Avoiding The Speed Wobbles

Then his cellphone rang. Instantly he
was back in business, attending to some urgent matter. His daughter was, for the moment, forgotten. His food order had to be called again. With the phone clamped to his ear, he absently lifted his child, handed money across the counter and walked out into the darkening night, still giving instructions to late worker in his distant office.
These days such scene is not un-usual. Things have gone on getting faster, and on the coattails of speed comes urgency. The old sanctuaries of nightfall, holiday, religious observance, distance itself, are no more. The boundaries between work and world have all but collapsed. This is partly due to technology. But there is more fundamental driver, at least in the West – the puritan work ethic. After all, the devil finds mischief for idle hands. And being unparalleled consumers of everything, we consume nothing more avidly than time, cramming each moment with activity, accumulating goods and experiences alike.
There are reasons for wanting to get hard-wired to the high-speed world. Jobs seem increasingly to demand it and certain status accrues from displaying, even exaggerating busyness. Being in demand, after all, is sign of importance. Of worth.
The downside is that the psychological turbulence caused by living faster threatens our relationships, our health and our very personalities. The most common response is to counter any speed wobble by piling on even more technology (palmtops, pagers, home shopping networks), by increasing efficiency, timetabling, scheduling, programming our lives, slicing them into ever smaller segments as evidence that we’re living life to the full. These days even children get the fallout as they are taxied by high-revving parents from soccer game to piano lesson to the maths coach. Work hard, play hard, like there is no tomorrow. Life as an endurance event – an ?everydayathon’.
But is this approach working?… The evidence doesn’t look good. For one thing, technology has never been good at solving non-technical problems. With the watch came acute lateness; with the car, gridlock. Then there are the statistics. As the old millennium was drawing to close, the Guardian newspaper reported that sick leave in Britain was up 10 percent. The Independent confirmed that 75 percent of managers felt obliged to work when ill, and BBC2 broadcast survey results showing 44 percent of employees felt they were working harder than five years earlier.
Things were no better in the bell-wether economy across the Atlantic. Penn State researchers claimed the number of Americans surveyed who felt their lives were always rushed had reached new high of 38 percent by 1992. Surprisingly, it was not just city dwellers who felt harried, but those in small towns too – and not only at work, but also at play. Other studies suggest that any increase in hard-won leisure time has been almost entirely swallowed up by that 800-pound gorilla, television.

Idleness champions
Philosopher Bertrand Russell would have thought this cruel turn of events. As early as 1932, he had declared that the path to happiness and prosperity lay in an organised diminution of work.
Russell’s essay, “In Praise of Idleness”, didn’t flinch from proclaiming the virtues of paring back the workload, leaving people free to follow their true interests. One result, he predicted, would be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness and dyspepsia. Equally, since people would not be exhausted in their spare time, they would not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid.
Television, then, is measure of how far from the mark we got.
Russell hasn’t been alone in championing idleness. Samuel Butler, celebrated author of The Way of All Flesh and the ?dystopia’ Erewhon, once wrote: “To do great work one must be very idle as well as very industrious.” This, from the man who late last century shifted piano all the way from Christchurch to his remote Canterbury sheep station. GK Chesterton agreed with Butler, claiming the rarest and most precious leisure was simply the freedom to do nothing.
More recently Danny Hillis, pioneer of high-speed super-computers, has warned that in our obsession with speed we have lost sight of the future and become trapped in the present. German environmentalist Wolfgang Sachs has gone further, suggesting that high-speed living is unsustainable. In fast-paced world we put lot of energy into arrivals and departures and less into the experience itself, he told recent design conference in Amsterdam. Raising kids, making friends, creating art all run counter to the demand for speed. Such words alone are seldom enough to provoke change. For many people only heart attack, or failed relationship or child gone off the rails will (maybe) break through the busyness, the hurry sickness, and force an altered pace.

Slow-knowing vs time tyranny
But now, science is on the case. In 1997 psychologist Guy Claxton filed report from the speeding edge called Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind (Management readers would have been alerted earlier but idleness intervened). Claxton’s book is subtitled “Why intelligence increases when you think less”, and in it he marshalls evidence to support the value of profound indolence. Perhaps it should be added that many of the book’s insights were recorded in bach overlooking one of Auckland’s surf beaches.
The nub of Claxton’s findings is this: for ill-defined problems, ones demanding creativity and wisdom rather than mere analytic horsepower, less deliberate thinking yields the best results. Indeed, forcing the issue through techniques like brainstorming – which he dismisses as impatience in new guise – often is entirely counterproductive. Yet in the West we have lost touch with contemplation, with ?slow-knowing’, and surrendered to time tyranny and the dominance of technological mindset. Computers have changed the idea of who we are and how we use intelligence, he says, and high-speed data handling makes such contemplation appear inefficient and old-fashioned. The focus, inevitably, is on problem solving.
To spend time dwelling on the question to see if it may lead to deeper question seems inefficient, self-indulgent or perverse, says Claxton. We meet with cleverness, focus and deliberation those challenges that can only properly be handled with patience, intuition and relaxation.
Enter playfulness, complexity, confusion, vagueness, and above all, time… lots of it. When the mind slows, says Claxton, citing numerous authoritative studies, other ways of knowing automatically emerge. Interestingly, even for straightforward tasks, where creativity is minimal, pressure to hurry up is shown to be counterproductive.
Nor do incentives help speed up insightful thinking, says Claxton. It was Henry Mintzberg who pointed out the illusory nature of the old, rational approach to strategic planning in his classic The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning. Because consciousness demands information that is tidy and unequivocal, it can never be as richly informed as intuition, explains Claxton.
If you wait until market trend is clear, you will have lost the edge. Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, then, is plea for time to think – or, rather, to skip stones while something other than thinking connects the dots. But the first step to doing that is to drop busyness, or at least the focus on problems that can be solved. Most of life is lived or lost in an entirely different space and pumping the accelerator won’t improve the chances of success.
As James Gleick, author of Faster: the acceleration of just about everything, wrote: “Neither technology nor efficiency can acquire more time for you, because time is not thing that you have lost. It is not thing you ever had. It is what you live in. You can drift or you can swim, and it will carry you along either way.”
Russell was more forceful. Hit

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