Monday, September 11, 2020

Adrenaline Junkies

When I was at university, I knew many people who left nearly all their work until the last moment, then sat up late into the night, finishing some term paper with moments to go before the deadline. In some cases, the culprit was simple procrastination. But I had several friends who acted like this deliberately. They believed that working under extreme pressure made their work better. The same attitude is fairly common today. I’ve met many managers who believe that pressure is needed to get the best from people; that no one will fulfill their potential until they are working against tight deadlines, or under pressure to produce a result in record time. Such managers use this line of thinking to justify limiting resources and piling on work demands. In their eyes, they are actually helping their people do better by giving them greater and greater challenges.

This belief is so prevalent that it’s worth thinking through in detail.

I think it’s based on the way people often feel when the pressure is on. They feel energized and excited. They feel they’re doing something great, perhaps even if they aren’t. The culprit, of course, is adrenaline: the substance our body makes under stress to give us a short-term energy boost to cope with fight or flight.

It’s easy to become an “adrenaline junkie,” constantly looking for the next high. Most organizations have quite a few such addicts. They try to turn every problem into a crisis, since only crises give them the fix they need. Then, like any other source of sudden excitement, the effect steadily becomes less intense, so that the person needs more and more of whatever it is to reproduce the burst of ecstatic stimulation they got the first time. So each crisis must be a little more pressing and potentially terrible than the last to call up the same jolt of adrenaline.

Under the influence of an adrenaline fix, people usually react more than think, rushing into hyperactivity to work off the energy they’ve stimulated in themselves.
Do people truly do exceptional work under the influence of this natural performance-enhancing drug? Maybe . . . sometimes. Usually they only feel that they do. What the human body needs for fight or flight isn’t mental acuity or creativity; it’s raw, physical energy, which is mostly what adrenaline provides. Under the influence of an adrenaline fix, people react more than think, rushing into hyperactivity to work off the energy they’ve stimulated in themselves. Most of the friends I knew who believed that last-minute rushes of work helped them didn’t turn in anything exceptional. Sometimes what they did was plain bad, but mostly it was ordinary; probably much what they would have done without the delays and adrenaline rush. I think for many adrenaline junkies the true stimulus to work this way is the wish to feel special and excited. Most are ordinary folk like the rest of us, except for those few minutes or hours when they manage to produce a feeling of euphoria and excitement by throwing themselves up against some terrifying deadline.

I think for many adrenaline junkies the true stimulus to work this way is the wish to feel special and excited.
Some of you reading this are probably going to protest that you know of clear instances where working under intense pressure did produce an exceptional outcome. Of course. It is bound to happen sometimes, if only by chance. Some defenders of the belief look to wartime emergencies and claim that a national crisis produces a massive burst of creativity in response. In reality, I think much of the reason for any creative spurt under such circumstances is the enhanced willingness of those in power to listen to off-the-wall ideas—the kind of suggestions that would have been instantly dismissed in less desperate times.

Any sports enthusiast knows the terrible threat of performance nerves. The adrenaline is flowing, but the outcome isn’t excitement or euphoria. It’s fear, a clouded mind, and a sense of numbness that seems to paralyze you from actions that you performed with consummate ease when you were relaxed. The finest players in any sport develop an uncanny ability to relax in situations that would have other people trapped in an adrenaline high to beat all adrenaline highs. They know that the best way to a clear mind, precise movements, and sound judgments is to be as relaxed as possible, even under pressure.

All the time that these people appeared to be doing nothing, their minds were working constantly: thinking about the topic, reflecting on what they read, turning the subject over and over in their heads to come up with fresh insights and creative viewpoints.
Yet I did have one or two friends, outstanding and brilliant people, who never wrote down their assignments until the last moment and still turned in work on a regular basis that put the rest of us to shame. What were they doing? Were they proof that pressure could indeed produce brilliance?

Well, no. All the time that these people appeared to be doing nothing, their minds were working constantly: thinking about the topic, reflecting on what they read, turning the subject over and over in their heads to come up with fresh insights and creative viewpoints. They left the dull business of writing it all down until close to the deadline to give themselves as much relaxed time to think as possible. When they sat at a desk to write, what they wanted to say was fully formed in their minds. All they had to do was put it on paper.

