Holiday season

This Holiday Season, Give Time

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Jill Ebstein is the publisher of the “At My Pace” book series and the founder of Sized Right Marketing, a consulting firm in Newton, Massachusetts. She wrote this for

It’s a moment that came back to me many times. I had been to Starbucks in my hometown of Denver. Before going to visit my sick mother, I thought a coffee would be nice.

Once at the counter, the barista serving me asked, “And how are you today?” He looked like he wanted an answer. Living in Boston, I was not used to such friendliness.

I replied, “Very well, thank you,” as he continued to stare at me. Then I realized I had to turn the question around. “And how are you?” I asked awkwardly. He gave a lot more of an answer than I had offered. I deduced that he had the time and the interest to connect. It was a “wow” moment.

I’ve had many Groundhog Day experiences listening to this moment. When I call my husband at work, I usually start with, “Do you have two minutes? He does the same to me, and yes, we always find the two minutes or more. But why are we asking, and why the two-minute constraint?

In a recent client study, I asked people to identify their biggest pain point in the context of work. The response was a resounding “Lack of time” and “I can’t cope with the workload”. In past studies, I often heard about technology gaps or processes that did not follow or change market dynamics. Not this time. No, it was about wanting more time.

And just when I was sure I had finally found a respondent who identified technology as their pain point, then I heard, “Tech isn’t the problem. It is that it requires a conversation. I laughed. We had come back to the question of time.

Perhaps because of COVID, our world recognizes that one of our most precious gifts is that of time. That shouldn’t be so surprising. Most of us have spent two years purging old assets. We realize that we need less, which is good since inflation and the big resignation have emptied our pockets.

Yet pivoting to valuing the gift of time is not easy. That means making time for a cup of coffee with Aunt Louise, or talking to your talkative neighbor when you have an effective walk with the dog in mind. It means engaging in real conversation about things that matter when you’d rather have small talk. Or initiate a phone call that doesn’t start with “Do you have two minutes?”

I’ve worked on building this “gift of time” skill in several places in my life. A woman at the grocery store asked me what apples I would recommend for a pie. I don’t know why she asked me, and I could have said I don’t know, which isn’t far from the truth. Instead, I replied, “I use granny smiths and sometimes I add a macintosh, but I don’t know if that’s good.” We talked for the next three or four minutes. Maybe she cared less about apples and more about human interaction. It doesn’t matter because I gave it with pleasure. Now, when neighbors pass by, I sometimes ask the Starbucks question, “And how are you?” These are small steps, but they matter.

I became a philosopher about the “gift of time”. There are so many ways we have become more difficult during COVID. We are more abrupt, more preoccupied, less healthy. According to a recent Boston University study, rates of depression have tripled in the United States since the pandemic first hit, reaching 33% of American adults. We are therefore right in our behavior.

But if COVID has made us tougher, and it is, it has also made us softer. I’m starting to think differently about time. We don’t always need to be in a hurry. We can change how we measure ourselves – not how many activities we pack into a busy day, but did we let a conversation drift to where the person wanted to take it? Did we make anyone laugh or smile? Have we offered a reason for hope? Can we build slop into our days to enable this behavior?

These reflections explain why I had in mind “Hazy Shade of Winter” by Simon and Garfunkel. It begins, “Time, time, time. See what I have become” and moves on to “the seasons change with the landscape”.

Our landscape has changed, and as I discover the gift of time, I might have it too.

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