I wanted to do besides what was required will get done that day. Some might say that two hours sounds like a lot. It isn’t. Remember, that includes all the time for pretty much anything elective: working out, reading, etc. And sometimes it’s spent doing something elective but not exactly fun, like reorganizing my desk drawer or moving furniture around.
Now, I think the parents reading this understand this intrinsically and won’t even bat an eyelash at that statement. And I’d assume that those reading it who are married but not yet parents can conceive of it (yes, pun intended.) But if you’re not married or a parent…well, no offense, but there’s no way in hell you have any clue of what I’m talking about. (Unless you’re in the military, in which case you absolutely do; in fact, you probably learned it at an earlier age, though for different reasons.) I absolutely don’t mean to offend the rest of you or be smug here. If you know me at all, you know it’s not like that. Oh, sure, you can do the math, but you don’t get what I mean when I say 2 hours of disposable time. I know, I know…some of you are single professional types who work 16-hour days, and you don’t have much time, and you are reading this rolling your eyes and thinking I’m a patronizing bore. But trust me. I mean no offense by this, but if you don’t have kids, you don’t—you just can’t—fully get what I’m talking about. You’re all smart guys, but you can’t conceive of it right now beyond intellectually—because it’s not about being smart. It doesn’t matter how smart one is; one cannot understand this until it is actually the case. (Which is why I included my exception for the military.)
And yet somehow, amidst what might seem, apparently, like some form of miserable servitude, there is profound joy and happiness. How is this possible? How, in a situation wherein one really doesn’t get to do much of anything beyond what is required and responsible and obligatory, can one be so ridiculously content and happy as parents often are? It’s because the interior economy has changed. It goes back to what my economist friend explained to me over that very good pint of Guinness. Of course, there is a hidden value here, besides the joy and happiness and fulfillment that comes with husband-hood and fatherhood. Here’s the sneaky truth that I wish I’d known when I did have eight hours of disposable time every day:
THERE IS SO MUCH THAT A GUY CAN DO IN ONE HOUR!!!
My God, yes. I can do so much in one hour. If only I’d known this when I was in my twenties. Here’s what I’ve discovered about the economics of time and productivity since becoming a dad, with only roughly two hours of disposable time each day:
Before I was a dad, I’d grade about four student papers in an hour, with plenty of distractions creeping in. Now that I’m a dad, I’ll sit down and hammer through roughly ten an hour. And ironically, I’ll do a better job of each one, because I understand on a whole new level that the paper is the work of someone else’s little boy, just like mine.
Before I was a dad, I’d maybe clean up the kitchen in an hour (if at all), taking my time to talk on the phone or cruise the internet sporadically while doing it. Now that I’m a dad, I’ll clean up the kitchen, straighten up three or four other rooms, get in a load of laundry, maybe clear a few things out of the garage, and then take care of a random household task, like fixing that loose drawer.
Before I was a dad, I’d drive all over town at random intervals, maybe completing errands as I thought of them. Now that I’m a dad, everything gets planned with military precision. In the course of an hour I can hit the grocery store, get the oil changed in the car (grading a few papers while I wait), stop at the hardware store to get the parts I need to fix that loose drawer, and probably fill up the gas tank and stop at the dry cleaner’s on the way home.
I could probably go on about this for a while. I could list lots of examples. But I hope the point is becoming abundantly clear: with scarcity of time comes an increase in value. And with that increase of value comes an increase in productivity. And so, at the end of the day, I’ve found that I’m a much more productive person precisely, I think, because I don’t have any time…and yet I’m happier than ever during most of those hours. And that, hermanitos, is one hell of an irony.
Imagine, then, if by some chance, I could have had the wherewithal or humility to listen to a little more wisdom when I was younger, in my teens and twenties. I just laugh when I do the math: If every hour of my twenties could have been as productive as my hours are now, I’d probably be a very, very wealthy guy. Hell, even if every hour of my twenties could have been half as productive as an hour is now, I’d be in a very different place. But I guess that’s my whole point. I couldn’t have been told this and had it permeate my thick skull; I could only have lived my way to it. Perhaps the receding hairline of one’s thirties is accompanied by a proportional skull-narrowing.
So is there any point in my having offered this reflection for the benefit of others who are in their twenties, mostly my former students who so kindly take the time to read my rambling baloney? Probably not much. But perhaps, just maybe, you might take a hard look at how you’re spending your hours. I wish I had. And so here’s the question: Can you—no, will you—add value to your free time before a point arrives in your life when scarcity will demand it?
Feel free to comment with your thoughts, opinions, agreements, disagreements, angry retorts, or musings on parenthood and time.
Oh. By the way…buy one of my books, will ya?