Back in the 1970s, Shirley Conran famously thought that “life is too short to stuff a mushroom”. As a self-proclaimed Superwoman (the book is still in print), a certain fullness of diary was a natural part of life – and of the image that must be projected of it. Even slovenly instincts were something to be talked up, positioned with poise and verbally lit from the best possible angle, as another quote showed: “I make no secret of the fact that I would rather lie on a sofa than sweep beneath it. But you have to be efficient if you’re going to be lazy.” (It’s something of a puzzle, however, that her presumably considerable book royalties didn’t allow her the efficiency of hiring a cleaner. Or just having the floor replaced when it got dusty.)

Efficiency must be something in which fashions change – as we’re sure the mother of Jasper Conran would agree with us, even if she might be slightly affronted by the Hairy Biker’s culinary response to her most famous moment (although we have no doubt in Lady Conran actually watched the 2010 World Cup avidly – either too busy or absorbed in the hovering, no doubt.) But being busy, it seems, doesn’t go out of style.

Despite knowing – as most of us do – that simply being busy is meaningless (is all that effort actually getting anyone anywhere? Is any of it invoiceable activity, or paying some non-monetary dividend – hey, even good karma will do – further down the line?), it is a popular thing to be. In business communities, the ‘correct’ social answer to “How’s Things?” is – or at least it seems to me – to be “Busy!” rather than “Great, thanks”. “Great!” is what you say by way of congratulation when someone else says they’re busy – being busy is up there with engagements and pregnancies when it comes to things to be immediately and almost unquestioningly praised.

‘Instant’ has, as a consequence, become an accolade – much like ‘digital’ or ‘online’. Because we are busy, or aspire to be – or (avoiding a religious joke in dubious taste) be seen to be – the ‘instant’ plays to our sense of urgency. ‘Instant’ says ‘I’m so busy I have no time to …’: it might not be the new black, but equally it might be the new shoulder-pad.

Mervyn Dennin’s recent blog post, The Busy Brigade, makes a similar observation, especially when it comes to the world of work:

It all seems a bit macho, like a corporate game of chicken…first one to blink say that they’ve got a bit of spare capacity is the loser.”

Faced with mortality, time is finite for everyone, but as the seasons go by, time is – like the face-lifted cheeks of those who seek to defy its passing – becoming tighter and tighter. What this says for decades of the invention and marketing of labour-saving devices is perhaps best left unsaid, but there always seems to be more to do than before. How ever did Hercules manage his famous labours, when he had no hoover, laptop, washing machine or iPad?

Maybe Saint Frances de Sales was 500 years ahead of us when he observed an agreeable if self-serving side-effect of being eternally busy:

While I am busy with little things, I am not required to do greater things.”

That judgement may perhaps be a little harsh: some of us are far more swamped than we are self-deluding, and often not of our own making. But the side-effect of being eternally busy has its own side-effects. As George Burns once observed:

Too bad all the people who know how to run this country are busy running taxicabs or cutting hair.”

But there’s a second side-effect to all this mad dashing hither and thither. I liked the way Jose Marti (a 19th century Cuban writer and nationalist leader) put it in words:

To busy oneself with what is futile when one can do something useful, to attend to what is simple when one has the mettle to attempt what is difficult, is to strip talent of its dignity.”

In other words, a sense of having no time to waste does nothing to guarantee that we don’t waste the time we believe we don’t have. To adopt the vernacular, it’s all very well being busy (except, of course, it isn’t per se), but it’s what you’re doing so busily that actually matters. We might have an escalating awareness of a perceived scarcity of time, but it doesn’t seem to have changed our sense of its value to the same extent – or have done much for our judgement of what amounts to putting it to productive use. (Or, as JK Galbraith put it:

In the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there’s no need to do so, most people get busy on the proof.”

The big increases in productivity in recent years have come in the physical endeavour sectors of the economy – particularly engineering and manufacturing – rather than services. Many of us in the service sectors are working harder and longer, but to little more effect. Whatever it is we’re slaving to produce, our ability – or willingness – to produce the time needed to stop, reflect and think looks like it’s becoming rather questionable.

But without this brief reflective pause, we fall prey to acting in knee-jerk response. It may be another corny old phrase, but we seem – for example – to have forgotten “Make sure brain is engaged before putting mouth in gear”. Rather than taking a few moments to think about the most effective response, or the input to a dialogue that has more than the next few moments in mind, we rush into the semi-automatic response. It might not quite be ‘speaking in tongues’, but – with the benefit of a few steps back and a little bit of perspective – it might not make a great deal more sense.

I was struck by an example of this recently reading an article on the BBC website by Matthew Syed (whose excellent book, Bounce, we reviewed recently), called The words that could unlock your child. It explores one of the themes from his book – the impact of different types of praise in motivating not just improved performance, but a commitment to and an enthusiasm and a mindset for future improvement. Praising our ability achieves far less – and sometimes nothing – than praising our effort. Once we believe we have a ‘gift’, we can begin to stop believing that effort and (deliberate) practise can make a difference. Embracing this as an opportunity to slacken off and divert ourselves busily into something else, we miss what will actually improve our performance:

Dozens of studies have found that top performers – whether in maths, music or whatever – learn no faster than those who reach lower levels of attainment – hour after hour, they improve at almost identical rates. The difference is simply that high achievers practise for more hours.”

That ‘simply’ might merit a caveat: the high achievers presumably also don’t tell themselves they’re too busy to put the hours in. As Syed points out later in his article, they also don’t fall into the trap of believing one of the subliminal messages that are delivered by praising ability over effort –

If I don’t learn something quickly, I’m not smart.”

A mad headlong dash into anything and everything may cut a superficial dash – and send out a fashionable message – but can equally equate to metaphorically skating very rapidly over very thin ice. It would be very witty of me to describe this tendency as The Charge of the Slight Brigade, but anything more than a fleeting acquaintance with the original Light Brigade (here’s the Wikipedia link for those too pressed to Google for it) would suggest that hurtling into battle can have some pretty terrible consequences.

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