I know you don’t really have the time, so I’ll try to keep this short. Is 1,000 words ok? You have a window? I am, of course, addressing what Ed Smith recently described as ‘the theatre of busyness’ in his New Statesman column: that nagging doubt that we should be filling our time – with work, of course – as hectically as possible. Busyness – or at the very least appearing that way – is good business. Despite admitting his past life as a competitive sportsman, he is pretty much agin it, as Geoff Boycott might say. But the general situation is pretty endemic for those of us in employment. (Although the use of the adjective ‘gainful’ might be rather more subjective.)
The BBC recently sidled alongside the issue in a two part Radio 4 series, Slow Coach. There was a play at aligning the programme content – looking at the pressures of time, life but mostly work on three participants – with the broader Slow Movement, not least in the involvement of Carl Honore, best known for his book In Praise of Slowness: How A Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed. This was the first book to review the octopus-like spread of The Slow Movement, to use its popular umbrella term: for a broader overview, visit the website of the World Institute of Slowness.
Listening to the programme, however, I was left with two nagging sensations: I’ll try not to scratch them too lazily. The first was that what appeared to really be being offered to the participants was a mixture of time management, prioritising, planning, delegating and practising saying ‘No’: the emphasis seemed to be on stress management rather than deceleration. The second was that any ‘fight’ had been ceded from the outset. In the face of a ‘busy-at-all-times’ culture, this may be more realistic – waltzing in the discothèque is foolhardy, at best – but it left this listener thinking that more difficult issues were being ducked.
The most important, or rather serious, element of the programme focused on mindfulness and meditation, where beliefs and values met scientific evidence. I can’t vouch for it, but it seems that people who meditate regularly over long periods develop more folds in their cerebral cortex and are able as a result to process larger amounts of information more quickly during the rest of their lives. Taking time to centre and focus also brings a calmer state of mind when we step back onto our personal merry-go-rounds, yet this was the ‘tip’ that the participants found hardest to adopt. (Was I the only listener who cringed slightly when the narrator reassured us that they were otherwise ‘making rapid progress’?)
Without the habit of reflection, the anticipation was that immediate benefits would be felt – our inability to wait fuelling itself. Yet if we don’t value reflection, how seriously will we take the benefits it could offer? Is there any value in talking to ourselves if we are only talking to our own hand?
There is an underlying issue of choice, of course, although one Amazon review of Honore’s first book commented tellingly:
Slowness doesn’t appear to be a lifestyle choice, more a quick fix in order to avoid burn-out.”
Yet the programme seemed to be selling slowness as an interval: perhaps the best analogy is someone who, between cigarettes, can honestly say that they are ‘not smoking’. Yet the deeper issue is indeed deeper, and partly cultural. As one speaker commented ,”We’re busy because we choose to be.”
In a society that doing otherwise is effectively daring to signal that we’re dispensable, how should we respond. Certainly it was hard to avoid the feeling that Steve, a self-employed man looking to parlay a commitment to festival organisation into an events management business, had chosen to be busy as often as possible. It’s also telling that the most shocking sentence uttered was his statement that you shouldn’t “allow the outside world to demand 100% of you”. Giving 95% is our era’s equivalent of blasphemy. Or, as Ed Smith put it:
For much of the year, the cult of professional busyness informs the mood of central London: I am rushing, ergo I am important.”
Yet the BBC programmes aired in the same month not only as an Independent article recounting the ‘holiday’ nightmares of a woman whose husband set alarms for 2.45am to be ready for 3am conference calls, and climbed poles to get mobile phone signals, but (and I mean no offence to the nameless female diarist) the far more shocking and serious story of the intern who – possibly quite literally – worked himself to death. When some of us have come this far (and a Times article about ‘the rise of the super-intern’ suggests that we have), talk of work-life balance is not just fatuous but truly distasteful.
Although Ed Smith isn’t explicitly calling for empirical research when he says:
There is a view that frantic and competitive busyness leads to efficient productivity. My experience is the opposite. It is doing things all the time that prevents us from achieving much.”
It would be encouraging if the values underlying current behaviours were properly tested. In the meantime, let us light our candles as we practise mindfulness the best that we can – better that than lighting candles for something already lost.