A scary statistic.

“I meet, therefore I am.” Rene Descartes, the French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher (1596-1650, quoted during a brief interview granted when he recently visited the 21st century via Time Machine).

“Wasn’t that, ‘I think, therefore I am?’ Cogito, ergo sum?” interviewer.

Thinking? That was so-ooo-o 17th century.” Descartes.

Here’s the most sobering statistic I’ve heard in a long while. No, it’s not that global temperatures will warm by several degrees before the end of this century. It’s not that sea level is rising by a meter or so over the same interval. This datum has nothing to do with the rate at which the ice caps and glaciers are melting. It’s not even linked with the acidification of the oceans. It’s not derived from the decline in biodiversity and the threatened extinction of so many endangered species. It’s not that the costs of business disruption and property loss due to natural disasters are rising faster than the world’s Gross Domestic Product or GDP. It’s not the rise in the incidence of tropical diseases accompanying global warming, nor is it the aging demographic of many of the world’s developed countries.

It’s not even front page news. No, this statistic was buried in a one-page article entitled What do bosses do all day? hidden in the middle of last week’s issue of The Economist. The statistic wasn’t even the centerpiece of the article, which focused on a study by Oriana Bandiera, Luigi Guiso, Andrea Prat and Raffaella Sadun (“What Do CEOs Do?” Harvard Business School Working Paper 11-081.) It’s an offhand estimate attributed to Rajesh Chandy, a professor at the London Business School, to the effect that business leaders spend only 3-4% of each day thinking about long-range strategy.


Compare with the 60% of their time those same executives are spending in meetings, according to Bandiera, et al. Assuming a 50-60-hour work week, this comes to 30-36 hours of meetings on short-term, possibly urgent matters and maybe 1-2 hours a week thinking about larger objectives and purpose. 

We’ll come back to those leaders in a moment, but first, ask yourself: how do you compare? As for me, I’m right in there with those executives. Shame on me. But my guess is, if you’re honest with yourself, you may not be that much better.

And why should we be ashamed? Aren’t those meetings, and those hundreds, maybe thousands of connections we make with each other each day keeping us grounded, plugged-in, relevant to our (virtual) world? You bet.

But there’s the issue of balance. I’d wager that each of us has had a recent experience something similar to the following…we’re madly racing on the treadmill of life, answering those e-mails (here’s another statistic…did you know that every e-mail you answer generates 1.75 e-mails in response? No wonder no one’s answering any of your e-mails!). We’re returning phone calls. We’re texting and being texted. In each instance, we’re adding a scrap of a thought. Nothing big. But, at least in our minds, we’re contributing, kicking the can down the road. In the parlance of science, we’ve provided an “epsilon,” a smidgen of valued-added, with each of these transactions.

And, by doing that, we’re “keeping up.” We’re meeting deadlines.  We’re staying on schedule. [But on schedule for what? We have little idea. Because we’re hustling. Even for knowledge workers – maybe especially for knowledge workers – work has become athletic, instead of intellectual.]

And then, magically, for whatever reason, we stop for an instant. Chances are it’s not deliberate; rather, more accidental. But we hit the life’s Pause button. We make time to consider where we’re headed and why. We allow short-term matters to accumulate for the moment, and instead ask ourselves: what are the big challenges facing humanity? What is our piece of the action? What are we working on that will be a game-changer? And then, equally magically, we realize that because of that brief respite, that pause to reflect – our work is suddenly under much better control, at least for a short while. In the period following, we are better able to distinguish between what matters and what is mere distraction.

So, we’ve all had this experience. Why isn’t it addictive? Why don’t we crave more of it? If that 3-4% works so well for us, why don’t we jack it up to 6-8%?

I’ll venture a prediction – no, make that three predictions.

Prediction #1. If you do that, if you’ll make that leap from 3-4% to 6-8%, you’ll find yourself so much more effective that you’ll want to up it to 12-16%.

Prediction #2. If our leaders did this, they’d find themselves able to take back control over their lives from their handlers. [This has always mystified me. As a former handler myself in some of my earlier jobs, I used to wonder why the folks in those top positions, who got them precisely because they were capable of a better thought process than you and me, would suddenly, when they found themselves in charge, delegate this critical time management responsibility to staffers.] And as they regained control, they’d discover they were once again truly leading (versus the thought captured by a sign in an executive’s office: I must hurry…for there go my people, and I am their leader.)

Prediction #3. If all of us started doing that, some of those seemingly intractable global problems – would crumble under the onslaught of all that fresh thought.

The real world would become a better place.

And living on the real world even more of a pleasure.

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3 Responses to A scary statistic.

  1. Nice post. For prediction 2, did you want to say “…to TAKE back control”? Cheers, Ed

  2. Pingback: Week in Review 5/23/11 | Climate Etc.

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