Arbitrary time spans

I don’t shower every day.

Some people find that off putting. Why? As far as I’m told I don’t stink. Apparently showering daily is just what one is supposed to do. I don’t follow. Why should my personal hygiene be tied to the rate at which the Earth revolves around its axis? Some days it’s cold outside and I sit in front of a computer for way too long, never breaking a sweat. Other days I go riding my bike among the hills of Portland on a hot summer day. Why would you expect a consistent frequency of showering through all those different conditions? Some people even say showering every day is bad for you.

These encounters make me think of other areas where we have similar expectations. We have certain time spans for certain activities that we take for granted, but haven’t really considered why.

The day is a natural cycle. Light, dark, wake, sleep. Yes, I know it’s not as clear cut around the poles. But the gradations on the clock are arbitrary. Why are normal work hours 9 to 5? Maybe it helps to have specific hours for when people need to meet. But more and more work is information work where that’s not the case. At least not during the whole work day. What if I’m most productive before the kids wake up or after they go to bed? Kids don’t go to work, but they aren’t free from arbitrary daily schedules either. Some biological research shows that teenagers naturally fall asleep later and wake up later, yet we enforce a crazy early school schedule on them. The state of California even had to pass a law to get that to stop.

Eating is another thing most of us do daily. Why do we eat only at certain times or only certain foods? When you go to a restaurant, certain foods won’t be available outside the set breakfast, lunch or dinner times. In fact, it’s considered a bonus when places advertise “breakfast served all day”. Why? If the kitchen is capable of producing pancakes, does it lose that capability after dark? And why is it so surprising when a restaurant acknowledges they can throw the same things together regardless of time of day?

Why does buying groceries more than once a week feel odd? When I was growing up, you had to walk to the market to get bread every day. It would be fresh, sometimes even still warm. Delicious. And since you were going every day anyway, it wasn’t uncommon to grab a few things for dinner while you were there. So you didn’t need to plan for an entire week of meals every weekend. And since you were only shopping for the day, you didn’t need an SUV to carry the groceries back home. These days we plan weekly, and it feels like a failure if we forget something and have to go back to the store.

The year is another natural cycle. The seasons changing, the weather warming up and cooling down. So when a farmer plants their seeds is natural. But the months and year labels are arbitrary. Why does school go from fall to early summer? Why are the summers off? Can’t learning happen in the summer? You won’t get that when you work. Speaking of work, why are performance reviews once a year? I don’t even remember what I did last week. How am I supposed to come up with a manifest of what I did for the whole year, let alone convince people that I deserve a raise for it? What I do for most of the year will probably be forgotten. Why not review more frequently, or align the reviews with large deliverables or milestones?

Birthdays are another weird one. Why celebrate surviving one more rotation of the Earth around the sun? Some years there’s nothing noteworthy in one’s life, and others are full of new experiences and challenges. Yet we’re supposed to celebrate both the same. Kids can’t wait to get older, and adults don’t want to. It’s all very interesting if you actually stop to think about it…