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What some people call idleness is often the best investment

Excessive hard work is counterproductive.

In his essay “In Praise of Idleness”, Ber­trand Russell suggested that the working day should be reduced from eight hours to just four. Russell’s intention was not to boost productivity during those four hours (he distrusted efficiency). No, he wanted half as much work to be done and more leisure to be enjoyed. “There will be happiness and joy,” he suggested, “instead of frayed nerves, weariness and dyspepsia.”

Russell’s theory, ironically, holds much better as professional advice than as moral philosophy. He wanted people to work less because work was bad for them. I would argue we should work less because it will make us achieve more. He would be horrified at his idea being recast by the enemy, but his injunction “work less” should be embraced enthusiastically by managers, coaches and businessmen who are trying to get the best out of their charges.

The cult of busyness

Experience tells me that excessive hard work is counterproductive. When I was a professional cricketer, before each season – just before the team got together as a group – I would block out a few consecutive days and dedicate them entirely to practising batting. My only goal was to become a better player, to develop new skills. This wasn’t the humdrum practice that happens throughout the season. This was my selfish time: it was as close as my cricket practice got to a creative exercise.

Which days ended with me batting signi­ficantly better than I started out? The best days followed the same pattern – an intense morning session, around two and a half hours long, followed by a shorter, lighter afternoon session, perhaps lasting an hour or 90 minutes. In total, then, I would do about four hours, just as Russell wanted.

Strangely, when I spent many more hours practising, spreading the work across the whole day, my game stood still or even slightly de­teriorated. Quite simply, you cannot work all day, at least not at a high level. When you are performing near your limits, you use up your psychological resources very quickly. The obvious point follows: stopping practising at the right moment is a vital form of self-discipline, every bit as important as “putting the hours in” and “giving it your all”. There is an optimal amount of work.

This extends far beyond sport. Most writers admit that they cannot write more than about four hours a day, even during a purple patch. They may lock themselves in the study all day long (safely protected from spouse and phone calls) but that doesn’t mean they are writing non-stop. You pedal a bit, then freewheel; even locked in your study, you will be doing this with your mind.

And yet the conventional workplace – the office – condemns the optimal working day as contemptibly slack. Watch carefully the next time someone rushes purposefully past you in the office corridor, shielded from eye contact by the ubiquitous smartphone, radiating the carefully honed “Can’t stop, too busy” expression so characteristic of corporate ambition. They are not rushing to arrive somewhere, still less to achieve anything. They are rushing because rushing is how they display how hard they work.

The cult of busyness extends far beyond grumpy bosses and line managers. It is a cultural malaise. In every area of public life, we demand not only that people work harder, but, crucially, that they be seen to work ever harder. This is the age of professional martyrdom.

Consider the reaction to the “revelations” about David Cameron’s determination to relax. In their biography of the Prime Minister, Francis Elliott and James Hanning describe him like this: “If there was an Olympic gold medal for ‘chillaxing’ he would win it. He is capable of switching off in a way that almost no other politician I know of can . . .

“He tends to get up early, look at the Sunday papers . . . [But then] it’s ‘I’ve absorbed the information, I have taken an action – I will now go into the vegetable patch, watch a crap film on telly, play with the children, cook, have three or four glasses of wine with my lunch, have an afternoon nap, play tennis’.”

Cameron was criticised for taking his job far too lightly or, at the very least, for “bad politics” – as though he should have kept up pretences. Yet workaholism is not remotely correlated with success. If it was, Britain’s two best prime ministers would have been Gordon Brown and Margaret Thatcher. Brown’s exhausted rants are legendary. And though Thatcher boasted about hating holidays and needing only four hours’ sleep a night, one colleague said that at a distance of 12 inches, point blank in the crush of the voting lobby, you saw an exhausted woman. He believes she burned herself out and that her judgement slipped.

Nor should we trust the popularised social science alleging that “geniuses” evolve inevit­ably from 10,000 hours of practice. In his study of talented young musicians in Berlin, K Anders Ericsson asked what separated the outstanding soloists from those who were merely good. The difference was not – as is often misquoted – that the best players practised more. Instead, they practised intensely and then allowed themselves more time to relax and recoup.

