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Apr 24, 2009


This word does not exist in English, but it does in French and in Russian (although it is still a very obscure word). According to André Maurois, Henry de Montherlant made it up in French. A chronophage, literally, means the devourer of time. Here is an example: someone puts together a large meeting, invites many people, only to accomplish a very modest task that can be accomplished by a couple of e-mails. People gather only to find out that there is nothing really to talk about, there is no plan, no proposal, just a general talk. Or, someone send you a request to participate in a survey of some kind, and it is not clear what it is for, and the questions seem to be haphazard. Or someone puts together a public panel only to provide legitimacy to a proposal that is actually developed, and really does not need any input. Or, an official calls a meeting and lectures for an hour. A chronophage will present a small problem to be a large one, therefore demanding that people pay attention to it.

Don't get me wrong: I welcome and embrace nterruptions. I love when faculty drop by to talk about things that are on their mind. It is an interruption, but almost always a welcome one. I learn something, and I am able to answer questions, and ask questions. This is how we know what is going on, and how people are doing and feeling. That is not at all a problem. I also always see a student who dropped by, because it is important for us to maintain an open, welcoming office. It is also very important to meet face to face to solve complex problems, hence my deep appreciation for a good slowtalk.

The problem is when someone eats your time without regard for you or for others. A chronophage does not value you or your time. I missed an important phone call, just because three or four chronophages ate a few hours of my time this week. A really good person got upset with me, because I did not return his call in two days, and it was urgent.

Why do they do it? Well, I have a theory. A chronophage derives the self-worth from eating other people's time. It is really a childish need for constant attention. A chronophage perceives the time that he takes as a tribute, paid to him by others. It is a tax, an obligation, a sign of respect. Eating other people's time sustains this person's illusion of importance. And because people will start to avoid the chronophage, he will feel threatened and insecure. The chronophage gets hungry for time. To fix that, he will devise more and more complicated ways of eating other people's time. And the more authority he has, the easier it is to do, and the more difficult it is for us to resist him.

Therefore, I proclaim a holy war against the chronophages. Resist! Fight back! Do not get eaten alive! When asked to do something, to meet or to answer, ask why, who needs it, and what would be likely outcomes. Ignore salesmen! Doubly ignore salesmen who pretend not to be one! Always ask if there is a plan or a proposal. Ask to send you something first. Ask what it is about. A noble cause does not always indicate a worthy project. A lofty title may disguise a dog and pony show. You are the master of your own time. Someone might need it more than the chronophage.

Well, let's just say, it was a busy week, maybe a little more than usual.

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