Countering the culture of ‘busyness’

time confetti, Brigid Schulte, Verily Magazine

Since writing my last post about the redemptive power of ‘slow living’, I’ve come across two really interesting interviews that are well worth reading, if you have the time.

Interviewed by Darling Magazine, Arianna Huffington talks about a collapse she experienced, prompted by overwork and exhaustion, and how it made her reassess what she was living for. It was this that brought about a dramatic shift in her priorities:

We founded The Huffington Post in 2005, and two years in we were growing at an incredible pace. I was on the cover of magazines and had been chosen by Time as one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People. But after my fall, I had to ask myself, Was this what success looked like? Was this the life I wanted? I was working eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, trying to build a business, expand our coverage, and bring in investors. But my life, I realized, was out of control. In terms of the traditional measures of success, which focus on money and power, I was very successful. But I was not living a successful life by any sane definition of success. I knew something had to radically change. I could not go on that way. The title of the book reflects my belief that our goal, as individuals and as a society, should be not just to succeed but to thrive.’

She goes on to say:

‘If we don’t redefine what success is, the price we pay in terms of our health and well-being will continue to rise, as I found out in my own life. And when we include our own well-being in our definition of success, another thing that changes is our relationship with time. When we’re living a life of what Harvard professor Leslie Perlow calls “time famine,” we rob ourselves of our ability to experience… wonder, our sense of delight in the mysteries of the universe, as well as the everyday occurrences and small miracles that fill our lives.’

[Arianna Huffington, speaking to Darling Magazine.]

The other interview is on Verily Magazine with Brigid Schulte, the author of Overwhelmed. It is almost eerie to read what she has to say about ‘time confetti’, so closely do we all identify with the problem that she is putting into words. It’s a relief to hear her describe the experience of modern day leisure-starved workers and parents, because if there’s an accurate diagnosis there’s more likely to be a solution, right?

‘I think I had just hosted a kid’s birthday party when that image of confetti came to me. I realized with a wave of sadness that this was what my time felt like: lots of little pieces, flitting from one thing to the next, not really finishing one thing before I go on to the next, always looking ahead and never being fully present where I am. And that’s really what my time felt like, lots of little bits. Ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there. I think the sadness came from wondering, “Does all of this add up to anything?” At the end of the day, while I was sweeping up confetti, I kept wondering, “What does this add up to?” It didn’t feel like the path to anything substantive or meaningful.

This sense of “time confetti” pollutes all kinds of time, but certainly leisure as well. The term psychologists and sociologists use is “contaminated time,” and that clearly describes the quality of leisure time women have experienced throughout history. Now women’s time is particularly fragmented. Women have all the heavy responsibilities of work and are also primarily responsible for everything at home. Most of us live with a constant sense of worry and planning that really takes you out of the moment, so that even a moment of leisure doesn’t feel like leisure at all.’

What I particularly like in this interview is the sense of hope that things can change, that we each have the power to make that change in our own lives and on a broader cultural level. And there are already places, like Denmark, where things are being done differently – being done better:

‘I went to Denmark because of a time-use study that showed that mothers in Denmark had almost as much leisure time as fathers, which is really unheard of. In most leisure studies I have found there is always a leisure gap between men and women. So I went to Denmark to find the secret of their leisure success and I found that it was a combination of things:

01. Both men and women had short, intense work hours. If you work long hours in Denmark, you are seen as inefficient rather than a good worker. So it was not like here where women can work flex hours and men work long hours and there is this pay-gap penalty.

02. They really value gender equality. You cannot have leisure time for women without gender equality. If you are stuck doing twice the housework, twice the childcare, and your are filled with guilt and you feel like you don’t deserve leisure, then you are never going to have leisure time.

03. The whole culture values leisure time⎯they value time to themselves, they value time with family, they value unplugging from work. Leisure is much more of a cultural norm.

These mothers in Denmark had the most pure leisure time to themselves, whereas our leisure time in America is so larded with guilt that when we do take it, we don’t really enjoy it. I was particularly struck with a comment made by a Danish father I was spending time with. He said “I think Danish women really have a sense of their own value.”’

[Brigid Schulte, speaking to Verily Magazine]


How slowing down could save the world

Slow Life Movement, Italy, Rose-Marie Caldecott

Photograph by Rose-Marie Caldecott

My mother has this theory that the Italians know the secret to health and happiness, and I’m starting to think she may be right. The Mediterranean talent for a healthy and relaxed lifestyle is famous the world over, but for most of us it is little more than a quaint cultural trait to be imitated only on holidays and special occasions, not to be taken seriously the rest of the time. We like the idea of doing things in a slow, relaxed way in theory, but think of it as being a luxury that we can’t afford in our every day lives. We want to squeeze in our 10 minutes of yogic breathing before dashing off to pick up the dry cleaning on the way to the office, and thus relaxation becomes yet another thing on our ‘to do’ lists, and all the benefits are negated.

Our culture has become addicted to speed, not only in our personal lives, but also on a global scale. Somehow the phenomena of fast food, fast fashion, and a fast work culture have taken deep root, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that these things, and the underlying addiction to speed, is to blame for environmental damage, struggling economies, human rights abuses, and the lingering issue of gender inequality in the workplace. If we could collectively scale back a little, and slow down, the impact would be huge.

In Annie Leonard’s short film, The Story of Stuff, we are told that only 1% of the materials consumed in our economy remain in use six months after sale. Planned obsolescence for complex technology such as computers and mobile phones has become commonplace, having a hugely negative impact on people and the environment, as this documentary shows. A study into the rates of supply and demand by in 2008 shows that in just 28 years consumers have come to demand roughly four times the number of clothes that they used to, dumping almost as much as they buy each year.