Pride and prejudice

The lesser players spread their work throughout the day, never escaping a sense of stress and anxiety. The elite players, in contrast, consolidated their work into two well-defined periods, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Either side of these peaks of concentration, the best players enjoyed life: they slept more during the daytime and spent more time having fun away from music. Their lives were simul­taneously more relaxed and more productive. What some people call idleness is often the best investment.

The idea that being good at something demands harried, exhausted martyrdom is a relatively new idea. “Only in recent history,” as Nas­sim Nicholas Taleb puts it, “has ‘working hard’ signalled pride rather than shame for lack of talent, finesse and, mostly, sprezzatura.” If we really want to be good at something, we should stop wasting time exhausting ourselves.

Ed Smith’s new column, Left Field, will appear weekly


Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the future

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The players make their mistakes on the pitch – I make mine on the page

I find that if I watch three live games in a weekend, which often happens, I have totally forgotten the first two by the time the third comes up.

I was a bit humiliated and ashamed and mortified last week because of letters in this magazine about one of my recent columns. Wait till I see the Correspondence editor: there must be loads of nice letters, yet he or she goes and prints not just one, but two picking me up on my mistakes. By the left.

But mainly, my reaction was to laugh. Typical, huh, I’ve gone through life spelling things wrong, with dates dodgy, facts fictional – will I ever learn?

John Lennon did not use a watch. He maintained that he had people on the staff who would tell the time. I don’t wear a watch, either, but for different reasons. I want to get my wrists brown and I hate carrying anything.

By the same milk token, I don’t worry about my spelling. Like Lennon, I expect others to clear up after me. Surely the subs should have spotted it was a typo, that it is 64 years since 1951, not 54 as I wrote? What do they do all day? The other mistake was about replays in the League Cup: too boring to repeat, you would only yawn.

I usually try to get the spelling right the first time I use a word, then bash on, letting it come out any old way, intending to correct it later. Is it Middlesbrough or Middlesborough? Who cares? I’ll check later. Then I forget.

I was so pleased when Patrick Vieira left Arsenal. I found those ten seasons a nightmare, whenever I realised his surname was lumbering into vieiw (I mean “view”). Why couldn’t I memorise it? Mental laziness. The same reason that I don’t know the phone numbers of any of my children, or the correct spelling of my grandchildren’s names, Amarisse and Siena. I have to ask my wife how many Ss and how many Ns. She knows everything. The birthday of every member of the royal family? Go on, ask her.

I might be lazy on piddling stuff such as spelling but I like to think my old brain is still agile. I have three books on the go which are hellishly complicated. I have the frameworks straight in my head but I don’t want to cram anything else in.

It can be a bit embarrassing when writing about football, though. Since sport was invented, fans have been making lists, trotting out facts, showing off their information. As a boy, I was a whizz on the grounds of all 92 League clubs, knew the nicknames of all the clubs. It’s what you did. Comics like Adventure produced pretty colour charts full of such facts. I don’t remember sitting down and learning it all. It just went in, because I wanted it to go in.

Today, the world of football is even madder on stats than it ever was. I blame computers and clever graduates who get taken on by the back pages with nothing else to do but create stats. And TV, with its obsession with possession, as if it meant anything.

I find that if I watch three live games in a weekend, which often happens, I have totally forgotten the first two by the time the third comes up. Not just the score but who was playing. When Wayne Rooney or whoever is breaking records, or not, my eyes go glazed, refusing to take in the figures. When I read that Newcastle are again winless in their first seven League games now, I start turning the pages. If I get asked who won the Cup in 1923, my immediate answer is HowthefeckdoIknow. Hold on, I do know that. It was the first Cup final at Wembley, won by Bolton Wanderers. I remember that, having been there. I don’t know the dates of any other Cup final winners. England’s World Cup win? That was 1966 and I really was there.

I love football history (I’ve written three books about it) but it’s the players and the history of the clubs, the boots and strips, development in the laws, that’s what I enjoy knowing. Spellings and dates – hmm, I do always have to think. Did the Football League begin in 1888 or 1885? If I pause for half a second, I can work it out. Professional football came in first, which must have been 1885, so the Football League came later. Thus the answer is 1888. Bingo. Got it.

But more often than not, I guess, or leave it out. So, sorry about those mistakes. And if you’ve spotted any today, do keep it to yourself. 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide