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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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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.