Friday, June 12, 2009

Are you a hostage of 24/7 Connectivity?

Before reading this entry take the following quiz:

1. Do you check your phone or send texts during a movie?

2. Have you ever gone to a computer display in an electronics store to check your email?

3. Do you fall asleep with greater ease if you’ve checked your voicemail/email before going to sleep?

4. Can you get through a meal without looking at your phone?

5. Do you ever turn off your phone?

If you answered yes to 2 or more of these questions then you may be a hostage of 24/7 connectivity. And if you answered yes to number 1 then you are my nemesis. I don’t care who you are, no one is THAT important that they need to check their phone every 20 seconds in a movie. TRUST me your friends/girlfriend/boyfriend or whoever can live without you texting them for 2 hours or so.

Stew Friedman, faculty member at Wharton College of Business and author of “Total Leadership” asserts that the idea of “life/work balance” has gone the way of Maslow’s “Pyramid of Hierarchical Needs.” That is to say, the idea of having a distinct demarcated border between life (that which we do outside of work) and work (that which we do outside of life) is no longer possible. The idea of “closing the briefcase” when we leave the office is becoming increasingly difficult.

Convenience and access are swords that cut both ways. The easier it is for us to access resources and people the easier it is for people and resources to access us. This has created a blending of work life and home life. The borders between the two worlds are no longer enforced by the limits of technology. If you’re a hostage of 24/7 connectivity it means that you never disengage from work.

So how do we handle this new world? I have a few ideas that have worked well for me.

1. Let Voicemail Be Your Gatekeeper

When my phone rings I ask myself two questions before I decide to take the call. First, do I know who is calling me? Second, if I know who it is do I know why they are calling? If I do not know who it is I do not answer. If I know who it is, but I don’t know why they are calling (there are exceptions such as close friends, etc) I do not answer. It is not that I am not interested; it is simply that I am rarely sitting around waiting for my phone to ring. Rather than stop what I’m doing, I let the calls go to voicemail. Once they leave a voicemail I check it and then decide how to respond.

I recognize this goes against normal expectations to some degree; however, I find that by simply setting expectations for people you can avoid frustration. So, whenever I give someone my mobile number, I predicate with the following statement, “I prefer if you email me, I’ll see it on my phone. However, if you need to call me don’t worry if you get my voicemail. I check it often and will call you back.” When I do respond I use my second rule.

2. Consider the best response

So you’re at dinner with someone special and you get a phone call, email, text message. It’s someone at work that needs some information. What do you do? I used to get up from the table, go outside and deal with the situation. I think this is the wrong response. Now, if I feel like I should get back to the person, I excuse myself from the table (I think it is terribly rude to have a phone conversation at the table) and respond with questions. “Jim, I got your voicemail and I’m aware of what is going on. I am not at a place where I can talk right now, would it be all right if I called you in two hours?” Unless the situation is a dire emergency, the answer is usually yes. This works because you are satisfying the underlying need. Most often, people simply want to know that you are aware that they are trying to reach you. They assume that by not responding you are not aware. So, rather than taking 20-30 minutes to address a problem, you take 2-3 minutes to let someone know you’ve received their message and then you establish when you will call them back. This works for email and text message too.

3. Make “disconnecting” a routine

This has been especially hard for me. Yet, it gets easier with time. When I’m at a movie or a play I shut off the phone. Not silence it or put it on vibrate, turn it off. Then at intermission or after the movie, I turn it back on. When I go to dinner with my partner or a friend, I leave my phone in the car.

Melinda Stallings teaches for our EmPower Leadership Fundamentals Certificate Program. In her first class, she asks a powerful question. She asks the students how many of them, by show of hands, have taken 15 minutes in the last six months which were uninterrupted by outside stimuli to think. Less than 10% of the class will raise their hand. It just does not happen naturally in our world. Yet, it is a valuable exercise.

The same goes for “disconnecting.” I think that our ability to remain connected is only going to increase for the time being. Soon even airplanes (once the haven of being disconnected) will be providing connectivity on flights.

Don’t get me wrong, I think this technological revolution that has opened the door to so many ways to stay in touch is amazing. Written correspondence was nearly dead until email came along. Instant messaging and text messages allow me to keep up with what is happening with others while at work without being interrupted by a phone call, and I like knowing what is happening at work when I’m not there by simply checking my email via my phone. There is a fine line between utilizing this technology and being ruled by it. The “rules” I listed above are part of the way I try to keep from being ruled by connectivity. I would challenge you to take a look at your own life. If you catch yourself having to look at your phone or take calls when you’re at lunch with a friend or at a movie, stop and ask yourself why you’re doing it. Are you simply responding to the phone or email like Pavlov’s dogs to his bell? If so, you may want to consider setting some boundaries. You’ll have a richer life, feel more in control and have a clearer grasp of your priorities.

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