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We live in the “acceleration society”: the less you achieve, the more important it is to look busy

The best way to look successful is to tell people how busy you are.

The more time we have, the more urgently we convince ourselves that it is running out faster. By living longer, we have more time altogether. And there is also more free time within that time. In 1965, housework alone took, on average, 40 hours a week. Try fitting in Facebook, Twitter and various forms of self-beautification on top of that. And yet we are all too busy – too busy to read, too busy to finish anything, too busy, even, to stop.

The German social theorist Hartmut Rosa has called this paradox the “acceleration society”. Labour-saving technology, which delivers free time, has been accompanied by “the dramatic rise in feelings of stress and lack of time”. At one level, the speeding up and, hence, shrinking of time is literally nonsense. Yet it is so deeply felt that it is at least emotionally true. Being busy has become a style of living, something else that needs to be fitted into our lives.

“Keeping busy?” is the new way of asking how someone is feeling or, more accurately, how they are getting on in the world. Busyness is a synonym for success. “It’s been manic!” is shorthand for “God, I’m doing well”, which may or may not be true, but certainly reveals how people want to be seen. This conversational tic, apparently harmless, subtly sustains the deification of urgency, which in turn reinforces a sense of anxiety. If you’re not busy, and yet claim to be, surely it’s time to be getting on with something – checking emails or rolling news sites, or buying something on the internet. Enforced busyness? Or just exercising free choice without realising it?

Consumerist neophilia accentuates the same feedback loop. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has explored how buying new things (usually very similar to older models that we already own) gives a brief bounce of satisfaction, which quickly reverts to the baseline of well-being. The result is a “treadmill effect”, a shopping list in which the final item can never be ticked off.

Social media feeds the time paradox. By expanding the range of potential social events to almost an infinite degree, social media makes it more likely that the status quo feels inadequate. At the end of my cricket career, even great victories were often celebrated in social isolation: we might have been all together, but most team-mates were checking their smartphones. The craic, the revolving narrator and shared storytelling, was on the wrong side of history. The mobile phone was a disaster for team spirit: it broke the intuitive understanding that boredom generates entertainment. Even now, I try to organise all social events as if the mobile phone had never been invented. “Let’s be in touch on the day” is shorthand for “This isn’t going to work”.

Busyness is a style. As with all styles, the surface hides the underlying truth. Executive busyness is a response to executive guilt: there is, as everyone knows, less to do at the top. Less in this context, of course, means less work that is easily processed. There are fewer actions and decisions to make, but each decision is likely to be more important. So we should expect leaders to do less but to do less more ably than other people would. The voguish phrase “He would never ask anyone to do what he wouldn’t do himself” doesn’t bear much scrutiny. I wouldn’t want to work for someone who didn’t avoid doing most of the tedious things that they asked other people to do. What other justification could they have for the fact that they are not just another person?

There is huge resistance to this underlying reality. Hence the ubiquity of the open-plan office, with its glassy, shutterless executive cabin in the middle, exposed to the whole workforce, to guard against any executive napping. It is a kind of mutually agreed armlock. The executive is determined to ­appear to be working – and to check that you are working. Admitting that busyness has nothing to do with achievement looks undemocratic or, worse, aristocratic.

And yet when you observe, say, Roger Federer at close quarters, it is hard to imagine a less busy-looking person. He has, however, got quite a lot done. In a candid moment, Sir Rod Eddington, formerly chief executive of British Airways, told me that his job was to make good decisions, not to give the appearance of constant busyness.

The conflation of rushing around with actual progress is a new idea. Once people cultivated sprezzatura, even if it was disingenuous. The opposite arrangement now holds: the less you’re achieving, the more important it is to look busy. Ball Four, the 1969 diary of the New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton, offered some worldly advice. Whenever an athlete wasn’t sure what he should be doing during pre-season training (that was most of the time), he should pretend to tie up a shoelace. That way, the coaching staff, content that the player was occupied with an urgent task, wouldn’t waste his time by insisting on a meaningless (and probably counterproductive) “official” exercise. The equivalent at a news­paper office is the old adage: “Never walk by the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper” – even if it only says “milk, eggs, washing-up liquid”.

