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Life in the fast lane is leaving many Americans feeling rushed.

In the age of microwave ovens, fax machines, car phones, fast food and other innovations that save time - more Americans than ever feel they don't have enough spare time."I just hope somebody is going to give me a little box of time with a pink ribbon on it so I could open it up when I need it," says Laura Armstrong, a public relations executive. "Wouldn't that be a nice gift?"

The perception that life is too harried persists even though people spend one-fourth less time on the job than workers a century ago.

In the 1800s the 55-hour work week was common. The 50-hour work week came into vogue in the early 1900s, and by 1930 the 40-hour week was the norm. The average work week for full- and part-time workers had fallen to 34.7 hours last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Nevertheless, one in three Americans "always" feels rushed, according to research by the Americans' Use of Time Project at the University of Maryland.

And pollster Louis Harris says Americans spent an average of 16.6 hours a week on leisure activities in 1987, a 58 percent drop from the 26.2 hours available in 1973.

In 1975, when the Roper Organization first asked Americans whether work or leisure was more important, 48 percent said work, 36 percent leisure and 13 percent said they were about equal. Last year, however, 41 percent said leisure was more important, 36 percent work and 20 percent said they were equal.

Researchers say the entry of women into the labor force and growth of two-income families are key reasons people feel short of leisure time.

"There is little doubt that when both spouses work it creates more pressures on time," says sociologist John P. Robinson, director of the Americans' Use of Time Project.

His research showed that working mothers age 35-44 were most likely to feel rushed. Women are doing less housework and men are doing more, Robinson says. But women still perform 10 hours more household chores a week than men.

Researchers say leisure is as much a state of mind as an actuality.

"In reality the time is there," says Philip Bosserman, a professor at Salisbury State College in Maryland who specializes in the sociology of work and leisure. "It's how we choose to use it. Too often we use it in ways that don't give a true sense of leisure."

Bernard Mergen, a professor of American civilization at George Washington University, says some kinds of leisure - boats, motor homes, airline tickets, beach houses - are expensive, forcing couples to work harder to afford them. In the process, they end up with less leisure time to enjoy them.

Researchers define leisure as the use of time for non-work endeavors chosen solely by the individual. Under that definition, what one person considers leisure may be drudgery to another.

Attending a football game may be leisure for the husband but an unpleasant experience for the wife who hates football.

Some Americans combine leisure with business, which detracts from leisure's therapeutic values. The businessman who takes a sales prospect to the golf course turns leisure into a business function.

Television is in a class by itself - leisure for some but a "plug-in drug" for others, as one critic put it.

"TV viewing is addictive," Kimbrell says. "It eats up leisure time that could be spent with family and friends, could be spent outdoors. It's not leisure as much as mental escape, causing the viewer to become entirely uninvolved. Any leisure pursuit requires active involvement."

For families that are short of time, there are remedies.

"We need to simplify life," says Bosserman. "We need to reverse some of these values that place an emphasis on size, constant growth, an imperative to always be doing something. Instead of a Caribbean vacation, go camping in the mountains."

Says Kimbrell: "With families it's very simple. Turn off the TV set. Forget the `quality' of time. We need to worry about the `quantity' of time spent with our families. We need to understand that meals should have structure. Get away from the fast view of life."

He predicts that the 1990s will see a trend away from such "hectic" pursuits as racketball, jogging and pumping iron to "sensible, reasonable, slower activities like hiking, gardening, camping, crafts."

Time scarcity is causing profound changes in manufacturing and retailing.

Leonard L. Berry, director of the Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A & M University, says the growth of fast-food restaurants and microwavable foods stems from the perception that time is scarce, and valuable.

"If people feel they're busy, even if they work fewer hours, they're going to behave like busy consumers," Berry says. "A store that wastes people's time will be committing competitive suicide."

Supermarkets are attempting to become one-stop shopping outlets by offering such non-food products as video movies, flowers and stamps. The Vons food store chain in California is experimenting with drive-through supermarkets. Shoppers place orders from their cars from a list of 1,400 items at drive-through windows open 24 hours a day. The firm's goal is to fill orders within three minutes.