Slow down and think, campaigners

A recent story in The New York Times caught my eye. The gist of the story is that high-tech firms are drowning in e-mail and meetings. But the nugget that intrigued me most was the result of a Basex survey of information workers. The study found that workers in information-intensive industries spend just 12 percent of their time in “thinking and reflecting.” By comparison, 28 percent of their time is spent handling interruptions like “unnecessary e-mail messages” before getting back on task.

As for the rest of the information worker’s day, 25 percent is spent writing e-mail messages (potentially a thoughtful and creative act), 20 percent is spent in meetings or on the phone, and 15 percent on searches of the Web or databases. Sound familiar, campaigners?

Campaign staffers and political operatives are probably not very different from information workers, except we are less likely to be tethered to a single cubicle or base station. We are more likely to be out and about and interruptible, sort of a cross between an information worker and an outside salesman. I doubt that most campaigners spend even 12 percent of their time in deep thought and reflection.

Would it make a difference if we did spend more time thinking and less time responding to the constant faux crises that typify campaigning? I think so.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we go along with the time-management experts who tell us not to answer phone calls and respond to e-mails except during designated time frames each day. That sort of strategy is not realistic in the campaign world. But are we making enough time for deep thought and reflection?

It’s not just time management challenges that impede our getting around to beneficial contemplation. There’s also a sleep deprivation issue. Campaigners rise before the dawn and don’t stop until after midnight. Show me a campaigner who is sleeping eight hours every night and I’ll probably see someone who’s behind in the polls and sinking. But would sleeping an hour longer some nights result in clearer heads and more focused strategies?

How can we get campaigners to spend more quality time thinking and reflecting?

In my own personal and practical experience, there are only two sound and workable solutions. The best is for campaigns to set aside a day every month to get all the principals into a room away from the campaign headquarters, turn off the cell phones and the PDAs, and talk. I would call it a “retreat,” but that implies you have to go off into the woods to get anything done. Not necessary. You might retreat to the meeting rooms of the Holiday Inn Express down the street. It seems to work for that guy on the TV ads who says he stays there before doing brain surgery. How can it not help some campaigners?

The other technique is the weekly scheduled conference call. By having a regular call, even when there is no crisis, you sometimes have a lull that leaves room for general ruminations about where you are and where you need to go. I find that participants sometimes start to think in advance about what to say if such a lull occurs.

This thoughtful anticipation is the idea.

My only other suggestion for campaigns — and this is pollster-specific — is to be in less of a hurry. When I finish a poll these days, clients sometimes want to schedule a conference call within 24 hours for the presentation of poll results. Such a presentation implies that I have analyzed the results. If my staff’s number-crunching produces nearly a thousand pages of cross-tabs, I’m not sure instant analysis is such a good idea. Thoughtful, analytical insights might take more than 24 hours.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.