January 29, 2015

When the Workplace ‘Need for Speed’ Has Nothing to Do With Saving Time

NEED FOR SPEEDAt times during the whirl of a work day, we’ve all felt the need to hurry, or that we are being rushed or that somehow we just want it all to go faster.

The usual reasons are impatience; boredom; a time, resource, goal constraint and/or simply because “Time is money.”

But there are other reasons and causes—influences that can make the need for speed, even in the office, experienced much more positively, rather than as stress, e.g., pressure.

Before getting into that, consider the average need-for-speed workplace experience: The job candidate is over-elaborating his answers to your questions, or speaks so slowly that he makes you feel like you are interviewing a snail on Prozac or like pouring molasses into your ears to block his blather out; the staff meeting is bogged down in the minutiae of reordering A4 paper; you’ve got another appointment at 3:30, and have to move this one along, if you aren’t going to fall dangerously behind schedule.

These are all familiar, unpleasant and readily imagined instances of the felt “need for speed”, calibrated in units of time and time-based stress. In each instance, something is taking too much time, wasting time, sacrificing time or is otherwise being severely constrained by time.

This feels like time-as-resource stress even when the fundamental or a contributing constraint takes the form of a limitation on other resources, e.g., lack of a secretary to siphon off some of your tasks, or the existence of conflicting goals, e.g., to separately interview four candidates in the half hour you have left in which do accomplish that.

Times When It’s Not About Time

But there is an entirely different kind of need for speed, caused by something distinct from impatience, boredom or time/resource/goal constraint—something that in fact, is not at all time-related, except indirectly, by physics (explained below).

I’ll explain it with my account of what happened during a recent walk in a park.

It was, for me, a rare, although not first-time experience: I was enjoying one of my customary brisk perambulations along the banks of Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park when I suddenly felt I had to hurry. Before I get into the details of what happened, keep in mind that, when most people feel they have to hurry or otherwise speed things up, their need for speed is experienced emotionally and viscerally as negative.

But, compare that with a NASCAR driver’s need for speed, which although driven by time constraints, viz., to finish the race before as many of the other drivers as possible, is instead or also being fueled by something altogether different from any anxiety-ridden, time-based need for speed.

It turns out that identifying that kind of “something”, its forms and its causes can enrich both your work performance and your emotional experience of it.

What happened was that somewhen in the middle of my very brisk long walk on that recent crisp winter day, I felt a sudden need for speed—a lot more (even if shy of my  13-second record time over 100 meters), even though I had no schedule to keep up with, was not impatient or bored (both often uninsightfully lumped together under the descriptor “restless”) and otherwise felt no time constraints or time pressures of any kind.

So, I ramped things up, sprinted and loped about the length of a couple of football fields, resumed the walk until I had the same irresistible urge to repeat the dash.

If you think that this need for speed was actually a need to generate warmth through the body heat generated by running, forget it: I was wearing my customary (if not trademark) all-season T-shirt, plus gloves and scarf, which are plenty for me in relatively balmy Vancouver winters (currently enjoying a record-setting warm spell).

Also, junk the hypothesis that I was experiencing some kind of mild hypoxia—insufficient oxygen intake and needed to naturally breath more deeply by sprinting than by artificially forcing myself to take deeper or faster breaths while continuing my normal walk. In any case, even if oxygenation was an unrecognized factor, it was not the only or key one. There’s one more, which is at the racing heart of this story.

It’s energy.

“Energy is Money”

The simplest example of an energy-based need for speed is that of feeling one is wasting energy and therefore, derivatively, wasting time.That’s what is happening when a recruiter is forced to pay attention to an applicant’s ramblings and expend energy having to listen to something of no relevance or interest. But because of a workplace “time is money” mentality, and the perception that time is being wasted on irrelevancies,  that energy drain may trigger a time-defined and measured felt need for speed.

Because conserving or saving time is of such importance and interest, especially in corporate culture and the workplace, the tendency is to focus only on time considerations in connection with the workplace need for and value of speed.

But in scientific terms, time has a flip side: energy. Specifically, in any process, the only ways to reduce the time required for it are to increase the energy expended or decrease the energy required.

For example, if you want to reduce your time chopping wood, you have to chop faster, which means expending more calories as energy per hour. If a postal worker needs to slide boxes across a floor faster, he has to push harder—again expending more energy per unit time to reduce the total time required.

Alternatively, you can speed things up by switching to a drier or softer wood that will split more quickly and easily, and therefore faster. But that kind of energy “cheating” means changing something besides just the time and energy.

Underlying such easily grasped examples is some interesting physics: Time and energy (and their measurement), like the precise measurements of particle position and momentum, vary inversely—in any normal everyday process, an increase or decrease of one entails a reverse decrease or increase, respectively, of the other.

Consider the wood chopper again: The only way to decrease the energy required to chop a given pile of wood without changing the wood or its properties is to increase the time.

The Time and Energy Inverse Relationship

The Nobel physicist Werner Heisenberg—whose name is associated with the  “Uncertainty Principle” and the maxims “no observation without perturbation” or “to observe is to disturb”—demonstrated almost a century ago that if we attempt to make the measurement of the position of an electron precise, its momentum (which is mass x velocity) is disturbed by the force of the illuminating light used to illuminate the particle; on the other hand, if we try to precisely determine its momentum, without increasing it, its position becomes fuzzy, because of the weak illumination required to leave the momentum undisturbed. Increase the precision of one measure, decrease the other.

