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Speed up, life's too short

Scene from Pride and Prejudice

A POINT OF VIEW

Perceived wisdom may tell us to slow down our lives but maybe pressure brings the best results, says Lucy Kellaway.

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to an admissions tutor from Cambridge University talking to sixth formers. He said he was looking for four things in prospective undergraduates.

He didn't care about being in the rugby first XV, or having a distinction in grade 8 flute. What he wanted was intellect, intellect, intellect, and one other thing besides - an ability to manage time.

This coupling of intellect and time management struck me as an odd pairing of the old and the new. Almost as odd as the news that English students sitting finals at Cambridge last month were asked to compare the poems of Sir Walter Raleigh to the lyrics of Amy Winehouse.

Busyness is not what is pushing us over the edge, it is what is keeping us sane.

When I was a student it didn't occur to me that time was something that I could manage. The hours and minutes ticked away and you could either spend them wisely in the library where they sometimes dragged a bit or less wisely in the pub where they skipped ahead rather more briskly.

But now we are mesmerised by time. Every day the papers bring fresh evidence of how badly we are managing it. Recently I've learned that Madonna goes to bed with her BlackBerry tucked under her pillow. And that 15 million Britons binge every night on something called junk sleep - the feeble rest one gets as a result of stress and overwork.

What is so odd is that despite all this we actually have more time that we've ever had before. We live for longer, we work fewer hours than we did a hundred years ago and thanks to tumble driers, hoovers and microwaves, we can dispatch our chores in a trice. We should have plenty of time left over for twiddling our thumbs.

Yet like most people, I march through my days in a fug of busyness. I check my e-mails before breakfast and then more times during the day than I care to admit. There are articles to write, swimming kits to find, sandwiches to be eaten over the keyboard, recalcitrant builders to be nagged and so on and on. On an average day I lose both my keys and my temper.

Faster heartbeat

According to a whole crop of new books on time, the answer is to slow down. Dr Edward Hallowell, author of CrazyBusy, argues that we are now running so fast on our hamster wheels that we have lost sight of the things that really matter. Our bodies are at risk from the stress we are under and our frazzled minds are losing the ability to think at all.

But would slowing down really make things better? The World Institute of Slowness preaches the doctrine of doing less, but its arguments are based more on a quasi-religious belief that slow is better than anything more compelling. Its motto: "The fast will beat the big - but the slow will beat the fast!" It's unsubstantiated drivel.

It is perfectly possible to have a stroke of inspiration when doing something else
I suspect the truth is less fashionable but more obvious. Busyness is not what is pushing us over the edge, it is what is keeping us sane.

In my view, the pressure of time bearing down is usually a force for good. It encourages us to pull our fingers out and get things done - and getting things done is surely satisfying. Parkinson's Law is a far better principle to live by than anything produced by the slow movement. The work expands to fill the time available - if there isn't much time available, then we'd better get a move on.

Though I often complain about being too busy, the truth is that I find it quite exciting. Dashing around doing things raises the heartbeat agreeably. And if, as we are told, it is a drug - then so what? It doesn't destroy your lungs or your liver or your bank balance and it doesn't make you go round snatching people's handbags to get your next fix.

Busyness is frowned on because it is meant to leave no time for thought, but this is nonsense too. For me at least, busyness acts as an efficient thought-filter. It is perfectly possible to have a stroke of inspiration when doing something else. Yet being busy also crowds out brooding. It is hard to fret about your own mortality when you are desperately trying to find a plumber to fix the boiler.

Arguably Aristotle wouldn't have had quite so many top thoughts if he had been run ragged unpacking the dishwasher and checking his BlackBerry. But most of us aren't Aristotle.

Idleness

When I have idle time I tend to use it wondering what's for lunch, and it seems I'm not alone in my banality. A psychologist in Las Vegas recently did an experiment in which he gave 2,000 people bleepers and told them to write down exactly what was in their heads when the bleepers went off.

One woman thought about Christmas tree decorations. Another spent the whole day silently repeating to herself the names of two snacks - Twinkies, Granola.

And in case anyone still believes that modern busyness is bad, they should read Jane Austen. In her time there was a more worrying social compulsion that afflicted the middle classes than crazy busyness, and that was crazy idleness.

In Bath, where everyone repaired for the season to be relatively busy after the languor of the countryside, the women thought nothing of doing nothing all morning and then every afternoon going to the Pump Room to watch others doing very little.

And far from such stillness clearing the mind for great thoughts, much time was spent worrying over whether to wear the sprigged muslin or the plain.

The slow hysterics point the finger at technology, which they say is stealing our time and making us feel nervous and constantly on call. We are meant to disapprove when we read that Madonna has a BlackBerry under her pillow, and take it as a sign that her soul is empty. But I fail to see why taking a BlackBerry to bed with you is any more of a barrier to intimacy or relaxation than a copy of the Economist, which is a sort of thing that is by the bed in my household.

BlackBerry users
Connected or alienated?

