In January, Apple unveiled the iPad. It is loaded with 16 gigabytes of memory and has a 9.7-inch touch screen, and pretty soon, I imagine, I won’t be able to live without it. It will save me time because I’ll never again have to schlep my novels to the charity shop, move them from one home to the next, or even go to a bookstore. But not all so-called convenience items confer a trifecta of time-saving benefits. I should know. I spent the last year juggling four computers and two handhelds while I, aptly enough, worked on a book exploring how our lives became so tyrannically ruled by e-mail. And I learned that e-mail wasn’t the only thing guilty of hoovering my valuable hours. Read on for a full rogue’s gallery.
1. The DVR: TV viewing recently hit an all-time high of 151 hours per month, according to a Nielsen study, and the digital video recorder may be partly to blame. That lineup of shows you’ve recorded—which is tellingly called “To Do” on TiVo—is handy, but how many times have you felt compelled to watch every last thing in your queue? Having a DVR, which encourages you to tape any program you’re slightly curious about, makes it far too easy to spend hours watching 25 women battling it out on a Slip ’n Slide for an aging rock star’s heart.
2. The interstate system: In the 1920s, paved parkways replaced dusty roads, and a unified network of highways spread across America. And from that point on, everyone thought getting across town (much less the country) would be trouble-free. Oh, well. These days our highways are clogged: Exhibit A, the New Jersey Turnpike on a Sunday in August. Traffic has gotten so bad that the average American will spend 36 hours in it every year. That’s time that could be spent reading, writing letters, or even having sex. As much as you might like listening to NPR, it’s a sorry substitute.
3. The commuter flight: In theory, puddle jumpers can take you from one state to another before you finish your sudoku puzzle. But that’s not the full picture. These routes are often riddled with delays. For instance, in October 2009, a certain airline we won’t mention had a 10:25 a.m. flight from Phoenix to Sacramento, California, that was late 95 percent of the time (yes, you read that correctly), with average delays of more than 40 minutes. And when you add in the time spent getting to the airport, waiting in the security line, and worrying if that bag of pretzels will expand in your stomach at 33,000 feet, you might as well hitchhike.
4. The digital camera: That clunky, old 35-millimeter actually saved you time. Each roll of film contained no more than 36 photos, which meant that when you ran out, you put the camera down and enjoyed yourself. You were living, not simply photographing living. Sure, it’s great you can now take a picture and e-mail it to a friend. But don’t you get overwhelmed by having to sort (and remove red eyes from) 2,132 photos after every trip? Maybe dropping film off at the drugstore wasn’t such a bad gig after all.
5. The coffeemaker: You can buy one that goes off at 6:32 every morning and brews your coffee for you, but you still have to clean, prep, and load the machine first, which can take five minutes if you do it right. Add that up and it’s roughly one day per year spent making coffee. And there’s the buying of filters. And replacing the machine eventually with a newer model. It’s all so exhausting, no wonder we need the caffeine.
6. The electric shaver: Eighty years after Jacob Schick introduced his namesake device, mankind is still in want of a thorough (and efficient) shave. Here’s what your guy routinely endures: After using an electric model, he has to go back over his chin with a regular razor to catch the strays. Then he has to clean both gadgets. Then he has to wipe the little hairs off the bathroom sink. And as you know too well, he never gets every last one.
7. Online grocery shopping: No one wants to spend a Saturday navigating the aisles of a supermarket, but online grocery shopping can be a deceptively inefficient alternative. Yes, you can have toilet paper, crackers, and OJ delivered, but good luck finding garden-fresh produce with the click of a mouse. And breaking down all the cardboard boxes that the food comes in can kill 20 minutes, easy. Instead, use online grocery shopping as a supplement to the real thing, which you’ll have to do anyway.
8. E-mail: We e-mail all day from our computers. And then from the gym. We glance at it mid-conversation with our spouses. In a recent poll conducted by AOL, nearly 60 percent of respondents even admitted to having checked their e-mail while answering the call of nature. The truth of the matter: The more we e-mail, the more e-mail we get. And that leads to more time spent e-mailing. Studies show that those hours don’t come from the workday or TV viewing; they come from time with our families.
9. Computerized call centers: Call almost any customer-service number (like Amtrak’s 1-800-USA-RAIL) and you will be greeted by an automated attendant. That’s when things get irksome. You will repeat what you need as she requests to go back a step. And in a few minutes, you may just desperately start repeating, “Operator, operator, operator.…” If Samuel Beckett were alive today, Waiting for Godot might have taken place in one of these call-center hells.
10. The Roomba Cleaning Robot: It was supposed to be the quintessential time-saving device. (It allegedly beavers around, vacuuming up loose crumbs while you relax with a mai tai.) But how many hours do Roomba owners spend retrieving it? And does anything ever really get clean? Let’s face it—this Jetsons-esque device will make its mark only in the novelty-gift hall of fame.