Is the “Pinball Syndrome” keeping you in the rat race?

The rat race can be very seductive. Emails, text messages, telephone calls, business meetings, presentations and all these symbolisms of the executive workplace create a sense of urgency and often along with it, a false sense of euphoric self-importance.

The overflowing things to do list and incessant juggling of many urgent balls tend to create a vicious circle of movement without motion or speed without effective action. The race to get a thousand things done has muddied the waters of urgency and importance. The urgent has overthrown the importance. The exception is becoming the rule.

Todd Davis, a key speaker at the prestigious 2018 World Business Forum New York and Executive Vice President of the Franklin Covey Organization, aptly describes this urgency vs important balancing act as the “Pinball Syndrome.” Pinball is a type of arcade game played inside a glass-covered smoky cabinet called a pinball table or pinball machine. Points are scored by a player manipulating one or more steel balls on the playing field.

The primary objective of the game is to score as many points as possible and prevent the game ending silver ball from falling into the center hole at the bottom of the table. Flashing lights, exciting casino sounds all add to the excitement as you scramble to hit different targets on the playfield. You may hit a high score and play again and again but you never really win. You end up with the same result, with the ball sinking into the hole and ending your game.

The business world and our personal lives can be compared to the pinball game. How do you know when you have the Pinball Syndrome? When you are shuffling with many tasks but you are not moving any closer towards your strategic goal. If at the end of the day you felt like nothing of real value was accomplished and have “been too busy to get anything done,” that is the pinball syndrome.

These tasks seem urgent at the time and might be indeed important — clearing your inbox, jumping from one meeting to the other, sending out memos, dealing with staff issues, punching out text after text and stuffs like that. It feels good to get them done but they may not move you significantly towards what is important.

Todd Davis noted that with the Pinball Syndrome, you start to confuse what’s urgent with what’s truly important because urgencies act on you and grab your immediate attention. You end up frittering away your time on exciting, but less important things. “You are so busy fighting fires, you forget to spend time preventing them in the first place.”

While some urgencies are also important, it’s vital to recognize that many important things are not urgent. For example, long-term goals, strategic thinking, important projects, key relationships and reading are all of great importance. But they do not get the priority attention they deserve because they are not urgent or in your face.

Learning to differentiate between urgency and importance, finding the time to read and think are the hallmarks of legendary CEOs. A survey conducted by Harvard Business Review of 1000 outstanding leaders showed that 25% of their days are spent alone. They make out the time to read and think. Microsoft Founder Bill Gates was famous for taking a week off twice a year — spent in a secret waterfront cottage — just to think and reflect deeply about Microsoft and its future without any interruption. He also reads 50 books a year. Facebook Chairman Mark Zuckerberg also said reading is a key success factor. Similarly, Warren Buffet commented, “I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think.”

How then do you work around the pinball syndrome? Avoiding the Pinball Syndrome is just one of 15 proven practices to build effective relationships at work explained in Todd Davis new book, and also presented at the highly influential 2018 World Business Forum in New York. Davis offers the following power tips:

  1. Prioritize.

First, and perhaps most important, is to determine what is truly important or what is simply urgent. Do you know what your biggest goals are for the quarter, and for the year? What could you accomplish that would really power the business forward and stand you out in the vast competitive ocean?

2. Plan.

Sit down every Sunday and chart out the week. Decide what each day’s goal will be and have a plan to stick to it. You might need to block out time. Or it might be that every time you find yourself behind or distracted, you will strive to redirect your focus and energy toward the goal of the day or week. Other things can wait. Amazingly, urgent but unimportant tasks often resolve themselves with the simple passage of time.

3. Monitor

At the end of the week, print out last week’s calendar and task list. Circle any activity you define as urgent (things requiring your immediate attention). Then underline any activity you define as important (things that contribute to long-range goals, high priorities or relationship-building). Add up how much time you dedicate to the urgent and how much to the important. Make sure the majority of your time isn’t spent on urgencies alone. Decide which 1–2 urgent activities you can eliminate or postpone, and then deliberately set out time for at least 1–2 important things

From NOW to WHAO

Like pinballs flying around without aim or direction, shiny objects and urgent tasks can toss you around and take you off focus. The greatest leaders of all time, share one thing in common- they are able to separate the trees from the forest and they take action. They take action in the right direction and by avoiding the Pinball Syndrome, the urgent list does not neutralize the important. Only then can the NOW factor produce the WHAO effect, and get you out of the rat race a little faster.