Well-publicised tragedies like last year’s Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh drive home the human cost of fast fashion in terms that no one can avoid; most of the people killed in the accident were rushing to get orders of cheap clothes finished in time for unrelenting deadlines. Meanwhile, in the food industry, large corporations farm one crop on great swathes of land, destroying the fertility of the soil before abandoning it and moving on.

The negative impacts of our fast culture are also having an impact on each of us on a more personal level. Hanna Rosin recently wrote an article for Slate about Brigid Schulte’s book, Overwhelmed, and how ‘busyness [has become] a virtue’, describing a phenomenon familiar to all of us; we find ourselves competing with those around us to prove how busy – and therefore important – we are. But this modern level of ‘busyness’ is not sustainable in the long term.

The HR magazine, People Management, recently ran a piece about how stress is strangling businesses, with one in six employees in the UK alone dealing with mental health issues, frequently anxiety and stress relating to their jobs. Gimmicks like the Google office’s infamous ping-pong tables are attempts to solve this problem, and an acknowledgement of the fact that rest and ‘play’ decreases stress while increasing productivity and creativity. Dr Stuart Brown’s research on the benefits of relaxation and play in child development have obvious implications for the importance of ‘down time’ for adults, as well. It seems to me, though, that the kinds of measures taken by companies like Google are mostly nominal, half-hearted attempts to reverse something that needs to change on a much deeper, cultural level to have any real effect.

Ovid quote, take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop, Slow Life Movement

Daily Dose quote from Verily

We need to take all of this seriously on a broader cultural level for several reasons. Put simply, this ‘fast work’ culture is detrimental not only to everyone’s wellbeing, and to the environment, but it is also holding back women. The pace of modern work does not allow enough for breaks and flexible working, and so women find themselves having to choose between having children or progressing their careers. As Ashley Maguire wrote recently, the greatest hope we have for true gender equality in the workplace is to promote more flexible working styles, to normalise breaks and shorter hours, trusting that if work doesn’t invade our every waking minute we will be more productive when we are working. As Ovid said, ‘A field that has rested gives a bountiful crop’; increasing hours doesn’t necessarily increase productivity. It’s not women who need to change, but the culture of the modern workplace.

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s infamous essay for The Atlantic, ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’, puts it this way: ‘If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal.’ All too often, the uniquely female aspects of our bodies are seen as annoying weaknesses, when in fact the message that is written into our very being – the message that there are cycles and rhythms to life, times of rest and times of work – is one that could have the power to save society and redeem the workplace, not just for women, but for men also.

There is a remedy to all of this, and that takes me back to my mother’s theory; for every fast fashion, fast food trend, there has sprung up a ‘slow’ equivalent in an effort to counteract the damage caused by our fast, disposable culture. The Slow Movement started – that’s right, you guessed it – in Italy in 1986 when Carlo Petrini protested against the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome. The time is clearly right to take ‘la dolce vita’ a little more seriously, people.

In his book, In Praise of Slowness, Carl Honoré describes the Slow Movement as ‘a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better.’ Far from promoting the impractical idea that everything should be done ‘at a snail’s pace’, this cultural philosophy is simply about trying to do everything at the right speed. As Honoré himself says, Slow Life is about ‘Savouring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in everything from work to food to parenting.’

All of this is so much easier said than done, though. When we think of changing the culture all in one go, it seems like an impossibly difficult task. We can’t afford it, we think. To keep our jobs, we have to fit in. To be able to afford clothes, and food, we have to buy the cheapest stuff. ‘Slow living’, when seen this way, seems like an unattainable luxury. But we can’t let the culture hold us hostage like this, making us feel like we don’t have any choice; at the very least, we have a choice about the little things. If people once lived in a more sustainable, healthier way, regardless of how much money they did or didn’t have, we can have hope that we can return to a slower pace, bit by bit. There are some small things we can try to do, no matter how little time or money we have:

  1. Instead of focusing on how busy you are, try to start to recognise and appreciate the spare time that you do have every day; you’ll be surprised by how much of it you have, even when you think you’re insanely busy. Try to enjoy it without feeling any kind of guilt, or like you need to justify it. It is valuable in its own right; there are more important things in life than achievement and efficiency (spending time with people you love, for example).
  2. Try to buy at least one food item a week in a situation where you can talk to the seller about its origin, whether this is by visiting your local farmer’s market, a local farm, or local (non-chain) produce store.
  3. Resist impulse buying your clothes for at last a month (more, if you already don’t shop that frequently). Take a good look at your wardrobe and really use what you already have, save the money you would have spent on multiple, cheaper items, and then spend some time choosing one ethically sourced item. Maybe this means buying vintage, or a socially conscious brands like Bibico and Sseko. Whatever it is, enjoy the process of being mindful of a product’s story and source.
  4. Next time a friend talks to you about how busy and stressed they are, try not to respond with a competitive ‘me too’ story, but listen and be supportive before trying to change the conversation. This can be tricky, because we all feel our worth is being questioned if we don’t come back with our own busy/stressed story in situations like these, but someone has to break the cycle.

If we can be advocates for a truly ‘slow’ culture that doesn’t promote busyness as the highest virtue, bit by bit we’ll all collectively return to an appreciation of quality over quantity. Maybe some of the richer members of society will be slightly poorer in a purely quantitive material goods sense, but perhaps there’ll be a more even distribution of resources this way, and we’ll surely all be far richer in the things that really matter in life. You see, my mother was right; the Italians knew the secret the whole time.

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For more on this subject, I’ve written another post about it recently, here.