On Time

Rosana Francescato
8 min readJan 1, 2021

I’ve been wanting to write about time for years, but I haven’t had the time.

I really have no good excuse. I don’t have children; I don’t work 12-hour days; I’m lucky not to have a long commute. So why do I feel like I never have enough time for the things I want to do?

It’s not just me. The lack of time is a frequent complaint, and it’s one of the main reasons so many of my friends look forward to retirement. But why is everyone so busy? How did this all start, and where will it end?

We think of our current lack of time and extreme busyness as a uniquely modern phenomenon. But although schedules have indeed sped up with faster means of transportation, overnight shipping, and instantaneous electronic communications, the feeling of not having enough time has been around for a while.

1917: What became of the time we saved with the motor car?

I first became aware of this truth via Laura Ingalls Wilder, best known for her “Little House” books — not that abomination of a TV show (sorry — but Pa with no whiskers, really?), but the wonderful series of books about pioneer life starting with Little House in the Big Woods and continuing through the more famous Little House on the Prairie and others. Despite their limited 19th-century white settler perspective, Laura’s lively, independent spirit shines through these books powerfully, making them well worth reading over and over.

But it turns out that before she ever began writing a book, Laura wrote articles for farm journals and national publications.

As I read these in the 1990s, one 1917 article struck me in particular, titled “What Became of the Time We Saved?” Laura wrote:

“A few days ago, with several others, I attended the meeting of a woman’s club in a neighboring town. We went in a motor car, taking less than an hour for the trip on which we used to spend three hours before the days of motor cars; but we did not arrive at the appointed time nor were we the latest comers by any means. Nearly everyone was late, and all seemed in a hurry. We hurried through the proceedings; we hurried in our friendly exchanges of conversation; we hurried away; and we hurried all the way home where we arrived late as usual.

“What became of the time the motor car saved us? Why was everyone late and in a hurry? I used to drive leisurely over to this town with a team, spend a pleasant afternoon, and reach home not much later than I did this time, and all with a sense of there being time enough, instead of a feeling of rush and hurry. We have so many machines and so many helps, in one way and another, to save time; and yet I wonder what we do with the time we save. Nobody seems to have any!”

How was this woman so in tune with what I was experiencing over 75 years later?

1995: It still takes nine months to have a baby, but you can produce a book in two

From 1992 to 1997 I worked as a Production Editor at the San Francisco division of HarperCollins. The book production schedule generally ran about nine months, but there was constant pressure to speed things up — with certain fast-track book schedules being trimmed down to a mere two months.

Much later I read this famous phrase in The Mythical Man-Month, required reading for project managers: “The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned.” The point is that some tasks will take a set amount of time no matter what, and adding more people won’t shorten the schedule — and can even cause delays or other problems.

Apparently this was not the case for producing books.

It’s not surprising that in their quest to squeeze more profit out of a traditionally low-profit business, publishers wanted to churn out potential bestsellers as quickly as they could. What was less expected, though, was that the very systems meant to save us time actually allowed the schedule shrinkage to happen at all — resulting in us having less time than ever.

Email was just starting to become prevalent at the time and attachments often wouldn’t go through, but overnight FedEx shipments allowed us to get a manuscript to a proofreader or author in record time. I recall an article about this phenomenon being tacked to the wall in the copy room (a few years later, it would have been emailed around). The basic gist of the article was that overnight shipments, rather than saving time, were simply condensing schedules and forcing everyone and everything to speed up.

How was this progress?

2002: Grabbing coffee with Charlie Ravioli

Around the same time I started to notice that when people said how busy they were, it sounded like bragging. I was guilty of this too, joining in on the common refrain: when people asked how you were, the standard answer was “busy” — or even, “crazy busy.”

This wasn’t confined to real people. In 2002, Adam Gopnik wrote a wonderful article about his three-year-old daughter Olivia’s imaginary friend, Charlie Ravioli. Charlie was an unusual imaginary friend: he was always too busy to play with Olivia. If she was lucky she might “bump into him” and “grab a coffee.” But more often than not, Charlie was nowhere to be found, and Olivia had to content herself with leaving messages on his machine or with his assistant.

