Phew, I’m busy. I have a day job as a lecturer, I’m a freelance journalist, I’m moving house. It’s hard to find an hour in the day. You’re busy too, I expect. And everyone know you know, they’re busy too. It’s the way of the world and when we get a moment to ourselves we’re probably busy telling friends, family and colleagues how busy we are.
Except you’re not. Not any busier than you were a decade ago, or your parents were a generation ago anyway. Not even busier than your grandparents. According to statistics those of us currently working in the West have the highest amount of leisure time for several generations. Not buying it? Too busy even to read the rest of this article? Too bad - you might never know why you think you’re so busy when you’re actually… not. Or what you can do about it.
John Maynard Keynes - yes, half of Milton Keynes - predicted that by the mid-21st century, citizens of advanced economies would scarcely have to work, thanks to technological advancements. He thought technology like cars and phones would make us more efficient at working and reduce the working day. And they did, sort of. But it’s more complicated than that. Statistics show that men work 12 fewer hours per week than they did four decades ago and even though women are more likely to be in full-time employment they work fewer hours too. So while the perception is that our spare time has decreased the reverse is true. What’s going on?
Perception, basically. The more financially valuable our time, the more we ascribe a value to it. If time is money then anything we think of as a waste of time is a waste of money. So we hurry. We hurry to work, we hurry to the next meeting, we hurry back home. And we feel busy, even though productivity in Britain remains almost bottom among industrialised countries - the worst it’s been in our country for 200 years according to some metrics.
And what do we do when we’re at home? We work. Or we might as well, flicking through smartphones, tablets and TV channels and never truly not working. Because if time is money then leisure is a waste of both. We know that taking breaks, scheduling proper leisure time, exercise and a good night’s sleep are surefire paths to being healthier, happier and more productive. Do we do that stuff? Hell no - we’re too busy.
Study after study shows that the eight-hour working day is idiotic - a hangover from Henry Ford’s pivotal re-engineering of industrial relations that slashed hours, doubled pay and sent productivity into the stratosphere. But it’s still too long. Our brains simply can’t sustain the required levels of attention for that long - we need 20 minutes not working per hour every hour if we’re to work at optimum capacity.
Data harvested from productivity app DeskTime shows that people who take regular breaks and hit the road at 5pm are more productive than those who work more intensively for longer hours. The longer you work, the harder you work, the less work you’ll get done. Busy is for fools.
I’ve recently been on strike and I found it a strange experience, at least at first. I felt deprived of work, despite the fact that I had any number of odd jobs to do around the house. I could have read a book, gone for a walk, met a friend for a coffee. Instead I fretted about not doing any work and felt miserable all day. At night, concerned I hadn’t done any work, I flicked around the internet in a perpetual state of anxiety and working-but-not-working.
A couple of days into the strike, mindful of how badly I was adapting to doing nothing, I tentatively voiced the opinion to my wife that I might be a workaholic. “You ARE a workaholic,” she replied without batting an eyelid and I felt stupid and guilty when she told me about how remote I often was, how she didn’t feel she ever saw me and how I was constantly staring at my laptop.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. A colleague on the picket line has come out the other side of what I’m going through. He had seen colleagues burn out. He had seen people die, barely in their 40s. It would not be easy, he said, but I would have to unlearn always working, change my behaviour to give myself guaranteed leisure time every day and know when to shut down the computer and turn off the phone.
The tools of modern-day trade - cars, laptops, phones - are tools. How we choose to use them is up to us. Yes we can be in constant touch with the office, race from one appointment to the next. But let’s not? It’s bad for our physical health; it’s bad for our mental health. And data shows us that the more we work, the less we get done. So what are we trying to prove? And what will it take to make us change our behaviour? A strike? A heart attack? Or that most hackneyed of euphemisms, the ‘stress-related illness’?
We talk a good game on mental health – and then we cheat. We cheat our partners, children, families and friends out of real, valuable time with us: without phones, laptops or distraction. And we cheat ourselves, by mortgaging our very health so we can do more work that achieves nothing and tops up our daily dread. It’s the definition of insanity.
We don’t need to work harder, or longer - we need to work smarter. Sometimes that means not working at all.
Opening Up Cricket is a not for profitcommunity interest company that promotes mental wellbeing and suicide prevention through cricket.