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On a mischievous afternoon in my childhood, my cousin Michael and I were looking for something to do. “We are going to make some prank calls!” he announced proudly, beaming at the prospect of teaching trickery to his naive younger cousin.

Convinced of Michael’s ingenuity and compelled by my newfound sense of mischief, we picked up the phone and dialed random numbers, each time introducing ourselves as salespeople to an unsuspecting listener. Giggling hysterically, we continued our prank calls until his mother came to check on us. “What are you up to?” she asked.

“Nothing,” we lied. Michael and I looked at each other, half daring each other to tell the truth, until I whimpered that we had been making prank calls. Clearly disappointed, Michael’s mother sat down and asked us an important question: “Would you ever steal?”

Both of us, indignant, cried out, “Of course not!” She smiled to herself and asked, “Well, then, why are you stealing someone’s time?” My cousin and I were horribly confused. We hadn't stolen anything. What was she talking about?

Adults don’t need to be told that stealing a chocolate bar from the supermarket is wrong or that shoplifting a sweater is illegal. In doing so, we rob the store and its employees of their rightfully deserved payment. Most people don’t realize, however, that stealing time is an equally grievous offense.

Stealing time is so egregious because, unlike chocolate bars and sweaters, we cannot give time back, nor can we reimburse individuals for time lost. 15 minutes stolen are 15 minutes that you cannot spend learning, exercising, or talking with a loved one. The value of such experiences cannot be repaid, and this is part of the travesty.

Fifteen minutes isn’t a lot. But, if every week, three of your friends are 15 minutes late to dinner dates, one of your professors wanders in 15 minutes late to class, and a teammate is consistently 15 minutes late to daily practice, you’ve lost 165 minutes of your time. And while that too may not seem like much, this casual attitude toward other people’s time creates massive inconvenience in our lives. Small inefficiencies compound to great inconveniences.

When we stop respecting each other’s busy schedules — whether we are CEOs, students, or senators — we incur great losses of precious time, money, and grades. In the UK, employee lateness is estimated to cost the economy £9 billion. Several years ago, the phenomenon cost Ecuador $724 million yearly. And, in the US, tardiness stole $300 billion from the national economy. Fifteen minutes add up quickly and expensively.

But it’s not just the large scale economic loss that matters. I often think back to the people whom Michael and I prank called so many years ago. While it may seem insignificant that I wasted two or three minutes of these people’s time, I have no idea what they were doing — perhaps they were spending time with their family, working on an important project, or planning on taking medicine. Their time is valuable in a personal way.

Whenever I’m running late for something, my cousin’s mother’s voice rings in my head: “Are you stealing someone’s time?” I’m forced to answer yes. Admitting the theft of time, and being aware of the consequences of our tardiness, is how we can avoid stealing time in the future. While most students don’t habitually steal chocolate bars from the store, knowing that such an act is unfair to the employees, I wonder when they’ll realize that when they steal time from their peers and superiors, they are guilty of the exact same crime.

Leora Eisenberg is a first year from Eagan, Minn. She can be reached at leorae@princeton.edu.

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