The Busyness Law

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If you saw a man collapse in front of you, in a clearly distressed state and needing help, would you stop and help? The answer is that it depends. In a famous experiment, social psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson ran an experiment with people who might be expected to help: trainee priests. Just before leaving for the lecture, some trainee priests were told they were late, others had plenty of time. The effects were dramatic. Only 10% of those trainee priests who were late stopped to help the collapsed man (who they had no way of knowing was an actor). Of those with more time, 63% stopped!

This is an example of what has become known as the fundamental attribution error. We massively over-estimate the degree to which our behaviour, or that of others, is driven by our values or personality; and we massively underestimate how much it is affected by the environment. So when our environment changes it is only natural for our behaviour to change; and our environment has changed fundamentally.

The scale of the change was brought home to me during a conversation with my 7 year old son. He was asking about life when I was his age. I described a world without computers, electronic games, mobile phones, tablets and the internet; a time before videos (‘what’s a video Dad?’), CDs, DVDs and mp3s. He paused for a while to reflect on what he had just heard, then he asked ‘When you were young, were there toilets?’ At first I took his comment to be quirky and mad: it is ludicrous for me, someone who has lived through the last 45 years, to equate toilets with apps. Of course toilets existed way before the computer. Yet when I pondered on his question I recognized that from his perspective, these technological advances are so central to the way we live today, that from his perspective it is no stranger to imagine a world without flushing water than it is to think about life without ipads.

Technological change has happened fast, really fast. In 1965 Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, made an interesting observation about the accelerating speed of processing power. His observations became Moore’s Law, which states that every two years, the processing power of computers will double; or the cost of the same computer power will halve.   Mark Kryder later developed his law (Kryder’s Law) which states that the amount of data you can fit onto a storage device of a particular size will double, annually. If you add both of these laws to the increasing speed of networks and the development of the ubiquitous cloud we are in an exponential world. Today’s world of too much will look positively rural when we look back on it in five years.

In the context of all these developments, our behaviour has changed; but we haven’t properly adapted. Exciting new software and gadgets carry with them huge promises of increased productivity. Some of these new tools fundamentally change core human processes such as how we interact and communicate with each other.   These tools are amazing, if they are used correctly. The problem comes when the speed with which we implement and use these tools outstrips our ability to adapt and figure out how we should use them best. We use technology in certain ways because we can; we have forgotten to ask whether we should.

If it sounds like I’m a little anti-technology, that’s the wrong impression: I love technology and I love gadgets. However, I think we have to retain mastery over our technology; it should enable our lives, not drive our behaviour. We should use it with a purpose, and shape it to help us to achieve what we want. Technology should be improving and extending our cognitive powers, such as allowing us to integrate massive storage and computing power with our ability to reason and make connections. It should be supporting our interactions, enabling us to build deeper, more satisfying relationships. It should free us up to follow our passions and find more joy and meaning in life. Yet at present, even though our technology lets us do amazing new things, it is also undermining our intellectual powers, our relationships and our happiness.

I want to propose a new law. I propose calling it The Busyness Law. My law says this: that our level of distraction and disengagement will double every two years. I see a clear trend, as our organizations push us harder, as our information tsunami grows, as our expectations get higher, as our social media becomes more central, as our entertainment gets richer and our devices get cooler that we will be pulled further and further away from periods of singular focus or deep engagement. We will squander our attention, bouncing between unimportant activity and unrewarding stimulation. We will increasingly turn our minds from the important stuff that will make a lasting difference in our work and in our lives, and opt instead for the immediate and the superficial. It doesn’t have to be that way, I just fear that’s the way we’re going.

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