Equally we are opposed to gadgets because we are dewy-eyed about the past that they have supposedly destroyed. Last week I spent five hours in the car with my family in heavy half-term traffic. My husband was at the wheel and was listening to sport on the radio. I spent the tedious hours on my BlackBerry and on my laptop. In the back one child was texting friends. Another was watching South Park on the impossibly tiny screen on an iPod. Another was playing Grand Theft Auto on his PSP.

This is family life in 2008, and you could say it was a terrifying study in alienation - a world in which no one communicates any more.

Maybe though, our car journey strikes me as a massive improvement on car journeys of my youth. We used to sit in the back of a Ford Cortina feeling sick. Once "I Spy" had palled we resorted to counting garages on either side of the road. And when we had exhausted that, we bickered over boiled sweets and asked: "Are we nearly there yet?" Do we really want to go back to that?

Man has always fretted about life being too fast, even when it was going at a speed that we now regard as a snail's pace.

Here is a quote from a famous writer.

"Everything is now 'ultra'. No one knows himself any more, no one grasps the element in which he lives and works - young people are swept along in the whirlpool of time."

Just as dieting makes you fat, time management courses make you inefficient

It sounds bang up to date, but that was Goethe in 1825. It was hogwash then and it's hogwash now.

So what is our problem with time?

In his bestseller Time: A User's Guide, Stefan Klein argues that it is all a matter of control. If we are in control of our time, then all goes well. If we are not, then we end up frazzled.

However, the answer is not to go on a time management course and be taught how to make lists of priorities and how never to touch a piece of paper twice. All the studies show this does no good. after a day or two of best behaviour we go back to our old ways - only worse, as not only are we as incompetent as before but we feel like guilty failures too. Just as dieting makes you fat, time management courses make you inefficient.

Klein suggests something more subtle, that we develop a new culture of time, that we think less rigidly in terms of hours but instead work in a rhythm that suits us and ask ourselves before we embark on any task if we really need to be doing it.

Long grass

As a first step to regain our sovereignty over time he suggests we should take off our watches and sit for half an hour doing nothing. I tried this last weekend. Silenced, becalmed and watchless, I looked at my daughter who was sitting next to me on the sofa doing Facebook on her laptop.

I wanted to talk to her. I looked at Klein's book on time sitting next to me. I wanted to finish it. I looked at the grass outside and thought it looked rather long.

After what seemed like an eternity, I cracked. "Do I really need to be doing this," I asked myself. The answer came back in a flash. No.

How long did I last, I asked my daughter. Four minutes she said.

One conclusion from this would be that I am so wound up I'm ready to snap. Another would be that having released myself from a further 26 minutes of enforced idleness I was free to go out and cut the grass.


Here is a selection of your comments.

I've just spent four days walking from Newcastle to Carlisle, a distance that can be covered in a couple of hours by train or car. Those who think life is too fast should try doing things "the old way". Then they'll appreciate the "fast lane" and be glad they have it. Those who think life isn't fast enough should try it as well and then they'll appreciate what they have.
Amy, Guildford, England

I think perhaps you're missing the point a little. As far as I'm concerned, "time to myself" means just that - time when I ditch the tasks of the rest of the world and focus on the things I need to work on for myself. Ironing out frustrations, exploring motivations behind behaviours I don't like, coming to terms with things that I find difficult and dealing with things that have made me unhappy in the last few days. I find long train journeys, walks, runs, time when I have no other demands on my time are great times to let the world sort itself out for once and focus on sorting myself out.
Rosie, Bow, London

It's so true... I long to just "be" and lay for hours reading a book or just taking in the world and my thoughts. But that normally makes me more restless as I think about other things I should be doing. However, I do miss the days when you could just "drop in" on a friend- they're normally so "busy" we have to pre-arrange a month in advance.
Grace Purcell, London

Good article, but are you sure you're allowed to write this kind of thing? There is so much "accepted wisdom" about how things are going downhill nowadays I wonder if anyone has bothered to check the facts. For example crime is supposedly at record highs, yet in fact empirical evidence suggests it is quite possibly at record lows. Where does all this accepted wisdom come from anyway? And who's accepting it? Because I don't like being told what's happening in the news everyday and finding the facts at odds with the opinions. To me that seems like misrepresentation. Maybe matching facts with opinion pieces is also a feature of those golden halycon days of times long past!
Matthew Bailey, Manchester

Goethe wrote this when the industrial revolution was in full flow. Klein is quite correct in the need of controlling time, and this is what nature does for us. We may try to have another man based time, chuffed at our own success to invent some other way of being in control, but the problem is, these human constructs are able to be manipulated by other humans. So who's left in control? It's the people who define for us what time is rather than defining time for ourselves. Daylight saving, GHz microelectronics, everything we have invented for ourselves has been turned against us in one way or another. One reassurance is that we still have nature. Nature's time has governed us for all of human history. It has been the means by which we have lived but this relationship is now being destroyed by modern man-time based existence.
John, Christchurch




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