Sunday, October 18, 2015

Deadline stressed? You've brought it on yourself

You probably shouldn't be reading this.

You've got too much to do. But that's one of the odd things we do when we've too much to do: we thumb through newspapers, we check our email, we read articles like this about how to get through our list rather than actually getting through our list.

We act as if we've taken leave of our senses.

Just about everyone knows the way to get through a list. It's to take on fewer projects, start big projects earlier and finish them sooner. But almost no one does it. It's as if, when we are busy, we lose the mental strength to escape from our busyness.

That might sound familiar. It should. It's the way dieters approach dieting. Everyone knows that the way to do it is to eat less and to eat less often. Yet most can't manage it. We start to diet, then we get hungry, and lose the mental strength needed to keep going.

This isn't just an analogy. Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir​ reckon it's the same thing. They set out their argument in their new book titled Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives.

They believe that scarcity (whether of time or food or money) makes us temporarily dumber.

They're even prepared to say how much dumber. They say it's worth 13 to 14 IQ points.

Thirteen points is enough to move you from "average" to "superior" intelligence, they say. "If you move in the other direction, losing 13 points can take you from average to a category labelled borderline deficient."

Not for one second are they saying that busy people are dumb or that dieters are dumb or that poor people are dumb...

They are saying that when we get into those situations we become dumber and that that makes those situations worse. As they put it: "scarcity creates its own trap".

Here's how it worked with a group of shoppers they surveyed at a New Jersey mall. Just before administering the IQ test they asked about auto insurance:

Imagine that your car has some trouble, which requires a $300 service. Your auto insurance will cover half the cost. You need to decide whether to go ahead and get the car fixed, or take a chance and hope that it lasts for a while longer. How would you go about making such a decision?

Rich and poor shoppers answered the question in much the same way, and were roughly matched in the intelligence test that followed. Then they administered the test to a new group of shoppers, but changed one detail of the question. Instead of it being a $300 service, it became "an expensive $3000 service".

A rich shopper is easily able to handle $3000, but for a poor shopper it is almost impossible. The rich subjects did just as well as before in the intelligence test. The poor subjects did far, far worse.

They'd been made worse because they had been made to think about financial problems, which soaked up their "mental bandwidth".

As Mullainathan and Shafir put it: "The mind orients automatically, powerfully, toward unfulfilled needs. For the hungry, that need is food. For the busy it might be a project that needs to be finished. For the cash-strapped it might be this month's rent payment; for the lonely, a lack of companionship. Scarcity is more than just the displeasure of having very little. It changes how we think."

Someone desperate for enough money to make it through the week will be attracted by a payday loan, whatever the interest rate and the likelihood of paying it back. Their critical facilities will be weakened and they'll become poorer still.

A dieter unable to think about anything but food will relent (just once) telling themselves they will make it up the next day, without realising they'll probably relent the next day as well.

Someone mired in deadlines and an overwhelming workload will say yes to just one more project (so long as it is in the future) without realising that they've just made things worse.

The solution they propose is to consciously build slack into our systems: to only accept work that won't overload us, to go on a less demanding diet, or to further lower the living standard we accept. They are solutions that might make sense if so much of our brains weren't tied up worrying about the next crisis.

And that's the problem.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald