The Busy Myth: Your Car Can Help You Be Not-Busy

My Q1 2018 column for Professional Manager Magazine

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 column? 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 the bloke after whom they named half of the new-town posterboy – 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 – and 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.

One nexus point in this strange dynamic is our car. Let’s not forget that cars, motorways and the very concept of private transport were conceived, sold and valued as a touchstone for personal freedom. Freedom to do what you want, whenever you want and go wherever you please. But like so many things in life our cars have become an extension of work – and an enabler of more work. Like all the other technology in our lives, the car has been cannibalised by work until it’s simply a work tool. And, statistically speaking, the longer our commute the more miserable we are.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. I propose we redefine our perception of commuting time or the hours we spend in our cars. Rather than see it as time wasted we should reappraise our relationship with cars and see them for the potential to free us of many of the trappings of modern life: always-on connectivity, notification bombardment and continuous partial attention. Think you don’t have time to learn, to think, to be mindful? Or to simply switch off and enjoy some time not really thinking about or doing anything? If you spend regular time in a car that’s simply untrue.

Our cars 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 and – while clearly illegal, stupid and dangerous – read reports on a bunch of notes perched on a steering wheel, as one former colleague’s lunatic boss advised. But let’s not?

In the very near present our cars will do the driving for us – and that will be another couple of hours that could otherwise be spent legitimately in a human Airplane Mode whittled away from our lives. And for most of us that will mean more time we’re expected to reply to emails, update our calendars and check in with colleagues, clients and contractors and another nail in the coffin of Britain’s productivity problem. Initial research casts doubt on whether self-driving cars will be quite the panacea we expect for productivity – car sickness being just one mundane example of why the reality might be different from the futurology – but we can cross that bridge when we come to it.

For now take it upon yourself to form a completely new relationship with your car. Don’t see it as a prison, view it as a safe haven – an ideal insulation from the maddening, always-on hum of daily e-traffic. An isolation tank where you can regenerate your motivation, creativity and productivity.

We don’t need to work harder, or longer. We need to work smarter and sometimes that means not working at all. Your car – your humble motor – is your salvation in your journey to not being busy.

Motor Waze

Get real-time updates from friends, colleagues and fellows driver on the fastest – and best – way to get to your destination

“If you’re bleeding,” runs an old proverb, “look for a man with scars.” The meaning? If you are in need seek out an expert whose experience is writ large.

In my walk of life it’s important to know about technology and automotive – what’s new and what the likely consequences are. So I talk to people who drive cars every day: people who deliver courtesy or press cars; perhaps, more prosaically, taxi drivers.

In terms of the latter they’re at the sharp ends of price points, fuel economy and other matters of personal and business finance, so it makes sense that they know what works and what doesn’t. There’s a few trends I’ve noticed more and more. Hybrids are very popular and diesels less noticeable than they were a few short years ago. But most of all I’ve noticed a surge in popularity of the app Waze.

This Google-developed navigation app is satnav with a difference: it’s free to download and use and it’s driven by a constant supply of feedback from other ‘Wazers’. This means that it updates in real-time based on telemetry from other users, but it also allows individuals to add their feedback, a bit like those Radio 2 listeners who phone in to advise of snarl-ups on the M4.

The benefit of having Waze on your smartphone is that it can advise of journeys it knows you’re going to make. So if I know I have a commute to make in rush-hour tomorrow the app can estimate how long it will take me to get there based on similar historical and live journeys – and notify when I need to leave. It’s also ideal for pinpointing the optimum time to leave on any given journey if I want to spend the least possible time in the car.

Waze also has two-way information sharing with governments, meaning it can update users on planned roadworks, but also feedback information on volumes of traffic, road usage and traffic flow. Governments around the world are now using this data to improve infrastructure.

Satnav manufacturers offer similar functionality, but Waze is free and it gets much more buy-in from users drawn to the cooperative element. And it means much shorter, cheaper and hassle-free journeys.

The community aspect has found a real foothold among minicab owners, because drivers like to help one another out by warning against jams on their shared patches. Further, because it’s app-based there’s cross-functionality with the likes of Facebook, so your peers can advise of other location-specific information: good restaurants, cheap petrol, parking spots.

Take it a step further and you can coordinate meeting times and even see where fellow attendees are in relation to you – or arrange to carpool with other Wazers the app can match you with, based on your mutual journeys. You pay them to take you or vice-versa. Chances are you save or make money and take another car off the road. Result? Less time spent in traffic jams, more money saved, potentially money earned.

Use smartphone-sync functionality such as Apple CarPlay and it renders your factory-fit satnav completely useless. Someday soon a car manufacturer will join up all these dots in a self-driving, electric car and at that point we’ll have to reevaluate literally everything – no more accidents, no more road deaths… no more Radio 2 traffic updates anyway. Until then Waze is the single-best change you can probably make to your commuting – and one of the best productivity hacks going.

Five lifehacks to productivity in your car

Some suggestions as to how you can be active in your car, even if you’re actively doing nothing at all.

Zero notifications

Since my iPhone updated itself it blocks notifications while driving, a sensible precaution to ensure I’m concentrating on the task at hand. While I’m in my car that means driving, but isn’t concentrating on the task at hand a pretty good idea whatever the situation? Increase your focus, switch off that nagging voice in your pocket and kill your notifications.

Get to know your PA

By which I mean your smartphone’s personal assistant – Siri, Cortana or Google Now most likely. Driving is a great way to dedicate to time to contemplating a problem or project and I use voice command to record thoughts I have to my phone, whether it’s making a list or recording notes to myself on articles or pitches. Your PA can also send texts, emails or attachments to contacts and set reminders for you – without you taking your eyes off the road or hands off the steering wheel..

Make your car your app player

Interfaces such as Apple Carplay and Android Auto make your car’s dashboard into your smartphone screen, meaning safer use of the apps you want to use. And if you have voice control in your car you have a hands-free functionality over your phone.

Cast your net wider

Skip the boxset; stitch this. Commuting has basically become catch-up time for the latest episode of That Podcast Your Friend Is Always Talking About. Use apps like Stitcher – automatically present in some new cars – to line up a few podcasts at a time and surf effortlessly between hundreds of genres.

Mindfulness app

Mindfulness is a terrible faddy buzzword but the idea is sound. Being mindful is not about meditation per se – it’s being in the present moment, so your commute is the perfect time to practice. Concentrate on the sights, sounds, feelings and actions of your drive: it takes practice but it will set you up for the day. Lots of companies are using Headspace, but there are plenty of apps out there.

• Read this article in situ in the Q1 2018 edition of Professional Manager

Top image; second image