by Stephen Scott
14 September, 2021
You need to avoid “lost causes” at all costs. There’s no way around this fact.
A “lost cause” is any relationship or endeavour that will not, under any circumstances, lead to productive outcomes. A lost cause is different to something that simply doesn’t work out.
You may negotiate for a deal and end up needing to walk away. You may have to let go of an employee who can’t keep up with their work or leave your own job because it’s no longer fulfilling. These are cases where you try, and things don’t pan out the way you’d like. That’s the price of doing difficult things.
A lost cause is one where you have no hope of a positive outcome, even by compromise, no matter how hard you try. These instances are crippling to yours and your organisation’s wellbeing and productivity.
So how do you identify one, and what do you do about it?
In a recent article about “the badge of busy-ness,” I opened by saying that I completely recognise why people feel so busy nowadays. I can recognise this, first and foremost, because I’m in the same boat – we’re all in the same boat. It’s perhaps somewhat unrealistic to presume that our age is the busiest in history, but there is no doubt that the way we live now is unprecedented.
The sheer volume of information racing around our social and physical networks is exponentially greater than that of our society only a few decades ago. TV news has been playing on a 24-hour cycle since 1980 and print news outlets now publish articles online, in real-time, over and over again throughout any given day. What has likely made the biggest difference, though, is that today, everyone publishes.
When you post what you’re thinking about on Twitter, you’re publishing information. When you post photos of a recent holiday on Instagram, you’re publishing information. And so, beyond the new forms of classical media outlets like The New York Times or the ABC, almost every single person you know is publishing more information than you could hope to consume in your life, and then doing it all again the next day.
In short, it’s no wonder we feel like we’re busier than the generations that came before us. We’ve certainly got a lot more to do, see, read and watch.
This is not inherently a bad thing, of course. There are so many benefits to reap from the internet that examples aren’t even worth listing. What it means, though, is that it is the responsibility of the consumer to be more discerning than ever with how we spend our time, and more importantly, our energy.
I use media as my first example because it’s the component of our modern age that has changed most dramatically in the past few decades, but the same is true of our in-person, physical relationships. As knowledge work becomes the norm, careers take increasingly unusual shapes: according to from the Harvard Business Review, 70% of millennials leave their jobs after only two years. If the trend continues, we’re likely to meet and work with more and more people across the course of our careers, and those networks are bound to occasionally cross into our personal lives, too.
This means that, just as with our information consumption, we need to pay more attention than ever to our relationships, and whether or not they’re healthy and productive.
The first step in taking control of your time, energy and attention is to recognise that this is serious. It’s become commonplace for people to joke about being addicted to their phones, or to “hate-watch” a TV show. Trivialising the fact that we’re all becoming more addicted to distracting, insubstantial experiences, is part of the reason we’re still on that path. I’m not saying you should never use your phone, or never watch TV, or never do things just for the fun of doing them. Instead, I’m saying that you need to be aware of why you’re doing what you’re doing and be discerning about whether or not it’s a good idea.
Watching the football with some friends on the weekend is a great way to recharge and take your mind off work for a while. Catching a movie with your partner is a way to get out of the house for a bit and unwind. Playing video games helps some people relax, playing sport or reading a book does the same for others. Leisure activities obviously have their place. What concerns me is the compulsive element that can take over any of these pastimes and turn them from hobbies into something far less healthy. A key example is news: being informed is part of doing your duty as a citizen in a democracy, but checking your smartphone upwards of fifteen times a day isn’t helping anyone, least of all you.
I don’t want you to stop having fun, I want you to recognise when our modern technology ecosystem is taking advantage of you and stealing more of your time and attention than you intended to give.
The second, and more difficult, step on this journey is to learn when to step away entirely.
Putting a tenner on the Wallabies when you’re going to the game with friends is one thing, but betting on sports you don’t even watch to try to catch up to your losses is an entirely different story. Having an intelligent, level-headed debate about politics with a respected friend is a good dinner party; bashing away at a keyboard to try to “own” a Neo-Nazi is doing nothing but fuelling the fires of online hate.
In the Interlude of Ethics Trump Power, I talk about the efficiency of a jet engine, and how it relates to the efficiency of our inter-personal relationships at work. If you feed too much fuel into the engine, you burn far too much of it for far too little return in power. This is the danger of a lost cause. You don’t just lose; you lose after expending too much fuel.
You will not stop the tabloids from printing scandalous, falsified stories by complaining about them. You will not stop online bullies from spreading hate by arguing with them. If someone is not willing to learn or change, you will not be able to teach them. This hard truth does not align with the “win at all costs” and “winners never quit” mentalities that sell self-help books, but it’s a hard truth by definition, after all.
Being a good leader is often about perseverance. But it’s also about wisdom and maturity. Knowing when you’re up against a lost cause, and then having the discipline to turn away and use your energy elsewhere is tough, because it doesn’t feed our ego.
This is the only effective option you have when dealing with a lost cause. If you think reality TV is vacuous and borderline immoral, don’t watch it. If you think the tabloids are exploitative, don’t buy, click on or share their stories online. If a person thrives only on making other people angry, don’t react.
Remember that this is about more than ignoring a lost cause so that you don’t feed it. It’s equally about preserving your time and energy for the important things. As I said above, we have more to do, see, read and watch than ever before. We have more work to do, and more people to work with. Therefore, it’s more important than ever that we save our time and energy for the information and relationships that serve us and help us to serve the people we lead.
As the author Mark Manson points out, “these distractions aren’t just unproductive, they’re anti-productive. They create more work than they replace.” Be strategic with your time and energy, because at the end of the day, they’re all you have to work with.