The human mind and body cannot handle being run flat out all the time. The more adrenaline highs it has to deal with, the greater the wear and tear on nerves and tissues. The people most likely to experience burnout are those who work hardest and seem, at first, to cope best with the pressures. You may be able to leap into action in every crisis to begin with, but the process will steadily grind you down. Cynical and manipulative employers use people while they still have enough energy, and throw them away when they’re worn out. Civilized employers understand that brilliant people need time to think, even if for much of that time they don’t appear to be doing anything at all, and that everyone needs time to rest and recover after any significant effort.

To end with, here’s a great quote from a blog called Rands in Repose:
Yes, you can argue that one can be exquisitely creative when one's hair is on fire. It's the necessity is the mother of invention argument. But, seriously, if your hair's on fire, are you going to take the time to consider all [potential] hair dousing techniques; or are you just going to stick your head in the nearest convenient bucket before it really hurts? Panic is the mother of the path of least resistance.

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There's a great little illustration from a very old copy of Scientific American (no idea what date it was) called "the barometer story".

A physics student and his professor were at odds on a test answer and a colleague was called in to mediate.

The question was on how to determine the height of a tall building using a barometer. His answer, which was to go to the top of the building, lower the barometer to the street on a long rope and measure the length of the rope, didn't please the professor at all.

So the colleague gave him six minutes to write an answer that demonstrated his knowledge of physics. He sat there for five and a half minutes, then dashed off an answer: drop the barometer from the top of the building, and measure the time to impact. Using the formula for the acceleration of gravity, he could then calculate the height.

Puzzled, the colleague asked why he took so long to answer. He'd spent the time looking for the best of many answers:

* On a sunny day, you can calculate height from the shadows of the barometer and the building using a simple ratio.
* Measure the height of the barometer and climb the building's stairs, marking off the building's height in "barameter units".
* Swing the barometer from a short string near the top, then a long string down to street level, and calculate the height from the differences in the value of 'G' at the two levels.

And my personal favorite:

Take the barometer to the building superintendent and say, "I'll give you this fine barometer if you'll tell me the height of this building."
Bob, what a great comment! This points precisely to why it matters to slow down and think, instead of jumping into conventional action.

Toyotas Management Principles are one of the best examples of Slow Leadership, yet their style is often described as "constant state of emergency".
Everybody loves a crisis. It creates drama and prevents boredom. We no longer have to run from the lions when we are out collecting the daily meal so we create some in the cubicle jungle as a way to feel alive.

It isn't even that people don't think ahead, they won't think ahead. They react against those who try bring attention to future issues. I found this out when I had a position that required arranging for ship visits. Eager when I started, I would try anticipate problems to ease the visits. I quickly realized I was not being considered proactive but rather bothersome when I would warn about issues I anticipated. So rather than point out the problems that required solving ahead of time, I would develop a solution but keep it to myself until disaster loomed. Suddenly, rather then being that guy who was always pointing out problems, I was the hero saving the day. It seems most cannot address problems until their minds are focused by the coming disaster. Anticipating problems is apparently just being negative.

Fortune favors the prepared mind. But being ready doesn't get the heart racing. Or you can work long late hours barely making it in time with the emotions and conflict caused by absence from the kids recital. Not that's drama. That gets the blood flowing. It seems almost everyone wants a Hollywood movie life where the day is saved with seconds to spare.

When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight, you probably should have started earlier. Instead, the adrenaline junkie is rewarded as a hero whereas the guy who planned ahead is admonished for not working overtime. On the one had you have to work late but you get a pat on the back and overtime pay. On the other hand, you get to go home on time, but miss out on overtime pay and run the risk of being put on a performance improvement plan for just not being committed enough. The manager who creates the crisis for his employees can brag about the long hours his group puts in to meet the deadline.
Hey, KLB, you're as cynical as I am—maybe even more!

Seriously, what a great comment and story. Thanks for sharing (as they say).
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