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)