Friday, July 13, 2012

Greg McKeown: The Unimportance of Practically Everything

A friend of mine is the Executive Director for an organization with global reach. He is intelligent and driven, but constantly distracted. At any given time he will have Twitter, Gmail, Facebook and multiple IM conversations going. The majority of them are useful in some way. Yet, in the back of his mind, he knows there are more important deliverables to get to. But the days slip by and he finds himself working all weekend to catch up. Staying up Sunday night until the early hours of Monday morning has become his modus operandi. He told me, while checking his Blackberry again, that it results in having no social life. It's so bad that he tried having his Executive Assistant pull all of the internet cables on his computer. But there were still too many ways to get online. When he was struggling to complete a particularly big project, his brother took away his Blackberry and left him at a motel with no internet access. Yet, even there, he still found a workaround within 10 minutes using his ancient Nokia phone to check his email. Eventually, after eight weeks of almost solitary confinement, he was able to get the project done.
Why do otherwise intelligent people find it so easy to be distracted from what really matters?
Social media did not create the problem of distraction, but it is clearly an amplifier. Indeed, a study [PDF] by Clifford Nass et al. at Stanford showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli than light media multitaskers. Heavy multitasking may encourage even heavier multitasking because it leads to a "reduced ability to filter out interference." Could the part of our brain that is processing deeper cogitative thought actually be atrophying in the process?
None of this would matter if activity and reward were linearly related. But we live in a world where almost everything is worthless and a very few things are exceptionally valuable. This is a counterintuitive idea. After all, the idea that 50% of results come from 50% effort is appealing. It seems fair. Yet, research across many fields paints a very different picture.
As far back as the 1790s, Vilfredo Pareto observed this nonlinear pattern in Italy, where he found that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the people. Much later, Joseph Moses Juran, one of the fathers of the quality movement, called the insight the "Pareto Principle" and applied it beyond economics. In The Quality Control Handbook, Juran called it "The Law of the Vital Few." His observation was that you could massively improve the quality of a product by resolving a tiny fraction of the problems. He found a willing audience in Japan, where the country had been producing low-cost, low-quality goods. By adopting the quality processes, the phrase "Made in Japan" gained a totally new meaning. And gradually, the quality revolution led to Japan's rise as a global economic power.

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