Pigs, Chickens and Human Beings

Only about 2.5% of the population can multitask but many more think they can and even more try. This is a source of grief and even physical danger, when people talk on cellular phones while driving, for example. Lack of focused attention is diminishing the quality of our decision making as a society.

I have to do a lot of my work at home because I cannot get time to concentrate at work. Some of the “interruptions” are important. Interacting with coworkers is the essence of work in the age of the knowledge worker. I have observed and research indicates that people who insist on “working” to the exclusion of interaction with co-workers are less productive. That time at the water cooler can be an essential time to exchange information and assess capabilities.

Much, however, is dumb. People react too quickly. Instead of thinking for themselves, they send emails, call or send instant messages. Pretty soon dozens are in on a decision that should have been made by one person. The benefit of collective knowledge rarely outweighs the inefficiency of collective thinking if nobody has come up with decent questions. Beyond that, if you count up the salary time you are paying for the dozens of kibitzers, you usually find that the total cost of making a poor decision would be less than the time spent trying to make a perfect one. That assumes that the collective decision is better, which it often is not.

I am making it my business to limit these kinds of things to the small extent that I can. Edmund Burke said “If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” I am adapting that saying to meetings and activities in general. “If it is not necessary to meet/consult/act, it is necessary not to meet/consult/act. We have way too many good things to do and cannot waste time on crap that seems urgent because lots of people clamoring, but is may not be important. The most important thing I can do is decide which things we are not going to do.

Sometimes this can be an easy decision. Some things are just clearly not worth doing. The only trouble here is just saying no. The harder choices involve things that are very important or very worthy but not our business, not within our skill set or beyond our control. Focus is important. Since we cannot do everything, we need to focus on those things that only we can do, that we can do better than others or things we need to do to survive. We need to reject other things. It is malpractice to get involved in too many things we cannot properly do. The most important thing around might be curing a deadly disease, but we are not qualified to act in this sphere, so it is stupid to get involved. We would add no value and probably get in the way. More is not always better.

One of the wisest human characteristics is restraint. We should not take as much as we can. Leave something on the table. We should be careful not to overextend too often. We should judge ourselves and others by what we really do, not by intentions, bold plans or promises.

There are times when our reach should exceed our grasp. People who never fail are people who haven’t tried hard enough. But we need to focus our effort on what we do well and let others carry forward the other things. I have never met a successful person or heard about a successful organization that just played it safe and staying within the comfort zone. But I have also never heard of a successful person or organization that could not decide and stick to reasonable priorities.

The media and especially the Internet allow us to gain a superficial knowledge of lots of things. We think we understand more than we do. It has also created an immediacy that makes us think we should be interested in many things. We hear exhortations that we should be committed to lots of causes. This is not true. It is beyond our capacity. In the wise words of Clint Eastwood, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

We can be interested in lots of things, involved in some but we can commit only to a few. Remember the difference between being committed, involved and interested when you have your bacon and egg breakfast. You are interested; the chicken is involved; the pig is committed.

Most of the time we should play the role of the human, i.e. be interested. Sometimes we should play the chicken, i.e. be involved. We should avoid having our ass on the line, like the pig, unless we are really prepared.