There’s No Such Thing as ‘Quality’ Time
When you’re too busy aiming for it, you miss the moments in front of you
It’s one of those lines we throw out casually: “I want to spend more ‘quality time’… ” whether it’s with friends, with family, with your kids, or with yourself.
While the phrase certainly comes from a good place, there’s a disconnect: The perfectionist side of our brain, fueled by movies and Instagram, wants everything to be special, to be “right.” But that’s an ideal that the busy, ordinary, doing-the-best-we-can versions of ourselves can’t always live up to.
The result? An inevitable sense of disappointment. We feel awful for the deficiency, so out of guilt, we plan elaborate vacations. We project enormous expectations and pressure on ourselves. We think “Oh, if only I had more money, or a better job, or lived in France where the child care benefits were different, then I could be happy.”
That’s not fair. And it’s also damaging.
The reason is that there is no such thing as “quality time.” Jerry Seinfeld, who has three teenage kids, put it well:
I’m a believer in the ordinary and the mundane. These guys that talk about ‘quality time’ — I always find that a little sad when they say, ‘We have quality time.’ I don’t want quality time. I want the garbage time. That’s what I like. You just see them in their room reading a comic book and you get to kind of watch that for a minute, or [having] a bowl of Cheerios at 11 o’clock at night when they’re not even supposed to be up. The garbage, that’s what I love.
To be fair, Seinfeld is the master of the mundane. Banality has made him a near-billionaire. But there is a deeper truth to what he’s getting at. Special days? Nah. Every day is special. Every minute can be “quality time.”
I remember when my book The Obstacle Is the Way first starting making its way through professional sports, I was invited to see the Seahawks training camp up in Renton, Washington. I had just gotten married and my career was really firing, so I asked Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll how coaches manage to make a personal life work with such insane hours. Pete, who has been married for more than 40 years, looked at me and said, “You have to find the moments between moments.”
It’s something I’ve seen inside the buildings of most of the sports teams I’ve visited. Yeah, the coaches and staff often get there before the sun comes up and leave long after it’s gone down. Yeah, they travel a lot. But their families are always around. They’re doing lunches and dinners at the office. They are taking time between sessions to sit and talk, to hang out, to work out, to do things together.
It’s all about the moments between the moments for ordinary people, too. I’ve never understood parents who complain about “being a chauffeur” to their kids. “What am I, your driver?” they say. Sure, it can be a pain in the ass to drive your kids around. To day care. To school. To a friend’s house. To a doctor’s appointment. To soccer practice. Sometimes it can feel like this is all parenting is — driving a little person around. For free.
But instead of seeing the drive as an obligation or an inconvenience, why not choose to see it as a gift? A moment between moments. In fact, it’s a lot of moments. Even better, it’s captive time. You are stuck together! This is wonderful. This is what you wanted, right? An opportunity to connect? To bond? To have fun? So use it!
As many parents with older children will tell you, something changes when kids are in the car with you. Suddenly, you’re not the parent. You’re just a companion, a fellow human being equalized by traffic. Kids will share things in the car they wouldn’t say anywhere else. Better yet, when their friends are in the car too, you fade into the background and suddenly you can watch how your kid is with other people. It’s like you’re a detective watching through one-way glass. You’ll learn things about your own son or daughter that you’d never know otherwise. You’ll get a glimpse into who they are in a way they could never articulate to you directly.
This isn’t only true for kids. Some of my best memories with my wife, or friends, have happened in the car. Or when we were sitting at the gate, waiting for a delayed plane. Sometimes these awkward, in-between moments allow for conversations that never would have happened otherwise. Even some of my best writing and thinking have come when I was stuck somewhere I didn’t want to be, or doing something I didn’t want to do. When you’re out of excuses for being busy, when you can’t defer or plan for some idealized future, you’re forced to just make do with what’s in front of you. The distinction between “quality” time and “garbage” time falls away and you’re left with what simply is.
Often when we are trying really hard to attain something, we end up missing the fact that we’ve had it in our hands the whole time. Sure, letting your kids blow off school for a fun day together can be wonderfully special — but so can the 20-minute drive in traffic to school. So can mailing a letter or watching a garbage truck meander through the neighborhood.
All time with your kids — all time with anyone you love — is created equal. What you do with it is what makes it special. Not where. Or for how long. Or at what cost.
Think back to your own childhood. Rushing around to get somewhere on time. Packing for that trip to Disneyland. Getting all dressed for those ridiculous matching group photos. “Why are we doing this?” you asked when you were old enough to notice that it seemed really stressful and not fun. The answer was always something like: “Because we’re a family.” As if you couldn’t be a family anywhere, doing anything. As if you couldn’t do it right here and now.
This is worth remembering in all facets of life: You can be a family without getting dressed and leaving the house. You can be in love in the McDonald’s drive-through. You can be romantic near the eggs at the grocery store. You can be a writer as you ride the elevator down to take out the trash. You can be a good person in how you answer the phone or how you send emails.
There’s a Tolstoy quote I love: “There is no past and no future; no one has ever entered those two imaginary kingdoms. There is only the present.”
When you realize there is no such thing as “quality time,” when you become okay with “garbage time,” you end up getting the best kind of time there is. You get the moment right in front of you.
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