Gopnik was a bit concerned at first but soon realized that Charlie Ravioli was a product of Olivia’s modern New York environment. As he mused on when the feeling of busyness had begun, he honed in on the last third of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th: “Suddenly everybody is busy, and everybody is complaining about it. Pepys, master of His Majesty’s Navy, may never have complained of busyness, but Virginia Woolf, mistress of motionless lull, is continually complaining about how she spends her days racing across London from square to square, just like — well, like Charlie Ravioli.”

What had caused this? Trains and telegrams, Gopnik concluded, were the early speeder-uppers of our lives. “If the train crowded our streets,” he wrote, “the telegram crowded our minds. It introduced something into the world which remains with us today: a whole new class of communications that are defined as incomplete in advance of their delivery.” Think about your email inbox — or inboxes, if you’re like most people and have at least one personal and one work account — and you’ll get what he was getting at. (I’m not totally down with his assessment, as I recall pressure to respond to letters back in the dark ages of the 1970s and ’80s, which makes me think that this pressure may have been there in previous centuries. But the constant barrage of overstuffed inboxes plus the pull of social media have certainly been major contributors to lost time and the feeling of busyness.)

Notice a theme? The things that are meant to save us time somehow end up robbing us of that most precious commodity.

2020: Time in the time of coronavirus

Though we’re in the same ocean, we’re certainly not all in the same boat in pandemic times — in terms of time as well as so many other things. My husband and I have been extremely fortunate to remain employed, so we haven’t gained much time. I’ve been working from home for over three years, so my daily routine hasn’t changed much. When I hear some people talk about all the time they have now, when I see the walks and road trips being taken by friends and acquaintances who suddenly find themselves with tons of unexpected time, I get wistful and have to remind myself how lucky I am to be gainfully employed. While I do enjoy the creativity of families making covid music videos and people re-creating famous paintings (as I indulge in the time-sink of social media), I know I don’t have the time to do anything like that.

Or so I tell myself. But is it true?

My schedule hasn’t changed drastically. But there are tears in the fabric of time that weren’t there before the pandemic. Today is New Year’s Eve and there’s no pressure to do anything! We’ve lived through entire weekends — even weeks — without having to leave the house (though we probably should leave it now and then). Even the few work-related events I’ve gone to this year took up less time because there was no time spent dressing up or getting there, and I’ve opted not to attend many more because I was tired of zooming. I terribly miss gatherings with friends and family — but I’m enjoying the stretches of unscheduled time and wondering how to keep them going when the pandemic is behind us.

Every time I take time off from work I get slightly panicked thinking about all the things I want to do in what is always not enough time. But I’m now in the middle of 11 days off and am enjoying the time immensely (while knowing it won’t be enough). I’ve been taking walks, relaxing at home, and letting the time feel like it’s stretching out before me — so much so that I even started to feel like I might have time to write about time.

The rest of the time, despite the fact that my work schedule has been uninterrupted by the pandemic, I’m trying to make more time to connect with people. Having lost a few friends to cancer in recent years has served as a reminder of the importance of those connections. But it’s taken the pandemic for many of us to realize that we can easily connect even with friends who live far away.

What’s our choice? If we don’t make the effort, “Like Charlie Ravioli, we hop into taxis and leave messages on answering machines to avoid our acquaintances, and find that we keep missing our friends.” I don’t want to miss my friends. I don’t want to wait till I retire to do the things I love. I don’t want to be Charlie Ravioli. Time still feels scarce, but maybe our relationship with time involves some amount of choice. That’s a choice I’m trying to make.

What I’ve found time for in this pandemic year:

A first-ever reunion with my very small high school class of 1979 — virtual but so sweet, one of the highlights of my year.

Regular zoom calls with a group of close friends from my hometown — including one I’ve known since we were six years old.

Growing a few vegetables in our small urban garden.

Reading more books.

Adopting two kittens.

Finally writing this post. It turns out I did have time for it, all along.



Rosana Francescato

Clean energy analyst, advocate, communicator spreading the good solar word