Books - Less paperwork more sex - Dennis Stevenson enjoys a book about making time for the more important things in life.
FASTER. James Gleick. Little, Brown & Co £16.99
Everyone is in a hurry, technology helps us do things faster and as a result we all want things NOW! These are the not wholly remarkable conclusions of James Gleick's book Faster. That they are unremarkable, however, does not make them any less significant.
Gleick starts his book by dispelling the myth that there was once a time when everyone was relaxed, no one hurried and we revelled in things that were time-consuming. Instead he suggests that everyone is a 'type A' - we get agitated if the lift takes longer than a few seconds, we constantly try to save time and we want planes to fly punctually. There are not and never were many people happy to watch the world pass them by.
As a result we all try and 'buy' time at different points in our day. We might do two things at once - watch TV while reading those papers, drive while talking on the phone and talk on the phone while typing book reviews. We may use technology or services to get rid of tasks that are not time well spent. Whichever way we do it time is of the essence.
In this process we also make trade-offs - more time for leisure, less for the bar, more for TV, less for books, etc. In modern life our understandings of these trade-offs are more explicit but still we often fool ourselves about what we spend time on. Using some clever calculations Gleick shows that, for example, we spend less time having sex than we do filling out government paperwork.
'Less Paperwork More Sex' would be an excellent manifesto pledge (I am sure Gleick would not claim copyright if messrs Hague or Blair were to adopt it). However, of perhaps greater interest is Gleick's claim that our day is no more taken up with work than it ever was. Looking through historical statistics and analysing how much of our working day is spent on activities not related to work Gleick reckons we work about the same as previous generations.
Gleick's historical perspective, intriguing as it is, runs the risk of ignoring one of the most important changes in modern life, at least for elites. This is that technology and the smaller globe has given all of us a far greater capacity to work. My own business life, for example, does not recognise 9-to-6 let alone even 9-to-9, which 20 years ago would have been the mark of a workaholic. All sorts of tempting opportunities arise - many of them taken by me - to work around the clock.
There are people in Silicon Valley known as 'sleep camels'. They apparently get enough sleep at weekends to be able to work through the week on minute amounts of sleep. In no time at all, business schools will run 'sleep modules' alongside the more traditional 'finance for managers'.
Profound questions - which are implicit but not dealt with heavily in this book - are raised by this. As the unbalanced and uncivilised take advantage of this trend, so they are in turn creating an over-tired elite which spends less and less time on their family and personal lives, and more and more on their work. It is a sad fact that mental health problems are a rising concern among elites.
The most exciting challenge is how to alter the way we organise our working, playing, and personal lives so as to take greatest advantage of these changes to enrich ourselves in every way, yet remain human beings. Some time ago I made an excuse at 1.30pm to leave a meeting with Marjorie Scardino, the chief executive and my colleague at Pearson, so as to watch my then 12 year old son play a soccer match in Battersea Park. It was a rainy, grisly day and after 10 minutes I looked over my shoulder and saw a familiar sight under an umbrella. It was Marjorie's driver. Behind her was Marjorie. Her son, Hal, was on the other side!
Pearson shareholders can rest easy. I am sure both Marjorie and I worked unusual hours into the evening and possibly during the night. I am equally sure that we were both right to manipulate our working days so as to spend time with our children.
Perhaps Gleick's next book should be a foray into how we balance the new tensions between work and play.
Lord Stevenson is chairman of Pearson and Halifax
ON THE BEDSIDE TABLE OF ... CHARLES DUNSTONE
'Into Thin Air by John Krakauer, and Why We Buy by Paco Underhill. Into Thin Air is the amazing true story of an attempt at Everest which went horribly wrong. Why We Buy studies the science of retailing, and reveals the shopping behaviour and habits of modern consumers.'
Charles Dunstone is managing director of Carphone Warehouse.