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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hamsters on the Wheel of False Urgency

We're all on the wheel of false urgency, especially us so-called knowledge workers, consigned to the wheel via email and Instant Messaging. Got to get to the next one, deal with that question, attach a file, get through the inbox; ah.....finally there. Oh, no - there's another one, let's have a look at it while it's fresh:

Of course, the wheel is 24/7, especially as the 21st-century hamster's favorite food is no longer carrots (or whatever they eat) but Blackberries. Coming back to some basic principles, as Steven Covey pointed out (First Things First), there is a difference between urgent and important, and the trap that many of us fall into is to spend our time dealing with the urgent--the pressing demands, the action, the stuff that we can get done--at the expense of what's really important, those tasks that build toward something bigger, that lead to impact. Email makes this trap more dangerous, it has direct access to us at all times and by its nature it always seems urgent, a false urgency that we react to as we spin the wheel ever faster. The business world is full of six-figure earning leaders, super-qualified with MBAs and expensive executive training programs who are spending the majority of their time rotating. I would argue that the the majority of companies' payroll is spent on the wheel, a concern supported by groups such as the Information Overload Research Group (IORG).

The art of impact is the art of beating traps and finding gaps. In this case, a gap is needed between the falsely urgent and the important, a gap that allows us to beat the trap of the wheel and bring our undivided attention to bear on the important tasks. As Maggie Jackson points out in her book Distracted (Distracted) we are in danger of losing this ability to focus our attention completely. If our leaders are all shuffling emails, who is really thinking about direction, about strategy, who is creating something meaningful?

There are ways to stop spinning, find the gap and increase impact. Cultivating discipline, that key to freedom, is one of them; easy to say but an endless challenge in practice. Finding genuine flow is another path towards focus and concentration. Building skills and confidence and applying these to increasingly challenging tasks facilitates flow, which in turn naturally limits wheel-time and builds the ability to focus attention for sustained periods.

I'll sign off with a quote from Distracted followed by some light relief from one of my favorite songs about the consequences of distraction:

Do we yearn for such voracious virtual connectivity that others become optional and conversation fades into a lost art? For efficiency's sake, do we split focus so finely that we thrust ourselves in a culture of lost threads? Smitten with the virtual, split-split, and nomadic, we are corroding the three pillars of our attention: focus (orienting), judgement (executive function), and awareness (alerting). The costs are steep: we begin to lose trust, depth, and collection in our relations and our thought. Without a flourishing array of attentional skills, our world flattens and thins. And most alarmingly, we begin to lose our ability to collectively face the challenges of our time. Can a society without deep focus preserve and learn from its past? Does a culture of distraction evolve to meet the needs of its future?

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