By Alex Brooks
We put off happiness, neglect our families and pay a dog-walker - all so we can spend more time at the office in pursuit of a better life. Time has become so precious that advertisers are now trying to sell it to us.
John Churchill used to thrive on chaotic busy-ness, where a slow week meant working 70 hours. The result was that he was made partner in a law firm before he reached the age of 30. But it took its toll on his family life: for the first nine months of his daughter's life, he confesses, he only ever saw her asleep.
"Large organisations are prisons where the walls are built of money," says the former chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers Legal. "People make trade-offs they will just do it for a while but it's hard to break out of."
Churchill gave up his fancy Sydney office in 2001, when "it just wasn't fun any more". "Now our family has a hobby," says the father of three. "We collect memories." He no longer talks about his career - his business card bears his name only; no job title - but he works pro bono, acts as a mentor and directs several company boards. "Every night, our family sits down for dinner and we take the phone off the hook," he says. "Sometimes dinner takes half an hour; sometimes it takes three hours."
Last year, after conducting polls throughout Europe, America and Australia, advertising agency JWT declared that time was the new currency. "People aren't sitting around trying to figure out what to spend their money on," spouts their research. "They're frantic deciding what to spend their time with." Nowadays, says the agency, the most powerful thing a marketer can offer any customer is the opportunity to save a minute or two.
"People rate time ahead of money," explains Craig Davis, JWT's chief creative officer, citing his company's finding that 88 per cent of Australians were happy to pay more money for any brand they identified as a "time-saver".
Davis says it's not just lack of time that's stressing us out - it's the myriad choices we are offered. Should I buy a plasma TV or go on a holiday? Have children now or wait until after a master's degree? "When there is a lot of choice, there is pressure because every choice you make has an inverse cost in lost opportunity," says Davis. "If you sit and read the newspaper, that means you miss out on kicking a ball with your kids."
Advertisers have cottoned on to this by selling us the seductive illusion that we can buy not just status or sex appeal but time. Virgin Blue billboards promise more "you time" thanks to web check-in services. And Berocca's manufacturer declares we can "get more out of every day" as it shows us two girls popping a fizzy vitamin tablet and crossing four time zones in just one weekend.
Retail expert Anton van den Berg, who works for consumer research giant ACNielsen, points out that even with a declining birthrate, disposable nappies have increased in sales and breath-freshener strips that make it possible to sweeten your mouth without stopping, chewing or gargling are now a $10 million segment of the market. "Three years ago, that market didn't exist."
Now that marketers battle for a share of our time rather than plain old vanilla market share, could visions of relaxation and time to spare replace the seductive images of sex and status that advertising has relied on to flog us products? "I don't know if time will ever be as powerful as sex at selling things," Davis says. Although he does wonder whether even sex has become a victim of time poverty. "I bet it has gone the way of cooking. What used to be a slow-cooked meal is now a zap in the microwave."
Former corporate high-flyer Geoff Small - who has worked in retail, banking and advertising - says there is a good reason the advertising industry wants us to treat time as a precious, dwindling commodity: "People feel they need to entertain themselves all the time so they consume more than people who are taking life easy."
Small admits he used to be "addicted to speed", running companies that ate giant chunks of his time and sent him on crazy missions such as flying to Munich for the day. Even in his time off, "my to-do list used to read like 15 volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica," he says.
Social researcher Clive Hamilton agrees. "Even our leisure activities have been commodified," says the economist and executive director of the Australia Institute. "All the 'take a break - you deserve it' ads, with men and women walking along a beach with their cuffs rolled up. The powerful message is that you have to engage in expensive activities, then go back to your hectic life just to pay for a snatch of leisure time. It's absurd. Why not take it easy in the first place?"
As British marketing consultant Simon Gulliford points out, "Work used to be a place you went but now it's what happens when you open your eyes in the morning and look at your mobile phone. It's why people like me find it makes business sense to actually hire a driver so that I can work while I am stuck in traffic."
He says the on-hold messages, time-robbing bank forms, queues and inadequate public transport are the reason the iPod music player is so successful: "It turned time-robbing activities such as queuing up or catching trains into an opportunity. People feel in control of their lives when they are listening to their iPod."
For many people, the only way to feel less time-poor is to "downshift", by giving up a busy job or moving out of the city. "We have studied downshifters in detail and discovered that it's not just a matter of rearranging your time or earning less money," says Hamilton. "Downshifting is all about reclaiming time so that you aren't beset with obligations. The big obstacle people face is giving up the status that your job and money gave you."
Small concurs. "I think downshifting is a bad word because you 'up-shift' your quality of life when you do it," he says. Now working as a life educator, Small runs a program called Slow to teach people how to "find new meaning in just being who they are rather than what's on their business card".
Fabian Dattner, author and partner in Melbourne-based training company Dattner Grant, says Australians have never been richer nor more unhappy. (Australia Institute research has found that 30 per cent of full-time workers know they neglect their families but think it will be worth it in the end when they have more money; this is called "deferred happiness syndrome", with high- and middle-income households more likely to suffer from it than low-income earners.) "Life is not a ride to get off; it's a mind-set. Lift your head from the feed bin and if life is too complicated, start to say no," she says.
Small suggests throwing your wristwatch away and stop using the clock to dictate what you should be doing. "I also get people to draw up a list of all the things they want to achieve in your life - then focus on only one of them. Most people have 37 things they want to achieve, and that's impossible. One or two goals? That's possible."
Dr Adam Fraser, a Sydney-based workplace trainer, says slowing down is good in theory but incredibly difficult to achieve. "Because we are time-poor, we tend to give up the things we enjoy to get more time for work and family," he says. "But if you add something that gives you a sense of enjoyment - a musical instrument, charity work, whatever - that will juice you up and give you more energy."
Hamilton scoffs at the traditional business and workplace approach to time management. "All those tips to manage your life tell you to pay someone else to do your boring household tasks. That just shifts the pressure on to some other poor bugger," he says. "Paying people to walk your dog seems utterly pointless to me. Surely you get a dog so you can spend time with it."
Dattner says she is staggered by the number of people she sees walking dogs while talking on their mobile phones. "Dogs never fail to greet you with unbridled love," she continues. "This is a gift on your plate. Some people talk on the phone through their best moments."
She writes books. She is a university administrator. She teaches evening classes. She has two children. She spends three hours a day cooking, cleaning and washing. She does voluntary work. She meditates. She paints. She is studying for a phD. She swims three times a week.
Meet Jennifer Brassel. She's busy but doesn't feel pressured. "Like everyone, I do get stressed from time to time. But I have an approach that works," says the author of romance novels such as Honour Bound.
The 48-year-old, who lives in Sydney, writes a daily to-do list after her morning meditation. "I get a sense of achievement if I have more than half the list scratched off by the end of the day; a completely done list makes me feel like I am in control of my life," Brassel says. But she is unfazed when she doesn't achieve all she sets out to do. "I don't feel guilty if I take a day off and sit on the couch. I allow myself to recharge."
Brassel says rather than think of the tasks she undertakes as a chore, she sees them as an opportunity to do something exciting and different. "I enjoy cooking. It's like a creative outlet for me and then I get to sit with my family and spend time with them," she says. "There is only one thing that I pay someone else to do because it doesn't help me relax and it's dull: ironing."