ccording to Lily Tomlin, "The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat." While Tomlin makes a good point, I think there's a bigger problem.
The race itself has always been grueling, but it's historically ebbed and flowed between short bouts of intense sprinting and extended stretches of endurance-testing slogs. When one angled for a promotion, the pace quickened temporarily, whereas the daily grind typically required a slower, long-distance sort of stride. And peppered along the course were various rest stops, where we rats could stop momentarily to celebrate our successes, take some time off, and resume the race refreshed.
But everything changed when the recession set the pace car careening along the course. Exhibit managers sprinted to keep up in order to avoid layoffs and to protect their programs amid budget cuts, diminished attendance figures, and heightened scrutiny. Instead of peaks and valleys providing some variation in pace and stride, today's race is more like an elongated sprint — without a rest stop or finish line in sight. But even the most athletic of rats can't keep sprinting indefinitely. And despite incremental economic gains, it appears that everyone's still running as quickly as ever. One exhibit manager recently told me, "I feel like I've been on a treadmill for six years, and an invisible hand just keeps increasing the speed."
The result, according to psychologists, is a phenomenon dubbed "hurry sickness." Psychology Today defines hurry sickness as "a behavioral pattern characterized by continual rushing and anxiousness; an overwhelming and continual sense of urgency." There's the diagnosis, but what about the prognosis? It's not good. "There's a reason it's called breakneck speed," writes author Rosemary K.M. Sword. "Sooner or later, physically, mentally, and/or emotionally we fall apart. Our bodies — and minds — weren't meant to endure continual stress." Sword cites high blood pressure, heart disease, irritability, frustration, and exhaustion as possible outcomes.
Unfortunately for most exhibit managers, significantly slowing down is not a realistic option. As one marketer I spoke with at the International Consumer Electronics Show put it, "I'm so busy trying to keep my to-do list from overflowing that I barely have time to think." So how do we treat our self-diagnosed hurry sickness? Ironically enough, in a recent Forbes.com article, London Business School professor Richard Jolly encourages hurry-sick managers to allocate time for the one thing they're missing most: uninterrupted thought. "We're losing the ability to stand back and think, and to work smarter rather than harder," he says. If bosses and co-workers encroach on that thinking time, Jolly recommends blocking off hours on your calendar for "meetings" with a fictional client. Then fight the urge to continue trudging through your to-do list and instead spend that time thinking, strategizing, and pondering the bigger picture.
It's easier said than done, I know. But it is essential. Because while we're constantly sprinting and executing, we're simultaneously sacrificing the time we previously allocated to thinking and strategizing. In other words, in addition to burning oneself out and threatening one's physical and psychological wellbeing, a myopic focus on just running the race and getting things done also reinforces the perception that exhibit managers are logisticians, not strategists. In one fell swoop, we set our industry and our own professional development back 10 steps.
Sure, taking brief respite from the race to slow down and think strategically may seem counterproductive. But even a rat knows that the only thing worse than standing still is stepping backward.