Friday, September 17, 2004

Time Horizons

Time is money. Don't waste time. Time is a source of competitive advantage. Learn how to succeed through speed. Time management is productivity management. Succeed by being a one minute "whatever". Live in the fast lane. He or she is on the fast track.

The pace of our lives and work has speeded up. We are being driven by the very technology that we helped develop. Computers and communications technology that operates at nanosecond speeds are influencing the way we perceive and think.

Machines and timekeeping apparatus worked at human speeds in the past. Humans could experience a year, a month, a week, a day, one hour, one minute, and even one second, the interval between ticks of a clock. I remember as a child using a stopwatch to time how fast I could start and stop it. On long bus rides, as a member of a track team, we would compete to see who could be fastest. You can physically experience a few tenths of a second that way. Now, clocks that time athletic events run to hundredths of a second, even in basketball games. Slow motion video and instant replay capability spread a few tenths of a second over tens of seconds and human judgments are called into question. More than a second's response time from a computer seems an eternity. For the first time in history, our machines run at speeds we can never experience. This is having a profound effect on us and our culture.

The way in which we kept track of time has always affected us and our culture. Learning about the seasons structured farming, and those with the best timekeeping methods had a competitive advantage. Precise mobile timekeeping enabled explorers to roam farther. Structuring the week structured work. Pervasive clocks made daily work schedules possible, enabled central offices and factories to function, and ultimately facilitated the structure of cities.

We are right in the midst of this time change which will probably take many years to complete. It is a stressful time, as all the other fundamental changes were.

The roads leading from Austin west can go many miles through desert or semi-desert. Driving requires a focus on the horizon with peripheral vision alert to movement along the sides of the road. I hurtled along at high speeds in over 2000 pounds of metal, glass, and plastic, essentially out of control. Calmly I talked and sped along.

If a curve appeared on the horizon, I decided long before reaching it whether to slow down or if it was safe to continue at my current speed. I had learned years ago that you never try to brake after entering a curve. As race car drivers know, it is more stable to be accelerating through a curve. So it is essential to slow down before entering a curve.

I noted something as I drove. As long as I kept my vision on the horizon, driving at a high speed was easy, even if the road had many curves. As I brought my focus closer and closer to the car, driving became very difficult. If I tried to focus on the space just in front of the car, I couldn't drive at all. In that condition, I would have to slow the car down to only a few miles per hour.

I noticed that, if I tried to drive by focusing on the road just in front of the car, even if only for a few seconds, I became very anxious. Stress built up quickly.

This is an analogy for what we are experiencing in our lives and work. Things have sped up. Our response has been to shorten our horizon. We look only to the immediate future, what's on the road right in front of us. Then, we have tried to structure the feedback and action loops. Trapped in our perceptions by the technology, we try to use the technology in a brute force way to enable us to survive.

All we really have to do is look up. Look at the horizon for our lives, our work. Have a vision of where we are going, and living becomes easier again.

Paul Schumann

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