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Is Being Present Actually a Curse?

Future of Work
Digital
Leadership
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Futurists
Workplace

Is Being Present Actually a Curse?

Your favorite self-help book has led you astray. Yogis, therapists, and wellness gurus the world over extoll the virtues of being...

8 Minutes Read

Your favorite self-help book has led you astray. Yogis, therapists, and wellness gurus the world over extoll the virtues of being present. Don’t hold regret from the past and don’t fret over the future. Being present is about the freedom to think through ideas and challenges as they arise. Its a gift. Unfortunately, strict adherence to that dogma can be deleterious. Nowism is a view in which only the present exists. Its a curse. It cuts us off from the clarity of history and obscures our vision of the future. In a world of incessant distraction from our digital devices, constant fires to put out at work, and rapid acceleration of change, the past and future seem to just drift away leaving us in an expanding and worrisome state of right now. As Toffler predicted in 1970, we are experiencing Future Shock.

This problem plagues leaders across all walks of life and puts particular strain on activities preparing for the future of work. So how can you put a stop to the scourge of Nowism? The first step is identifying its accomplices and root cause, which hit closer to home than most realize. Thats right, the call is coming from inside the house.

If not for your ancestors’ embrace of Nowism, you wouldn’t even be here. Responding to every alert was a matter of life or death in our ancient hunter-gatherer livelihoods. Whereas our pings are about news of a bearish market, their pings were actual bears, ready to pounce. Those instincts previously served us well, but now must be minimized in most settings. While it is indeed human nature to respond immediately to stimuli, a number of factors take advantage of that inclination and thrive on our Nowist tendencies.

The first culprit most people think of is social media, and with good reason. Most social networks are designed to appeal to our most base instincts and incite reactions from us. From the red colored notification banners to the audio alerts every time our attention is commanded, these apps are designed to distract. At times, our activity online can feel like an entirely separate existence. The technology allows to feel like we are in two places at once, our physical presence and the ones we cultivate via online experiences and communities. This state of digiphrenia (coined by Douglas Rushkoff) causes us to feel overwhelmed. One cannot plan for the future while experiencing the present twice over.

Our working hours certainly do not offer any respite from the deluge of distractions. The average worker receives around 100 emails per day. And with each one comes a break in concentration from the real work to be done. Do we answer the email? Ignore? Delete? Archive? The set of decisions can take up to 25 minutes to bounce back from. The accomplices of Nowism follow us even when the laptop has been closed and smartphone put away (assuming that’s the extent of your digital devices). The 24 hour news cycle, with its inclinations for BREAKING STORIES that require your attention right now is the third accomplice of Nowism. Much of the reporting on prominent cable news channels strips away nuance and historical context for emphasis on the here and now. Even major stories of just a few weeks ago get completely wiped away by the constant churn of BREAKING daily developments. Thus, further eroding our sense of time outside the present moment.

How bad is all this, really? Sure we’re more distracted than ever, but business marches on regardless of our collective anxieties. While the market at large seems immune to the problems of Nowism, history proves that leadership of individual companies suffers greatly and can derail an entire organization if it is not mitigated. Nowism manifests in three primary ways in the workplace:

Recency Bias

The tendency of considering the latest information available to be more important than previous data. This lack of critical analysis of the past reduces abilities to understand the full context of trends and developments. Without such analysis, leaders are less able to prepare for the future.

Outcome Bias

Those suffering from outcome bias focus only on the end result of a project or decision, while ignoring process or methodology behind it. This can lead to organizations chasing outcomes that were never likely or repeatable, despite an example of success. Long term success requires thoughtful methodologies that organizations can rely on to repeat outcomes.

Ostrich Effect

When leaders eschew robust plans for the future in the face of current or looming problems, they are giving way to the ostrich effect. Blockbuster, Kodak, and Nokia all suffered from the ostrich effect as their competitors focused efforts on preparing for the future of their respective markets. Technology and culture are ever evolving, even if we don’t “like” the direction or pace of change.

These biases all contribute to Marketing Myopia, a tendency to focus on sales over solutions. Sales goals are short term, usually dominating quarterly reports for businesses. Solutions are malleable and adapt to the changing preferences of consumers or other market conditions. With so many factors contributing to Nowism, its easy to see how easily its manifestations lead to biases that cause negative business outcomes. Combatting those biases takes deliberate effort and practice.

First step: take a bath.

Tokyo, Japan is one of the most technologically enabled and connected places in the world. The city bristles with activity all hours of the day and its business sector is notorious for long, intense work days. If you ever visit, you will notice a curious sight. Business people, often fully clothed, bathing in public. Shinrin Yoku, or “forest bathing” is a common practice in which practitioners walk through forests or parks without any particular destination. Their aim is to take in the forest atmosphere through their senses. The exercise acts as a reboot or unplug from the hustle and bustle of life and helps practitioners recalibrate after high pressure periods of exposure to the types of stimuli that most contribute to Nowism. Numerous studies have been conducted to show that Shinrin Yoku has real health benefits related to focus, critical thinking, and stress relief. Still, some leaders may seek more distinctly measurable means of helping their businesses escape the grasp of Nowism.

A simple time audit can help leaders identify the primary sources of distractions in their workplaces. Only after identifying the Nowism contributors in our lives can we begin to mitigate them. Additionally, visioning exercises help leaders and other stakeholders agree upon a desired future state for their organization or industry. Participants then work backwards from that state to devise a plan that gets them there from their present condition. We often conduct workshops at the Center for the Future of Work to guide organizations through the exercise of imagining what jobs will be required for the future vision of their industry and how those roles will be filled. This encouraging planning based on available data or trends and helps participants break from some of the aforementioned biases of Nowism.

With our greatest distractions wrapped in the guise of work tools, news broadcasts, or fun mobile apps, its understandable that so many of us fall prey to the pull of Nowism. Succumbing to that pull leads to biases in which we bury our heads in the sand as the winds of change blow or disregard previous lessons learned in favor of present day data points. Business history is littered with organizations undone by those behaviors. One can’t successfully navigate the future of work if they’re a prisoner of the moment. Breaking free of that bondage can be as simple as (forest) bathing and exercises to suss out distractions that cause Nowism. Workshops or visioning sessions add even more value in your pursuit of innovative solutions. These efforts all help to find your Kairos for execution (Greek for the right, critical, or opportune moment).

The effective futurist is rooted in the past, but not bound by it. Present to take on the challenges of the day, but not steeped in Nowism. Forward looking in solutions, but not blinded by shiny objects in the distance. The accelerating pace of technological advancements and cultural trends bring about a future of unprecedented risk and opportunity. At Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work we believe all leaders have the capacity to become futurists. We’re happy to help you realize that potential and talk to you about the future of YOUR work. There’s never been a more important time to be paying attention.


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