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Why The Way We're Working Isn't Working -- A Survival Manual for the Modern Age

The authors of a new book offer an alternative to the dominant idea that human beings operate most productively in the same way computers do.

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  • Sustainability (the physical).
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  • Security (the emotional).
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  • Self-expression (the mental).
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  • Significance (the spiritual).

Schwartz tackles each one and, in doing so, provides a roadmap for how to take back control of our lives from our faster-better-more-techno-merry-go-round culture. As he writes, as opposed to trying to mimic the way computers operate, "a growing body of research suggests that we're most productive when we move between periods of high focus and intermittent rest." And yet, instead, "we live in a gray zone" -- unsatisfied, unproductive, unfulfilled.

In the section on sustainability, Schwartz even has an entire chapter on my favorite lifestyle topic these days: sleep. He examines the role lack of sleep has played in disasters like the Exxon Valdez spill, the Challenger space shuttle explosion and the Three Mile Island meltdown. "No single behavior more fundamentally influences our effectiveness in waking life than sleep," writes Schwartz. "Sleep may well be more critical to our well being than diet, exercise and even heredity."

And yet the average American gets only 6.5 hours of sleep a night. Schwartz also cites a famous 1993 study by Anders Ericsson in which the habits of three levels of violin students were studied. What Ericsson found -- and what most people who cite the study focused on -- was how much more the students at the top level practiced than the bottom level. But what intrigued Schwartz was the fact that the top level students also slept more, napped more in the day, and were much more disciplined about giving themselves down time and creating rituals to renew their energy. In other words, "periods of high focus and intermittent rest."

In the last chapter, Schwartz tells of the late KPMG CEO Eugene O'Kelly, who died of brain cancer at 53. After being diagnosed, it saddened him to see people who hadn't been "blessed with this jolt to life" go about their lives being so busy trying to make so much money. "Why was it so scary to ask themselves one simple question," wrote O'Kelly, "'Why am I doing what I'm doing?'"

Answers Schwartz:

Asking ourselves who we want to be and how we want to behave -- resisting the default into denial and self-deception -- is the key to growing, learning and evolving...It means recognizing that as addicted as we can become to the speed and intensity of our lives, we're more creative and productive when we move intentionally between effort and renewal, action and reflection.

Are we simply becoming, as Schwartz says, "dinosaurs of the future?" The choice is up to us. "Together, we can enrich and renew the world we share, or we can speed up its demise," writes Schwartz. "That's true for each of us as individuals. ...and it's truest of all for the organizations in which we work."

It seems like President Obama is on the same page. In a commencement speech on Sunday at Hampton College in Virginia, he told the assembled graduates:

You're coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don't always rank that high on the truth meter. And with iPods and iPads, and Xboxes and PlayStations -- none of which I know how to work -- information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it's putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy.

As Schwartz says at the end of his book: "The world is changing. Are you?"

 
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