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Overworked or overwhelmed?

Here is a multiple-choice quiz question:

Which word best describes association executives today:

a) overworked b) underworked c) energetic d) lazy

The best answer may well be "none of the above." Powerful social forces have the potential to turn each of us into human whirlwinds charging about in "fast forward." Work, time away from work, and everything in between appear as if they are all part of an ever-lengthening to-do list, to be handled during days that race by.

To say that association executives work too many hours, and that too much work is at the root of the time-pressure you are now feeling, is to miss the convergence of larger, more fundamental issues. You could handle the slightly longer work week than that of five years ago. It's everything else competing for your attention that leaves you feeling overwhelmed. Once overwhelmed, the feeling of overworked quickly follows.

Nearly every aspect of our society and our lives has become more complex, even since the mid-1980s. Traveling has become more cumbersome. Learning new ways of record keeping, maintaining membership numbers, and staying "current" takes its toll. Merely participating as a functioning member of society guarantees that your day, week, month, year and life, and your physical, emotional, and spiritual energy will be depleted without the proper vantage point from which to approach each day and conduct your life.

Do you personally know anyone in association management who consistently has unscheduled, free stretches? Five factors, or "mega-realities," are simultaneously contributing to the perceptual and actual erosion of leisure time among Americans in general, and association executives in particular, including:

* Population growth

* An expanding volume of knowledge

* Mass media growth and electronic addiction

* The paper trail culture

* An overabundance of choices.


From the beginning of creation to 1850 A.D. world population grew to one billion. It grew to two billion by 1930, three billion by 1960, four billion by 1979, and five billion by 1987, with six billion en route. Every 33 months, the current population of America, 257,000,000 people, is added to the planet.

The world of your childhood is gone, forever. The present is crowded and becoming more so. Each day, world population (births minus deaths) increases by more than 260,000 people. Regardless of your political, religious or economic views, the fact remains that geometric growth in human population permeates and dominates every aspect of the planet and its resources, the environment and all living things. This is the most compelling aspect of our existence, and will be linked momentarily to the four other mega-realities.

More densely packed urban areas have resulted predictably in a gridlock of the nation's transportation systems. It is taking you longer merely to drive a few blocks; it's not your imagination, it's not the day of the week or the season, and it's not going to subside soon. Our population and road use grow faster than our ability to repair highways, bridges and arteries. In fact, vehicles (primarily cars) are multiplying twice as fast as people, currently approaching 400,000,000 vehicles, compared to 165,000,000 registered motorists.

In whatever cities your next hundred meetings are going to be held, consider this: national urban planners report that there will be no clear solution to gridlock for decades--not just auto gridlock, but air traffic as well. Moreover, all population studies reveal that our nation's metropolitan areas will become home to an even greater percentage of the population. If only the gridlock were confined to commuter arteries. However, shoppers, vacationers, even campers--everyone in motion is or will be feeling its effects.


This moment, you and everyone in association management are being bombarded on all sides. The volume of new knowledge broadcast and published in every field is enormous and exceeds anyone's ability to keep pace. All told, more words are published or broadcast in a day than you could comfortably ingest in the rest of your life.

Increasingly, there is no body of knowledge that everyone can be expected to know. In its 140th year, for example, the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., added 942,000 items to its collections. Even our language keeps expanding. Since 1966, more than 60,000 words have been added to the English language--equal to half or more of the words in some languages.

With more information comes more misinformation, marginally useful information and information that's downright difficult to deal with. Impossible to understand airlines promotions, insurance policies, and VCR instructions all contribute to one's immobility.

Media Growth

The effect of the mass media on our lives continues unchecked. In America, more than three out of five television households own VCRs, while the number of movie tickets sold and videos rented in the U.S. each exceeded one billion annually starting in 1988. More than 575 motion pictures are produced each year compared to an average of 175 twelve years ago. In 1972, three major television networks dominated television--ABC, NBC and CBS. There are now 339 full-power independent television stations and many cable TV subscribers receive up to 140 channels offering more than 72,000 shows per month. In a few years, 1,000 channels will be available. All told, the average American spends more than eight solid years watching electronically how other people supposedly live.

To capture overstimulated, distracted viewers, American television and other news media increasingly rely on sensationalism. Like too much food at once, too much data, in any form, isn't easily ingested. You can't afford to pay homage to everyone else's 15 minutes of fame.

Radio power--Radio listenership does not lag either. From 5:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. each weekday in America, listenership far surpasses that of television viewership. Unknown to most people, since television was first introduced, the number of radio stations has increased tenfold.

The broadcasts regularly imply that it is uncivil or immoral not to tune into the daily news--"all the news you need to know," and "we won't keep you waiting for the latest . . ." It is not immoral to not "keep up" with the news that is offered. However, to "tune out"--turn your back on the world--is not appropriate either. Being more selective in what you give your attention to, and to how long you give it, makes more sense.

Tomorrow, while dressing, rather than plugging into the mass media, quietly envision how you would like your day to be. Include everything that's important to you. Envision talking with others, making major decisions, having lunch, attending meetings, finishing projects, and walking out in the evening. You'll experience a greater sense of control over aspects of your position that you may have considered largely uncontrollable.

There is only one party who controls the volume and frequency of information that you're exposed to. That person is you. As yet, few people are wise information consumers. Each of us needs to vigilantly guard against being deluded with excess data. The notion of "keeping up" with everything is illusory and self-defeating. The sooner you give it up the better you'll feel and function.

Keen focus on a handful of priorities has never been more important. Yes, some compelling issues must be given short shrift. Otherwise you run the risk of being overwhelmed by more demanding issues, and feeling overwhelmed always exacerbates feeling overworked.

