Tiffany Jenkins: Hope you’re not too busy to read

Judy Wajcman argues against smart phones and email causing an acceleration of everyday life. Picture: Malcolm Irvine
Judy Wajcman argues against smart phones and email causing an acceleration of everyday life. Picture: Malcolm Irvine
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WE have far more time to spend on ourselves than ever, yet being busy has become something to brag about. Why? Asks Tiffany Jenkins.

How was your week? Chances are, it was busy. Ask anyone: parent, student or singleton, employed or not, hard worker or shirker, male or female and they are all likely to say the same: it was busy. You may even think you are much too busy to read this.

It is a thing, being busy. Busy-ness – or feeling busy – is a plague, an epidemic. We are all time harried. Just look at the bookshops: the self-help and non-fiction shelves sag with the weight of tomes advising us on how to better manage our diminishing reserves of time. Recently added is to the ever-burgeoning category is Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No-one Has the Time, one of the notable books of the year, no doubt, but also just one many that you may be planning to read, no doubt just as soon as you have a moment after wading through the fiction stacked next to the bed. Shulte describes the pervasive frenzied feeling, the constant attempt to keep up and get things done, as the Overwhelm.

It is often assumed that we feel busier than ever because we are. The frenetic pace of modern life, so the thinking goes, means that we are constantly working or dashing off to be somewhere else. Our lives are dominated by to-do lists. There is a never-ending stream of emails, all pinging into our electron in-tray and demanding our attention. Meetings go on and on. At lunch time, if we take a break, we are on hold to the doctor whilst simultaneously trying to book a hair appointment online and plan the weekly shop.

A report is always due, an imminent presentation invariably needs revision. When we get home, the pile of clothes that needs washing mocks us, the dinner has yet to be cooked, and children want picking up and dropping off.

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Technology usually gets the blame for speeding things up, but in her new book, Pressed for Time, the sociologist Judy Wajcman disputes this, arguing that smart phones and email do not cause an acceleration of everyday life. Instead, she ventures, the very same devices that make us feel pressured also enable us to take more control of our time. Indeed, in the last century, technology – wonderful white goods like washing machines and dishwashers - have changed things dramatically, shortening the hours and effort it takes to do household chores. It’s man that’s the problem, not the machines.

Because contrary to how things feel, we all have far more time to play with than people have ever had before. There have been significant material changes to people’s lives in the last few decades, and mostly these are in the direction of freeing up the hours and minutes. John Robinson, an academic at the University of Maryland, has conducted research which shows that Americans have more leisure time than 30 years ago, even with more women working. Most people, he says, have about 40 hours of free time a week. These changes even apply to married people with children, usually regarded as the most pressed, who, Robinson outlines, have a whole hour extra than their forbears. It’s even more if you go back to agricultural societies.

It’s the same here in Britain. Although statistics can mask the diversity of experience, studies show that overall people in every advanced economy in the world are working fewer hours on average than they used to. On top of that, we now live longer. But what’s interesting - and concerning - is that we feel more pressed for time.

What, then, is going on? One thing that has changed is that having busy and action-packed lives is now a sign of high status in our culture. Whereas a marker of success once used to be once having leisure time in which to enjoy life, it is now work. So we kind of brag about it. Aspirant high-fliers know they have always to appear to be busy, and that they cannot say that everything is done and in hand when questioned about how things are going. It much better for them to sigh and say that they have too much to do.

But there is more to this than just being competitive, or showing off. Changes in work and in our leisure time has also had an impact. A great deal of employment is less secure for people, so it feels more pressured and as if we are more vulnerable to the whim of our employers – and indeed we are. And then there is the blurring of work and home life. We may work fewer hours overall, but many of us take work home, work at weekends and in the evenings. There isn’t a clear demarcation between the office and our home: we don’t properly clock when we are off the clock.

And then there is the intensification of domestic life and leisure time. Our home needs to look like it could be photographed for Elle Décor, or we wish it did. Fancy cookery books sneer at anything we keep in the freezer as we are now meant to make the effort to locally forage for our food. And we have a list-like attitude towards our free time – it has to be productive too. Latest exhibition? Tick. New restaurant? Gig? Tick? The gym? Tick.

The serious demands placed on our leisure time is most evident for those who have kids. Studies show that working mothers today spend as much or more time with their kids as stay-at-home mothers in the 1960s, which is remarkable – a joy for most, of course. But this suggests that even hanging around with children, the most natural of family activities, is vulnerable to over-organising and over-thinking. Consider, for a moment, the very strange idea of quality time, presented as different or the opposite to simply spending time with each other. We now rebuke ourselves that time spent together isn’t spent well enough. We cannot just sit around doing nothing; we have to do everything as if it’s a job to excel at.

The good news is that this busy feeling is partly subjective. We are spending too much time giving ourselves a hard time: about work, about our home-life and at play, when we need to chill and enjoy the moments. We have all the time in the world.

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