The other day I was in line at a Chipotle in Chicago. It was around noon on a weekday, so the line was almost out the door. It took 30 minutes. It dawned on me just how wasteful and unhappy the whole situation was. Why should we all wait so long to get food when an hour or two later the cooks and servers would be waiting around with few customers?
The same is true for traffic during rush hour, parking on the weekends, and prices during vacation. The absurdity of the suffering we all endure and the economic and psychic cost of all this waiting, planning, and crowding is hard to measure. But it’s real.
It all stems from the same source: the regimentation of life. Every kid goes to school at the exact same time every day, stays for the same number of hours, leaves at the same time, and has the same days off. More variation exists in the working world, but not much. The bulk of producers clock in at roughly the same time every morning, eat lunch in unison, and head home en mass.
The odd thing is none of this is necessary for a growing number, possibly even most of us. How many jobs require someone to actually be physically present between the hours of 9 and 5? Why the heck do kids need to sit in clumps of same aged children for identical hours to be forced to study the same things in the same way? We can work from almost anywhere. We can learn from almost anywhere. Most of us have the tools, the freedom of movement, and the resources. Why don’t we see a diversity of daily schedules? Why don’t more people treat Tuesday as the weekend? Why don’t more people do all their errands during the day and their work at night? Why don’t more people abandon regular offices or classrooms altogether?
There are some benefits the the regimen, but not enough to justify the costs we endure. These practices continue primarily because of a mindset. We have status quo bias. We feel guilt or confusion at the idea of not being present 9-5 at work or 8-3 at school. It’s an obsession with externally defined roles and goals at the expense of outcomes and value created. What do we want and need to learn or create or earn? How and when can we best do it? Those are the important questions and the answers, if we are honest, would vary widely and look little like the routines most of us subject ourselves to.
Imagine a world where kids freely explored, worked, played, and learned on their own terms and timelines. Imagine a world where people of all ages worked when and how they worked best. Imagine a week not punctuated by any regular rush hour or weekend or meal time. Certainly patterns would emerge and some schedules would be more common than others, but absent our rigid adherence to an outdated schedule, supply and demand would be regulated by the money, time, and headache of peaks and troughs, and the market would smooth out and have smaller ups and downs.
The value of such a shift would be immense. Think of how many hours people would not be sitting in traffic if few had to show up at the same time to the office or school in the morning. Think about the hours and money that would not be spent during peak times for flights, hotels, parking lots, and Disney World tickets. Think of the immense subjective value enhancement by not enduring the throngs. Little if any of these major gains would show up in GDP measurements. In fact, it may hurt GDP. Less spending on the same goods. Less need for parking structures, etc.
We are seeing a slow but steady move in this direction, which is part of the reason I’ve argued that GDP is a dated and increasingly useless measure of anything valuable. Let’s speed up the process by asking “Why not?” instead of “Why?” about radical new structures that make us happier. You let your kids unschool? Why not. You work remotely? Why not. You take the day off to go to the beach in the middle of the day? Why not.
It might not be doable for you in any big ways, but I bet there are some stressful patterns in your life that are relics of a bygone era and can be shed with little difficulty.