A Brief History of Wasted Time

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Introduction

Next we'll turn to the "Working Strategies" column from the June 15th issue of the St. Paul Pioneer Press titled: "A Brief History of Wasted Time." By Amy Lindgren.

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Not long ago, I was thinking about how one's time gets abused and devalued in the job search process when I inadvertently replicated the situation myself. It happened one beautiful spring afternoon when I grudgingly sat down at the computer to make travel reservations to attend a friend's wedding. I expected to lose an hour of the gorgeous day, but I didn't stumble away until five hours later, eyes bleary, head pounding and wrist aching from too much "mousing".

I had succeeded in completing all but a few arrangements, and I had saved about $300. But was it worth sacrificing a Saturday afternoon?

Here's how we usually calculate these things: First, you could say that I "made" $60 an hour by investing five hours to save $300. You could even increase that rate, since the money would have been post-tax.

Unfortunately, that equation is problematic because it assumes I was equally efficient all afternoon. Nope. I was nearly a lunatic by hour five, and dangerously close to reckless spending just to end the ordeal.

In truth, I saved the big bucks in the first hour, when I organized the multi-city airline travel. The rest of my time was spent weighing the value of bus or train travel between adjacent cities and trying to guess from online reviews which hotels were "budget," as opposed to scuzzy.

As I sat dumbly nursing my tea later that evening, it occurred to me that there were a multitude of economic principles at play in my lost afternoon. Sadly, I came out the winner in very few.

Most clearly, I won by keeping $300 in my pocket. But I blew the efficiency models by not recognizing early on that I my time invested was bringing diminishing returns.

And then there's the question of proportion. When comparing $42 train tickets with $20 bus fares for a three-hour trip, it's easy to hyperventilate over one being twice as expensive. But I barely batted an eye over the same $22 difference between plane tickets. That's because $22 is a fraction of the cost for air travel. You'd think I'd protect the $22 as vigorously in either scenario, but of course that's not the case.

The hotels presented another interesting case study. Although I didn't realize it initially, I had too many criteria, including cost, location, dates, etc. Sadly, the hotels that met most criteria were unavailable for the nights we needed. When I finally found one that seemed to work, I rushed to make my purchase, even though they were booked for the last night of our trip.

It was only after the purchase was made that I understood one reason for the affordable price: Shared bathrooms down the hall from the room. Well, shoot.

After confirming the hotel, I was steeling myself to revisit the trains and buses when I dimly realized that a rental car was the better solution. Although parking and rental costs would eclipse the other options, we would gain flexibility, which was emerging as a value. Plus, I could delay making the reservation, and the car would let me widen the search for that last hotel night. Bingo.

So now, remembering that this is a job search column and not a travel blog, I'll explain how my lost afternoon helped me think more clearly about time-gobbling job search processes.

First there's the two-edge sword we call the Internet. While it can save us time, it can also steal time. This tool triggers an addictive gamesmanship, where we think "Just one more link" in our quest for better options. If I had said, "One hour, no more," time limits would have forced more efficiency on my part.

Then there's the question of proportion. It's common for job seekers to feel they can't spare three hours to network at a professional association meeting while almost unconsciously spending three hours on one job application. Three hours is three hours, but somehow one context looms larger than the other.

And finally, there's the big-picture question. When I stopped comparing trains and buses and started thinking about the goal (to move freely between cities) I realized I had been locked in a false either/or mentality. Similarly, stepping back allows job seekers to re-evaluate the big questions (Why am I looking for this type of job? Can I meet my goals any other way?).

So maybe this is not a column about time use, but about values and compromise. At some point we have to compromise something we value for something we value even more. The trick is seeing that in real time, while we still have the resources to allocate.

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That concludes an article from the "Working Strategies" column from the June 15th issue of the St. Paul Pioneer Press titled: "A Brief History of Wasted Time." By Amy Lindgren. I'm Anne Obst.

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