Being Available Is Not the Same as Being Engaged

Many things we chase after in our lives are elastic. The amount of twitter followers we chase, the number of likes on an instagram post, the amount of money we make, and the number of fitbit steps we take each day. We think these numbers can just keep going up and up if we work hard enough, chase it hard enough.

But our time is finite. By age 50 we have had just over 18,000 days to share. That may sound like a lot or it may sound like a little depending on your point of view, but one thing is true: that’s all the days there are. No more. Which is why, in a very real sense, our time is the most precious gift in the world. And time spent focused and engaged pays dividends. It’s true in almost all aspects of life.

Make no mistake. Time measured merely in quantity, not quality, can be ineffectual, and sometimes detrimental. Offering lots of your time to your colleagues, your friends, your partner, or your kids, when you are distracted, nervous or stressed-out, has a negative effect.

According to a 2015 study on parental involvement, over the past forty years, the time invested in our kids has been going up. In general that’s a good thing. And for it to be a great thing, the time spent needs to have quality and meaning. It turns out that when the researchers measure impact based on the sheer volume of time spent with kids, there is almost no relationship to how our kids turn out – not in reading and math scores, not in emotional well-being, and not in behavior.

“I could literally show you 20 charts, and 19 of them would show no relationship between the amount of parents’ time and children’s outcomes. . . . Nada. Zippo,” – Melissa Milkie, Sociologist, University of Toronto

That comprehensive report got a lot of parents upset and angry at Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte because they had quit their jobs, compromised their own sleep, and distanced themselves from their own well-being to spend time with their kids. But time spent with others when we are exhausted, stressed and feeling alienated from our professional lives isn’t time well-spent.

The key variable in the study when making a difference in the lives of our kids is the amount of time spent being simply “available” versus being “engaged”. Being available isn’t the same as being engaged. In the study there was, however, one exception to the “time spent” finding. Researchers did find that time spent being simply accessible and available did have a positive impact on the behavioral outcomes during the teenage years.

Being present with others is an act of compassion. And compassion and kindness is the most sought-after trait in the human experience. Researcher David Buss studied 10,000 people in 37 countries to figure out the most powerful attractor in a lifelong mate. It wasn’t money, and it wasn’t beauty, and it wasn’t even intelligence.

The #1 characteristic desired around the world when looking for a long-term relationship is kindness and compassion to others. Give your time, your focus and your energy to those around you. It’s a small act of leadership we can all do.