Real Simple and the Myth of the Time-Crunch

Let me start this blog post by saying that I love Real Simple magazine.

I have been a subscriber for at least half of the 10 years the magazine has been in business. I probably would have been a subscriber longer, but I was basically too young to have a permanent address before about 2004. Like Cookie (a parenting magazine for the sophisticated set that alas, went to that great diaper bin in the sky this year), the concept is so  appealing that I have my subscription on auto-renewal. Life made easier! I love the recipes; I have made several, including the baked chicken with leeks and apples, multiple times. Every month the magazine promises a moment of respite in a chaotic world, and so I take the time to flip through each cleverly styled issue shortly after it arrives.

Note: I take the time to flip through the magazine. And this is where things start to get tricky with the Real Simple concept.

The premise of Real Simple is that its readers are thoroughly starved for time. Indeed, an email survey arrived in my in-box in late January inviting me to “vent about how little time you have.” To do this, you could go to the Real Simple website and answer questions about what you would give up for a free hour. This echoes a Real Simple feature that ran back in January 2007 in which readers wrote in about what they would do with an extra 15 minutes a day. As I recount in 168 Hours, in wistful prose, respondents described all the soul-restoring pursuits they’d indulge in if only their clocks would slow down for a while. In that magical 15 extra minutes, women wrote of playing the flute, soaking in the tub, sitting on a hammock, or, as one reader from Abilene, Texas mused, “Fifteen minutes of uninterrupted writing time would be a priceless gift.”

Which raises the question: how long did it take her to write an email to Real Simple describing that elusive dream?

Likewise, anyone who opens spam email from a magazine and then answers an email survey about how starved for time she is, is by definition, not starved for time.

Nonetheless, the results of that survey ran in the current April issue, which is so fixated on time that the magazine commissioned several artists to design high-art clocks for the pages. Some 41% of respondents told Real Simple they would opt for an hour of free time over sex, but reading Real Simple takes about an hour. That’s an hour of free time right there, without having to give up sex to get it.

This odd discrepancy between reality and the time-crunch narrative continues. For instance, Real Simple is holding a sweepstakes in which people can enter for a chance to win $3,000. The pitch? “How would you buy yourself a little time? With $3,000, you could hire a cleaning service, send out your laundry, even have someone make dinner for you.” But Real Simple has one of the magazine world’s higher average reader household incomes. That’s why April’s “Destined to be a Classic” page touts a $395 handbag, and the fashion section recommends a linen-blend tailored jumpsuit from Malene Birger at $425, and a linen Lela Rose skirt for $595. Note to Real Simple readers: You already have the money to send out the laundry. Just don’t buy the clothes in the magazine. Use the money to outsource cleaning the clothes you have!

Again, I like Real Simple because it always manages to get back around to the same point I tend to make: time is precious, and you should use it to do the things you value most. The April issue devotes several pages to profiles of serious volunteers: “[Time] is the most precious commodity any of us have, and yet these five inspiring people have chosen to spend it (lots of it) helping others,” the article begins. One profilee? Jocelyn Allen, a single mom of a teenager, who’s also an executive at OnStar, was the youth director at St. John Evangelist Temple of Truth in Detroit, and is the founder of Divas4Life, an organization that has mentored 75 at-risk African American girls and sponsors weekly field trips. Phew!

Yet the magazine’s editors don’t seem to ponder the incongruity between the existence of people like Jocelyn Allen and a cover line that promises readers that they can “find extra minutes every day.” Some people may be willing to give up sex for an extra hour of free time, and some people may write Real Simple about all the great things they’d do if they had an extra 15 minutes, but these people, and Jocelyn Allen, all have the exact same amount of time. They all have 168 hours a week.

Clearly Allen does a lot with her time, but whenever I read profiles of people like her, I find myself thinking that anyone who claims they’d live life differently in a 169.75 hour week, vs. a 168 hour week, is full of BS.

The reason to make the easy weeknight meals that Real Simple recommends is not that we are starved for time. Clearly there is enough time to be a single parent, an executive at a major company, and a committed volunteer. We have abundant time. It’s just that time spent doing one thing is time not spent doing something else, and it is far more important to be a mindful parent, an energetic worker and a generous volunteer than to spend an hour standing over a must-be-stirred pot of risotto. That is the truth, real and simple, even if people caught up in the time-crunch narrative don’t want to believe it.

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