Slow down, ease up and create a little more time in your life

'We can create calm by not inflicting noise on ourselves. Turn down the telly. Bin the Walkman'
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The Independent Online

Just an hour's (slow) drive from San Gimignano, where our Prime Minister is holidaying in his borrowed Tuscan fortress, are half a dozen Italian towns that are trying to slow down the pace of life.

Just an hour's (slow) drive from San Gimignano, where our Prime Minister is holidaying in his borrowed Tuscan fortress, are half a dozen Italian towns that are trying to slow down the pace of life.

They are members of "Slow City" movement, where towns sign up to a series of measures designed to make life calmer and hence more enjoyable for citizens and visitors alike. So far there are 32 towns in Italy that have joined the scheme, which grew out of the "Slow Food" plan of the early Eighties. That was a reaction to Americanised fast food, the idea being that people should eat delicious meals, and take all afternoon doing it, instead of bolting down a hamburger on the hoof.

These Slow Cities are coping with traffic by enlarging pedestrian areas and building car parks on the edge. They are planting more trees in parks, banning car alarms, and taking down TV aerials, posters and neon signs.

If you detect a tinge of anti-Americanism, even xenophobia, in all this you would be right.

"The American urban model," protests Paolo Saturnini, the mayor of Greve in Chianti (just 30 miles from San Gimignano), "has invaded our cities and risks making Italian towns look the same. We want to stop this kind of globalisation."

Other aspects of anti-globalisation in these include banning genetically modified foods and promoting locally produced organic food in restaurants. But these cities are not against progress in the sense that they are anti-technology; in fact they argue that technology, properly applied, ought to make life easier and more relaxed. They are, so to speak, anti-McDonald's rather than anti-Microsoft.

Many of us would applaud the idea, but short of high-tailing it to Tuscany, what can we do about it? In any case, going slow while on holiday is not the problem for most of us: it is how to slow down our daily lives. The Slow Cities project touches a nerve because one of the growing divisions in our society is not about money but about time: between the time-rich and the time-poor. Some time-richness is involuntary: that of the unemployed or the early retired. And some of the time-poor have chosen to be that way: whatever they might say, they regard being busy as a sign of status.

But for most of us there is a genuine problem of balance: how do we get our work done, fulfil our social and family obligations, have fun, and still find time to slope about doing nothing?

We will all have our own ideas, but the Slow Cities movement can, I suggest, teach us some principles of how we might do so. For example, part of the slowing down is not so much slowing, but calming. One of the key aspects of the Italian cities' plan is to cut down on noise - understandably in view of the Vespa/mobile phone culture of the Italian young. This holds a lesson for us here. While we cannot do anything about the booming stereo in the next car at the traffic lights, we can create more calm by not inflicting noise on ourselves when we don't need to. Turn down the telly. Bin the Walkman.

But while cutting down on noise may help take pressure off people, it doesn't solve the time problem. How do we create more down-time for ourselves? Everyone will have lots of tricks they have learnt that enable them to save time.

A quick trawl of my colleagues suggests the following ideas. One is to do the weekly supermarket shop at 8am on a Saturday morning when you can whisk round in half the usual time. A second is, whenever you see an object that would make a good present, to buy it and stick it in a drawer. Then you have presents ready for every occasion. Other ideas include having your e-mail address ex-directory.

Apparently, doing things at the last minute is also very efficient. There was some economic study that looked at the time taken to do routine tasks: the closer it was to the deadline, the quicker the task was done.

As a journalist I found the last idea particularly encouraging. But I would like to offer two further suggestions. One takes a lot of organisation, costs money and is not an option for everyone; the other can be done instantly by anyone and is free.

The first is to cut commuting time. The sums are simple. On a typical working day, we spend eight hours at work and eight hours asleep. So that leaves only eight hours for everything else - from brushing one's teeth to making sure the fridge is stocked. If you then use another hour each way of that time commuting, you have used up one-quarter of all the spare time during the day. Given frequent traffic delays and the unreliability of public transport, this is an enormous burden we place on ourselves.

This is very much a modern burden: the word commuter is only about 130 years old. Nearly all the additional time we gained in the last century by shorter working hours, we lost in longer commuting time.

By a combination of living close to work (or working close to where you live) and using the new technologies to do at least some work at home, it should be possible for many people to trim the time they spend going to and from work. A colleague who has just sold his flat and is borrowing one closer to our offices says he is astounded by the amount of time he has suddenly discovered he has gained. I was lucky enough to live and work in the same borough in London (but for different employers) for 20 years until The Independent moved to Docklands.

But, as I said, not everyone has this option. The option that we do all have can gain even more time. It is to give up watching television. According to the latest Social Trends, the average man in Britain spends 24 hours a week watching television, the average woman 26 hours. That is between three and four hours a day - all of which has to come out of the eight hours of leisure. No wonder people feel they have no time.

Are you out of touch if you don't watch the box? Not if you listen to the radio and read the newspapers. Put a tablecloth over it for a week and see what happens.

Perhaps Mr Blair should try that one. If he vowed never to watch TV and simply paid his PR people to watch it for him, think of the time he could save. Meanwhile, he should pop over to Greve and have a beer with the mayor. Don't hurry. Get one of those squads of bodyguards to do the driving. Stop off at Castellina in Chianti on the way back and have another beer. And reflect on the fact that is one of the things holidays are for: to get new ideas on how to make life more pleasant when you get back home.