Dealing With the ‘Old Enemy’

Old Father Time Image Courtesy: Alex Stone Art

Old Father Time
Image Courtesy: Alex Stone Art

Is there enough time in the day for you? Probably not! But how serious a problem is this? Research from Princeton University[1] indicates that for a business leader it could be catastrophic.

The basic idea is that if we feel we have too little time, we enter a state of time deprivation. Scarcity of time, just like poverty or hunger, means that we become distracted by the deficit. If you’ve ever been on a diet, you’ll know how tempting foods can monopolise your attention. In consequence we have less “mental bandwidth” available for issues not requiring immediate attention. For business leaders, this is likely to mean not planning ahead or addressing strategic problems.

In addition, astonishingly, our IQ can reduce by 10 points because a shortage of time involves more thought about trade-offs – ‘if I do this, what will I not do?’ And more complicated thinking – ‘how do I get the most done in the shortest time?’ It seems we lose both sharpness and thinking ability.

The symptoms will be an increase in short-termism as we become tunnel-visioned and our horizons get  closer. We will ‘borrow’ more in many different ways such as asking favors, accepting worse terms and conditions, and increasing debt to cover shortfalls without thinking too much about how we will make repayments.

The biggest issue is that few leaders ever realise this is happening to them. The analogy is the use of a mobile phone whilst driving. The research tells us that using a phone reduces our reaction time to the same as if we were legally drunk. However, as the driver, this never seems to be the case to us as we just don’t feel slower. Similarly, as a leader, we know we are busy and distracted, but have little sense of the consequences.

The solution, according to the Princeton team, is not ‘to do’ lists or better prioritization but building in ‘slack’. If you try to pack too much into your days and don’t leave any slack, the slightest unexpected event leaves you hijacked. A deliberate half-hour a day to have a ‘meeting with yourself’ can make all the difference. How you do this will depend on your circumstances and won’t be easy. The alternative is an eternal ‘Catch 22″.

The questions this suggests for most leaders are:

How do I build slack into my day? And who will tell me when I’m becoming tunnel visioned, short-term and blind to my condition?

However, it’s not just time. Similar things happen when leaders experience a shortage of anything, be it inadequate resources, reducing sales or profits, or simply inadequate cash flow. Activity levels increase with the imagery of the headless chicken becoming stronger. But if you ask most leaders what they most want more of, time will usually feature high up on the list.


[1] Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. New York, NY: Times Books.

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