We were chatting about iPads in the general store one morning, and the owner of a small road construction firm who wandered in was dismissive, grousing that too many people are getting connected in fancy ways that aren’t needed.
I was sympathetic and iPadless, but I pointed out that he was highly dependent on cellphones, having seen him take calls getting out of his truck or while buying his breakfast sandwich and smokes. He smiled and recalled how 20 years ago, he and his dad would return home in the evening, listen to messages on the answering machine, and then respond to the calls that had built up during the day.
That was perfectly normal. Today, he noted that if he doesn’t respond to cell calls immediately or voice messages within the hour, he can lose a contract.
“Everyone is moving too quickly,” he grumbled.
We should all grumble. We are, collectively, nuts. We have allowed the push for efficiency to pump up our stress levels. Ironically, this just-in-time world actually masks our collective inefficiency, at least, or incompetence.
We are living constantly in the present, a frantic present. We are focused on what needs to be done now. And we have decided it has to be done fast, because fast is good and, perhaps less acknowledged, because we have been too busy or too focused on other things so that we need whatever we’re working on to be completed now-now-now.
In their 2005 book Time Mastery, Hartwick College management professors John Clemens and Scott Dalrymple point out that farmers and gardeners don’t plant seeds one morning and expect them to bear fruit later that day, or the next day, or even the next week. They are patient, working for the future. They have an expanded view of time.
The authors urge us not to get mired in the short term. We should discover the joys – and good business sense – of acting and thinking ahead. They talk of finding a temporal golden mean, with the right proportion of past, present and future to optimize our effectiveness. But the reality is that most of us live life in the present-frantic.
Elliott Jaques, the Toronto-born management scientist, based much of his consulting on organizational hierarchy around the notion of the time frame for decisions required at each level. He had an intricate system for developing requisite levels in an organization and assigning individuals to those posts based on the longest time span for a decision required in that job and the ability of an individual to operate with the cognitive complexity required to make decisions for that time frame. So someone on a shop floor perhaps doesn’t think beyond a day or two and a CEO is supposed to be thinking 20 or 30 years out for the organization, making some decisions that will decide that future.
What if we rewrote the system to consider the average time span – or most common time span – that people are operating in, rather than the longest time span for a decision? I think we would find most individuals are consumed with the immediate. Even CEOs are often focused on what they can do today to affect results this quarter – that’s becoming today’s long-time horizon for too many of them.
So we stumble around, because we haven’t properly prepared for today. A task comes to the top of our ‘To Do’ list, and our heart sinks if we are honest with ourselves because we know if we had squeezed out five minutes a month ago, and ten minutes two weeks ago, we would be in a better position today. Perhaps some research material we could use would be here, properly gathered, and we won’t have to make a last-ditch scramble to find that material or, worse, write the report without the details we truly need. Or perhaps we won’t have to call contractors and insist on a quote in the next few hours, if we had called two weeks ago.
But we don’t reassess the time frames under which we operate. We don’t admit a certain incompetence, or inability, to operate in different time frames, and work to adjust our life so we can come closer to that temporal golden mean, and be better balanced between time frames. Instead, we blame others for the rush that consumes us, brag about how busy we are, and buy another gadget to make us more consumed with the present.
We start our days with a ‘To Do’ list. Perhaps we need a ‘To Prepare’ list. Perhaps our calendar needs temporal golden mean times, when we take a short break from immediacy to prepare, like a farmer, for the future. Perhaps our organizations need to add training in this area and evaluate people for promotion by this element of time span.
Bilingual people have a facility to operate effortlessly in two languages. We need to become more effortless at operating in two time frames. In the end, today will be less frantic.