In fact, I suspect that a sense of achievement is linked to slowing or stilling time – much harder to achieve. The ancient Greeks had two words for time and kairos was distinct from chronos in marking a decision or point of fulfilment, the moment when the meaningless march of events (chronos) distils into significance.

Just as “I haven’t time” usually means “I can’t be bothered”, so the phrase “I wish I had more time” should be translated as: “I wish my time had more meaning.”

Ed Smith is the author of “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury)

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 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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Labour's trajectory points to landslide defeat, but don't bet on a change at the top any time soon

The settled will among Jeremy Corbyn's critics that they need to keep quiet is unlikely to be disrupted by the result. 

Labour were able to tread water against Ukip in Stoke but sank beneath the waves in Copeland, where the Conservatives’ Trudy Harrison won the seat.

In Stoke, a two-point swing away from Labour to the Tories and to Ukip, which if replicated across the country at a general election would mean 15 Conservative gains and would give Theresa May a parliamentary majority of 40.

And in Copeland, a 6.7 per cent swing for Labour to Tory that would see the Conservatives pick up 52 seats from Labour if replicated across the country, giving them a majority of 114.
As the usual trend is for the opposition to decline from its midterm position at a general election, these are not results that indicate Labour will be back in power after the next election.. That holds for Stoke as much as for Copeland.

The last time a governing party won a by-election was 1982 – the overture to a landslide victory. It’s the biggest by-election increase in the vote share of a governing party since 1966 – the prelude to an election in which Harold Wilson increased his majority from 4 to 96.

To put the length of Labour’s dominance in Copeland into perspective: the new Conservative MP was born in 1976. The last Conservative to sit for Copeland, William Nunn, was born in 1879.

It’s a chastening set of results for Ukip, too. The question for them: if they can’t win when Labour is in such difficulties, when will they?

It’s worth noting, too, that whereas in the last parliament, Labour consistently underperformed its poll rating in local elections and by-elections, indicating that the polls were wrong, so far, the results have been in keeping with what the polls suggest. They are understating the Liberal Democrats a little, which is what you’d expect at this stage in the parliament. So anyone looking for comfort in the idea that the polls will be wrong again is going to look a long time. 

Instead, every election and every poll – including the two council elections last night – point in the same direction: the Conservatives have fixed their Ukip problem but acquired a Liberal Democrat one. Labour haven’t fixed their Ukip problem but they’ve acquired a Liberal Democrat one to match.

But that’s just the electoral reality. What about the struggle for political control inside the Labour party?

As I note in my column this week, the settled view of the bulk of Corbyn’s internal critics is that they need to keep quiet and carry on, to let Corbyn fail on its his own terms. That Labour won Stoke but lost Copeland means that consensus is likely to hold.

The group to watch are Labour MPs in what you might call “the 5000 club” – that is, MPs with majorities around the 5000 mark. An outbreak of panic in that group would mean that we were once again on course for a possible leadership bid.

But they will reassure themselves that this result suggests that their interests are better served by keeping quiet at Westminster and pointing at potholes in their constituencies.  After all, Corbyn doesn’t have a long history of opposition to the major employer in their seats.

The other thing to watch from last night: the well-advertised difficulties of the local hospital in West Cumberland were an inadequate defence for Labour in Copeland. Distrust with Labour in the nuclear industry may mean a bigger turnout than we expect from workers in the nuclear industries in the battle to lead Unite, with all the consequences that has for Labour’s future direction.

If you are marking a date in your diary for another eruption of public in-fighting, don’t forget the suggestion from John McDonnell and Diane Abbott that the polls will have turned by the end of the year – because you can be certain that Corbyn’s critics haven’t. But if you are betting on any party leader to lose his job anytime soon, put it on Nuttall, not Corbyn.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.