The Death of Time

5 June 2018 | Keeping Up with the Trends

What would David DiSalvo (@neuronarrative) say today? Six years ago, in an article for Forbes [link], DiSalvo wote an article about “8 Reasons Why People Feel Lost in Their Lives.” Here is reason number five:

Cognitive Overload

This is probably the easiest on the list to describe, because it affects all of us, and with increasing intensity. We simply have too much on our mental plates day-in and day-out to manage effectively. Without a quality external system for helping to manage it all, we can’t help but feel overloaded, and that contributes to a feeling of being out of sorts with the responsibilities and demands we face endlessly. Our brains didn’t evolve for nonstop information-driven, consumerism-driven, technology-laden societies, so we have to find tools to offload our cognitive load, or sink.

It has gotten worse. Much worse. I’m seeing this everywhere. People are in a time trap. The trap is that, no matter the task, everything — and I do mean everything! — must be done faster, faster, faster.

  • (@amazon) has more “Prime” members than ever before. One reason: the customer gets what’s purchased faster. In some cases, one can get same-day delivery.
  • The Globe and Mail in Toronto has reported that you can “Jump to the front of the line with this app [link] You’ll love the opening of the piece by Josh O’Kane: “Ray Reddy is obsessed with milliseconds. The average person might not notice when something is five milliseconds too slow, but it affects peoples’ decisions anyway, he says. The more time we save, the more efficient, the more productive, the happier we are.”
  • I remember when I would come back to the office and have a stack of paper phone messages. I could ponder which to respond to, and when. But we’ve moved from phone calls to emails to SMS and Instant Reply actions on our phones. Didn’t I read about an app that checks your calendar for you and then commits you to a meeting if it thinks you have the time. Or was that a nightmare?
  • We used to eat at home. Then came dining out; someone else made our food. But that was not fast enough: we soon needed fast food (in its early days, the founders of @McDonalds timed their order-to-delivery rates with stopwatches). Now: we can pick up food that has been made up by someone who makes it seem like it was made at home.
  • I have no proof, but my guess is that corporate reports are generated in half the time or less than they were a decade ago. (Whether they have been thought-through is another matter.)
  • Have you heard of the 3-minute prayer? Sure you have enough time to check it out? [link]
  • Try typing this into your search engine: “things that are now done faster and quicker” then sit back and watch the results. Top of my list is by Dustin Wax on Lifehack: “50 Tricks to Get Things Done Faster, Better, and More Easily” [link]
  • It usually takes months to hike the Appalachian Trail. Heard about “Heather “Anish” Anderson [who] set the Appalachian Trail speed record yesterday, finishing the approximately 2,190-mile route in 54 days”? That was in 2015. Read more here. [link]
  • Who’s really winning the fast-faster-fastest competition. You might check the current listing of “15 Fastest Things in the Universe” [link].

The reality is that those who are growing up with Instant Reply technology have no recollection of anything different. For these, shall we call them “digital natives”, the physical world is broken simply because it does not move at the speed of their digital lives. I see this reaction to life over and over with would-be entrepreneurs whose start-up ideas are designed to “fix” something in the physical world that is “just too slow”.

Those older baby boomers who were born just a few decades before digital natives aren’t happy. They find the digital world overwhelmingly fast in almost every aspect, as their temporal clocks have been shaped by the pace of the physical world.

I’m not that old and yet I have a memory and appreciation of my parents who counselled me that “a stitch in time saves nine”, “haste makes waste”, “no wine before it’s time”, “you cannot fake farming”, and “if you don´t have time to do it right the first time, how are you ever going to have the time to do it over again?” (Oh, no! Do I hear you saying, “How quaint!”)

Please do not get me wrong. Time has always been a fascination and challenge around the world. And improving time-to-completion rates is not, in itself, a bad thing. You might have heard the word “progress” in my presentations. I’m for it, not against it. I’m thinking of all the modern applications invented to track time [link] and how much progress has been made over the years. Consider naval navigation and the creation of Greenwich Mean Time so sailors could coordinate as they circumnavigated the globe [link]. Consider the arrival of the locomotive train engine and the need to coordinate the scheduling of trains across a network so that the new technology could have maximal payoff [link]. Consider the electrification of factories and the need to coordinate and synchronise the work of large numbers of people via discrete yet connected tasks [link]. Good things have happened by making the world faster.

Yet, let me beg you to consider as well what may be lost by the worship of even faster in and of itself:

  • The time, will and desire to play and experiment. There is an inherent trade-off between doing some things fast and doing them slower and contemplative. Hence the question must be asked: Should this particular challenge be done faster or slower? That is a profoundly important judgement we must make countless times each day, and getting that wrong sets us down the wrong path from the get-go.
  • One could say that the fuel required to go faster comes from the time reserved for resting. Has the “always on”, gotta-move-faster world simply driven us to a point of exhaustion?
  • Fast, in many circumstances, in not a whole lot of fun. And while fun may not be the primary objective, there is lots of evidence to suggest that having fun make most work more engaging for people. Has going ever-faster created a problem with engaging the work we have to do?
  • Sources of meaning come from both doing the work and the results it generates. So, what if that work blazes by so fast that one cannot even think about what was done because of what must be done next — and quickly?
  • Human interaction cannot be continuously accelerated. Soon, ever-faster human interactions reach a point where trust breaks down and misunderstanding emerges.
  • Think about the faster vs further conundrum. If one wants to get to know a country, flying over it at jet speed is not going to get you where you want to go. Sometimes speed limits how deep one can explore. Reading a novel is not the same as reading a two-page synopsis.

I’m not trying to start an anti-fast club. If you are in a burning building, getting out faster is important. If you are doing a mundane, repetitive task, faster does seem to be better. It’s worth noting, however, that your concept of having time dies the minute you don’t have enough of it to do your job well, or to appreciate what you are doing, or to take time to think about new and perhaps better ways to get a job done.

My point is simply this: faster is not always the answer. As novelist Tom Robbins once said, “The trouble with the fast lane is that all the movement is horizontal. And I like to go vertical sometimes.”

Joseph PistruiJoseph Pistrui (@nextsensing) is Professor of Entrepreneurial Management at IE Business School in Madrid. He also leads the global Nextsensing Project, which he founded in 2012.