What is Quality Time?

In 2013, a close friend of mine was in hospice dying of cancer.  At the time I was in my late twenties, so you can imagine that sitting with a friend as they are dying was fairly new to me.  I was afraid to go visit him because I didn’t know what to say. 

At the time I had a mentor, Clayton Watkins.  He was in his nineties.  Clayton grew up in Amarillo in the 1920s.  He had been around for a while, so I went to him to learn something about bedside manners.  What I learned from him that day has never left me.

I nervously walked into his office, “Mr. Watkins, may I have a minute of your time?”

“Sure!”  He closes the book he’s reading and scoots it off his desk, giving me his undivided attention. 

I told him how I was afraid to visit my friend in hospice. He asked me a bunch of questions about my friend and our relationship, how we met, and what he was like, etc.  Finally, he answered my question.

“You spend quality time with him.  Even if you’re only there for 5 minutes and you give him your undivided attention it will feel, for him, like an hour.”

That’s the day I learned what quality time was.  It wasn’t about quantity, or how many minutes we spend with the people we care about.  Quality time is about giving someone our undivided attention, period, even if it’s only for a few minutes. 

I went to visit my friend.  He was unconscious when I walked in.  His mom invited me to sit next to him and told me that he could hear us.  I leaned in and told him how much he meant to me.  I shared with him how I was going to do for others what he had done for me.   

I was there for 7 minutes, but it made a big impact on everyone in the room.  They were crying and my friend had turned his head slightly toward me. I really wanted him to hear me.  His body responded and his respiratory rate increased. I’m hoping he heard how much I loved him and would continue his legacy. 

My friend in hospice was unconscious and couldn’t talk back, so I did all the talking.  When I spend quality time with my kids, I let them do all the talking.  I become genuinely interested in their life, even if only for a few minutes. 

Those few minutes matter.    

Better yet, the quality of those few minutes matter.  What is quality?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  The quality of time with another person is measured by the emotional valence and level of arousal.  Simply put, quality time is measured by how you feel about your time together.  The emotion experienced during your time together determines memory storage.

Quality time is about making memories.  I can still remember playing in my sandbox as a four-year-old early in the morning, on one particular day.  I can hear the church bells and the birds chirping.  I can see the vine crawling up the fence and feel my hands in the sand.  I experience pure tranquility and peace, a brief glimpse into the past. The memory of that moment is extremely vivid, still today. 

Yes, people can spend quality time with themselves, too. Most importantly, I cherish the memories of the time I spent with the people I’m closest to. These memories are snapshots of our lives together, the brief moments that quality time produced.

Quality time is about making memories. It only takes a few minutes to make one.   

Note: Any reference to truths gleaned or stories about experiences in clinical practice are never in reference to a particular individual but are amalgamations of many stories and experiences to illustrate something common about the human experience. 

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