The Activity Trap

This is perhaps the first humorous story which led me to start looking for management concepts in humour. Here goes the story:

In a small town lived a famous sprinter who had represented his country in the Olympics. Let us call him Mr. Sprinter (Normally I would give him a real name but in this age of political correctness, any name I give may unintentionally hurt some groups of people in the name of religion, country, province, class, caste etc etc).

One night, a thief broke into the house of Mr. Sprinter. While stealing valuables from the house, some metal item accidentally fell down from the thief’s hand, making a loud noise. This caused Mr Sprinter to wake up with alarm and accost the thief. The thief, sensing danger, made a dash out of the house. Mr. Sprinter immediately gave chase.

After about 15 minutes, a Police Constable on beat duty saw Mr Sprinter running on the road in his night dress. Since he was a well known person of that small town, the Constable recognized him and politely asked, “Sir, why are you running on the road at this unearthly hour”. Mr Sprinter explained that he was running to catch the thief. Now the Constable looked a little puzzled. He said, “But sir, I have been standing here for the last one hour and have not see any thief running away”.

Mr Sprinter gave a hearty laugh and said, “ The thief thought that he could run fast and that I will not be able to catch up with him. But he did not realise that I am an Olympic level sprinter and can run much faster than him. I have already left him far behind.”

After reading the story, I started reflecting on the situation and realized that often, in real life, we start an activity to achieve an objective (running to catch the thief) but soon we get so entrenched in the activity that we lose sight of the objective, and the activity itself becomes a goal.

This was a Eureka moment for me. Looking around, I found thousands of Mr. Sprinters, lost in running, forgetting why they started running in the first place.

In management literature this is called “Activity Trap”. We get lost in the Activity (often in our zone of comfort), forget about the goal and yet feel that we are working hard.

I will leave you with one example. In my first job, I had a boss who was very proud of his command over English language and the grammar. Whenever I took a draft of a note to him, he would painstakingly go through its language and grammar. A lot of time was used in discussing whether some noun should be preceded by “a” or “the”. But he would never go into the details of the facts or the matter of the letter.

Many companies have voluminous Management Information Reports (MIS) which have long lost their relevance, and nobody reads them. Yet the MIS department continues working diligently on these reports. If you observe closely into the innards of any large company or Government, you will find hundreds of Mr Sprinters living and thriving (adding to cost and inefficiency of the total system).

We all need to recognize the Mr Sprinter in us and ensure that we never lose sight of the objective and do not get lost in Activity trap (because that is where our comfort zone lies).


Learning from the Early Stage of Life Many amongst my readers, especially those who did their schooling during 1960s and were part of the Boy Scout movement, would recall that one of the cardinal message dinned in our heads was, “Everyday, do at least one good deed”. I had also gone through this training. But…


Is this not the most eternal, existential question which human beings have been asking for ages? Many philosophers and religions have attempted to answer this question in their own way. I can not even dream of competing with the profound knowledge of the scriptures and philosophies when it comes to demystifying this question.  I, however,…


As I navigate the 7th decade of my life, living in a time when the fragility of life is becoming so evident, I am left thinking on how to deal with something that is the most certain in life but the most uncertain in timing. There is a lesser-known story, about this dilemma, from Mahabharat…

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