Dopamine, Charlie Sheen and an addiction that is killing media


Media people have long joked that the industry is addictive, but new research shows that actually it is medically true.

The constant barrage of information, new facts, tight deadlines, demands from multiple inputs, decisions needing to be made, e-mails sent, commissioning, editing, producing, writing, crafting for print, Web and mobile, telephones going, conferences being called, ads running late, and pressure to hit targets gives us a dopamine hit that is the equivalent to a hard drug and just as obsessively more-ish.

We’re an industry of junkies.

In a recent article in the McKinsey Quarterly, “Recovering from Information Overload,” Derek Dean and Caroline Webb examined how “always-on, multi-tasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity and making us unhappy.”

While the article is targeted at CEOs, it’s hard not to draw parallels between the work environments they describe and any editorial floor in any media organisation anywhere in the world.

It was bad enough in the days of hot metal, but the pace has increased exponentially in recent years with journalists and editors creating and directing content to print, Web and mobile platforms in every form of communication imaginable.

Add to that the serious staff cuts that most companies have undergone and how we’re doing less with more, and it’s not hard to see how we’re on track for a major Charlie Sheen-styled meltdown. What’s scary is that just like Sheen, we’ll probably go ranting all the way, claiming “failure is not an option” and believing we’ve got it under control.

So is this, then, the reason why so many newspaper companies are struggling to develop real strategies for the future? Because we’re totally strung out and our day-to-day working environments are just too fragmented to encourage genuine creative thought?

Should we be honest and admit that our big worry is how to make sure the party never ends, because what we really want is to guarantee a supply of the good stuff?

Dean and Webb argue that to make it stop, CEOs who find themselves in a multi-tasking hell need to admit their addiction, and start taking control.

“Most of us would probably acknowledge that multi-tasking lets us quickly cross some of the simpler items off our to-do lists. But it rarely helps us solve the toughest problems we’re working on. More often than not, it is procrastination in disguise,” they write.

“Multi-tasking is a terrible coping mechanism. A body of scientific evidence demonstrates fairly conclusively that multi-tasking makes human beings less productive, less creative and less able to make good decisions. If we want to be effective ... we need to stop.”

This is pretty scary stuff for an industry where multi-tasking is an expected part of every job description — if you’re lucky enough to have one.

Steps to regain control include exercising self-discipline, they say, and “a little like recovering addicts, find time to focus, filter out the unimportant, forget about work every now and again.”

Yes, I can hear the snorts of derision from here.

But isn’t it the role of our Human Resource departments to hold up the mirror to how our behaviour as senior executives, editors and managers is impacting the company? And where have the people whose job it is to protect and develop the humanity in our organisations been while all this has been going on?

Newspaper HR departments have been building their own silos, swamping newcomers with a pile of paperwork that outlines a company different to the reality, developing compliance documents few on the newsfloor ever read, and harassing editors to fill out bureaucratic paperwork they don’t have the time for or conduct performance reviews that are meaningless and will never be acted on.

On the edge of every stressed-out, buzzed-out news organisation suffering from adrenalin overload is a self-important HR department that has failed to engage or understand what the people inside the organisation really do. Sure, we need to recognise we’re the addicts, but it’s “bad HR” that is our enabler.

Job descriptions that are tied to outcomes, not tasks, will help us beat our addiction. Performance management criteria that recognise accountability and the new cultural behaviours we are trying to create will help us understand if what we are doing is getting us to where we want to be. And it will help weed out those people who don’t want to be on board.

In the absence of good HR, media organisations have only the most basic measure of knowing if people are “here,” and “do they look busy?” Yes, but are they doing anything useful?

Staffing levels that allow people time to take their annual leave, or to have lunch away from their desk without any risk that a deadline won’t be met, will give us time to breathe, talk to someone outside the industry, and bring home an idea that results in a front-page, campaigning piece of journalism, or a unique solution to a problem that’s been bugging us for ages.

As fun as it has been, it’s time to sober up and smarten up our business practices so the creativity that will be our future doesn’t switch off for good.

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