The recession may help stop our activity addictions.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
“Faster, faster, faster til the love of speed overcomes the fear of death.”
That quote, from Hunter Thompson, seems to have been the motto of the last decade. Globalization, together with new technology, made everything move at light speed. Deals were done in days, industries reconfigured overnight. Peter Drucker told us we should build companies like tents, expecting nothing to last and everything to change. So we all became 24-hour road warriors, heedless of time zones and jet lag.
Is it just me, or do I hear a slight sigh of relief that, at last, everything has to slow down a little? There might be some good reasons so. In one experiment, volunteers were asked to read a number of statements about a criminal. Some were false – and they were in color. At the same time, numbers crawled along the bottom of the screen, rather like stock prices. Volunteers had to write down each time they saw the number “5.’’
The volunteers who’d had to look for the number “5’’ more frequently mistook false statements for true ones. That meant that they decided the criminal’s sentence should be twice as long. With few mental resources available, that they made bad judgments was inevitable.
My first thought was: that explains the banking crisis. Most business people are distracted by signals and data a lot more complex than looking for the number “5.’’ Their Blackberries, mobile phones, e-mail, texts, newspapers, radio and the ubiquitous news stations all demand attention and often response. Everything is urgent – and that’s before you even begin to grapple with face-to-face relationships. No wonder all those bad deals got done, on rotten terms, by executives who didn’t grasp the full implications of their actions. If they look like they didn’t know what they were doing, perhaps it is because they didn’t. Being busy is not the same as paying attention. Indeed, the experiment would suggest they may be polar opposites.
The brain is attracted to movement and the entrepreneur has a bias for action. The combination can be devastating. Many of us would rather do anything than sit still and think. Few of us know how to do it, not because we’re stupid but because it’s hard.
The other night I was dining with a business leader who knows the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown well. I argued that he should find a new speech writer, someone who understood the need for mindful optimism and inspiration. No, said Brown’s friend, what he needs is a good night’s sleep. The man is simply exhausted and distracted. If that frightens you as much as it does me, think how your employees must feel if they see you in the same condition. If the economic downturn means that we all slow down a little, that may turn out to be the smartest strategy of all. Because the economy certainly won’t recover until we do.