Paper Trails

Paper, paper, everywhere, but not a thought to think. Imagine stating out a fifth floor window and seeing a stack of reports from the ground up to your eye level. This 55-foot-high stack would weigh some 659 pounds. Pulp & Paper reports that Americans annually consume 659 pounds of paper per person, but for AE's members the figure is likely to be 1000 pounds or more.

In Japan, it's only 400 pounds per person; in Europe, Russia, Africa, Australia, and South America, far less. Similar to too much information, having too much paper to deal with is going to make you feel overwhelmed, and overworked. You are likely consuming at least three times as much paper as ten years ago. The long held prediction of the paperless office is, for now, a laugher.

There are two basic reasons why our society spews so much paper:

* We have the lowest postal rates in the world.

* We have the broadest distribution of paper-generating technology.

Last year, Congress received more than 300,000,000 pieces of mail, up from 15,000,000 in 1970. Nationwide more than 55,000,000 printers are plugged into at least 55,000,000 computers, and annually kick out billions of reams. Are 18,000 sheets enough? Your four-drawer file cabinet, when full, holds 18,000 pages.

Of the five mega-realities, only paper flow promises to diminish someday as virtual reality, the electronic book, and the gigabyte highway are perfected. For the foreseeable future, you're likely to be up to your eyeballs in paper. Start where you are. It is essential to clear the in-bins of your mind and your desk. Regard each piece of paper entering your personal domain as a potential mutineer or rebel. Each sheet has to earn its keep and remain worthy of your retention.

An Overabundance of Choices

In 1969, Alvin Toffler predicted that we would be overwhelmed by too many choices, and that this would inhibit action, result in greater anxiety, and trigger the perception of less freedom and less time. Like too much of everything else, however, having too many choices leads to the feeling of being overwhelmed and results in increased time expenditure and a mounting form of exhaustion.

Consider the supermarket glut. Gorman's New Product News reports that in 1978 the typical supermarket carried 11,767 items. By 1987, that figure had risen to an astounding 24,531 items--more than double in nine years. More than 45,000 other products were introduced during those years, but failed. A New York Times article reported that even buying leisure time goods has become a stressful, overwhelming experience.

And you? You currently have enough insurance proposals, speaker literature, software guides, telephone service options, and office supply catalogs to last you for a lifetime! Oh, if we could but choose from what we have.

Periodically, the sweetest choice is choosing from what you already have--choosing to actually have what you've already chosen. More important is to avoid engaging in low-level decisions. If your meeting planner asks you to choose between a hotel meal plan that comes with either a two-dessert option versus three, at the same price, and it's of no concern to you or your attendees, don't decide--hand it back.

Whenever you catch yourself about to make a low-level decision, consider: does this really make a difference? Get in the habit of making fewer decisions each day--the ones that count.

A Combined Effect

The director of Stanford University's sleep center says, "Most Americans no longer know what it feels like to be fully alert." Lacking a balance between work and play, responsibility and respite, "getting things done" can become an end-all. We act like human doings instead of human beings. We begin to link executing the items on our growing "to do" lists with feelings of self-worth. As the list gets longer, the lingering sense of more to do infiltrates our sense of self-acceptance.

What's worse, our entire society seems to be irrevocably headed toward a new epoch of human existence. However, is frantic any way to exist as a nation? Is it any way to run your life?

We appear poised to accommodate a frenzied, time-pressured existence, as if this is the way it has to be and always has been. This is not how it has to be. As an author, I have a vision. I see Americans leading balanced lives, with rewarding careers, happy home lives, and the ability to enjoy themselves. Our ticket to living and working at comfortable pace is to not accommodate a way of being that doesn't support us, and addressing the true nature of the problem head-on.

The combined effect of the five mega-realities will continue to accelerate the feeling of pressure. Meanwhile, well-intentioned but misdirected voices will choose to condemn "the board," "the association members," "Washington, D.C." or what-have-you for the lack of balance in our lives.

A Complete Self

We are forging our own frenetic society. Nevertheless, the very good news is that the key to forging a more palatable existence can occur one by one. You, for example, are whole and complete right now, and you can achieve balance in your life. You are not your position. You are not your next task; it need not define you or constrain you.

You also have the capacity to acknowledge that your life is finite; you cannot indiscriminately take in the daily deluge that our culture heaps on each of us and expect to feel anything but overwhelmed. Viewed from 2002, 1992 will appear as a period of relative calm and stability when life moved at a manageable pace. When your days on earth are over and the big auditor in the sky examines the ledger of your life, she'll be upset if you didn't take enough breaks, and if you didn't enjoy yourself.

On a deeply-felt personal level, recognize that from now on, even when you retire from association management, you will face an ever-increasing array of items competing for your attention. Each of the five mega-realities will proliferate in the '90s. You cannot handle everything, nor is making the attempt desirable. It is time to make compassionate though difficult choices about what is best ignored, versus what does merit your attention and action.

Jeff Davidson is an award-winning author, lecturer and columnist for which his published articles on business, motivation, self-help and humor have reached an aggregate circulation exceeding 12 million. His most widely acclaimed book, now in its third printing, is Breathing Space: Living and Working at a Comfortable Pace in a Sped-Up Society. Jeff is also a five-time state winner of the Small Business Administration's Media Advocate of the Year award. He graduated with honors from the University of Connecticut and high honors from the Graduate Business School at the University of Connecticut.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Rural Electric Cooperative Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Davidson, Jeff
Publication:Management Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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