Another perspective on this is purely logical and about 2,500 years old: If something is moving, how can we possibly know both its exact position and its velocity? Having a definite position while being in motion is a logical impossibility—or so argued the paradox-spinning Greek philosopher Zeno.

So, as the measurement of position becomes more precise, the measurement of velocity becomes less so—i.e., they vary inversely.The same is true for the measurement and the magnitudes of time and energy: they will vary inversely (although grasping the exact meaning and proof of this in quantum physics requires an understanding of quite advanced math and physics). But, for our purposes, wood-chopping examples are good enough.

This time-energy connection is important to understand, because a workplace preoccupation with time may conceal the importance of its inversely corresponding energy parameter as a need for speed trigger—including as a trigger for a very positive experience of energy expenditure (in contrast to the generally negative time-based need and energy costs for speed).

An Unexpected Positive Reason for the Need For Speed

What I have inferred from this analytical perspective and offer as the main point here, is that it can be argued that the main reason I wanted to move faster, i.e., to decrease the time spent per meter on the lagoon path, was in order to expend more energy per unit time as a goal.

This may seem counter-intuitive, since living things have an evident tendency to conserve energy or expend it only when it reaps, for example, net energy, survival, or resource gains (including time gains), e.g., in our searching for high-calorie food that is worth more than the energy expended to find and prepare it, building a warm or cool home, making time-saving skis for alpine rescue teams, or reproducing ourselves.

But it makes clear sense in the instance in which there is pent-up or huge reserves of energy that need to be released (as in a boiling and whistling tea pot that utilizes a governor cap to vent and reduce potentially damaging steam pressure or as is the case with an over-filled dam’s discharges).

I believe that the need for speed I experienced (and which you may have experienced without recognizing it) was purely energy—not time—related (except indirectly through the mathematical and physical inverse relationships between them).

The need was the need to pleasurably discharge pent-up energy in my “tea pot”—as a blend of the pleasures of relief and of exuberant vitality. I also believe that I was not expending energy to gain more energy—indeed, more energy was the last thing I wanted or needed.

Energy Illusions

Interestingly, as a phenomenon, this energy-discharge need for speed is different from the NASCAR driver’s time-independent form of the same need. The thrill of speed for any driver is indeed about energy, but not about any need to expend it.

Instead, I believe, the thrill speed-hungry pro racer’s experience is that of the intense pleasure associated with the illusion of moving faster without any or with minimal and disproportionately small amounts of additional energy to accomplish that.

All the driver has to do for his thrill is to effortlessly depress a pedal and/or shift gears and ignore the fact that additional energy in the form and amounts released by gas combustion is required to decrease the time expended per meter of track covered by the car. To be compelling, that illusion of an energy freebie depends on ignoring the fact that crucial extra fuel-energy expenditure is absolutely essential to reducing the track time  (as energy’s inverse).

The power of the same illusion accounts for a kid’s thrill in stone-skipping a flat rock on a pond: The series of bounces off the water’s surface seem like NASCAR driver energy freebies, because of the child’s ignorance of the elasticity and strong surface tension of the water and Newton’s law of equal and opposite reaction, which makes the kid think that miraculously a rock is not only, like Jesus, walking on and flying over water, but also rising from it with no obvious energy source or expenditure beyond that imparted by the initial single toss.

The Happy Side of Workplace Need for Speed and Having Fun with Energy

Workplace opportunities for indulging these two delightful and satisfying forms of an energy-based need for speed—pleasurable expenditure of pent-up energy (my run) and illusory energy freebies (NASCAR acceleration) are easily and plentifully imagined: A financial analyst with lots of time between her and her deadline nonetheless feels a need for speed, just because she has the mental capacities, perfectionist tendencies, attention-energy or pent-up curiosity to race to the finish.

Likewise with a fast-talking lawyer, whose mentally over-accumulated case information combined with an outstanding capacity to orally process and edit it at a machine-gun clip, creates a dazzlingly quick and seamless courtroom presentation.

This is not just a white-collar phenomenon: I recently observed a Vancouver Starbucks barista literally dancing through her tasks with enough evident pleasure to suggest that she wasn’t merely fidgeting, anxiously “pacing” with an eye on the clock or coping with impatience or boredom.

You may be just as susceptible to the energy freebie illusion when you conduct a Skype interview “to save time”: The magic of bridging the distance between you and the the candidate or the recruiter with just a click of the mouse feels like a time-saving energy freebie and the next best thing to being flown there (while ignoring the vast expenditures of energy in the design, construction, operation and maintenance of both the airline and of Skype). In this instance, the intersection of “time is money” and “the need for speed” is the illusion that, like a NASCAR driver, all that is required for the free ride is to press or push something.

Allow for the Positive

When doing your job and/or vetting candidates, it may be useful to keep the pent-up energy form of the need for speed in mind. A candidate who discloses that in his last job he felt a need for speed may be revealing more about his abundance of energy than any tendency to disorganization, pressure or lack of time.

As for yourself, allow for the possibility that you may be rushing or exerting extra effort not because of any pressures that you think are triggering the need for speed, but because you have pent-up or naturally over-abundant energy that has you looking for an excuse for and delight in discharging it.

In the best circumstance of all, your boss may think you are, like him, a “time is money” need-for-speed team player, when, in fact, you are rushing for the pleasure of it.

Read more in Organizational Culture

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).