Friday, March 31, 2006

Crazy Busy

It’s over before you know it: childhood, young love, the kids’ early years, life in general. We’re just moving too fast: the Internet, cell phones, blackberries, instant messages, TiVo. We’re hearing these comments more and more, from elders, peers, and sometimes even from children. Yes, even the Herculean speed-demon kids are saying, “Whoa! I don’t want to rush from thing to thing today, I just want to play.” We’ve moved from a world that “creeps in this petty pace” to what too often feels like an existence percolating with panicky persistent partial attention.

The Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and leader of the Hallowell Center, Edward Hallowell, has long been one of my favorite authors and speakers on this subject. His books on Connections and Human Moments are fantastic journeys into this timely topic. In his speeches, he points out the irony of the information age: that we have more connection capacity than ever before, more technology to reach out and touch someone than you can imagine, but the most common reason for visiting a psychologist or psychiatrist tends to be depression related to feelings of loneliness, disconnection, and lack of inclusion. We are knee deep in water, dying of thirst it seems.

A friend just sent me the link to Hallowell's newly released book, CrazyBusy - Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap! Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD, which promises to be another of his thoughtful explorations on these issues. Upon hearing about this book, however, Steven Johnson, president of Sinclair Community College, joked, “Sounds like a great book, I just don’t have time to read it!”

What I look forward to in Hallowell’s Crazy Busy is that he’s not one of these, “let’s throw the technology out and go back to a ‘better time’ folks.” He’s much more thoughtful, practical, and human. It’s clear to me that the key issue isn’t how we throw technology away, but how we make sure that we are using it, not being used by it. We should not be responding like Pavlovian dogs to the e-mail chime or taking a cell phone call from a public restroom. But we should be thoughtfully integrating these powerful new tools into our own framework for quality interactions and meaningful relationships.

For example, anyone who teaches and leverages e-mail to connect with students knows that the challenge is that they sometimes think you’re always on. They’ll wonder why you haven’t responded to their 3:00 a.m. e-mail by the next morning. I, for one, think it’s a GREAT thing to help set the expectation about when you’re likely to be online and not likely to be anywhere near a computer. We’re all living through this adjustment period of the rapid adoption of Internet technologies and your boundaries are a good model. However, teachers who use e-mail with their students have likely also found that some students, usually the ones who never talk in class, suddenly open up and share online. This new form interaction gives them time to collect their thoughts, reflect, and interact at their pace—something that fast-paced, in-class interactions do not. To return to a ‘better time’ when e-mail, threaded discussions, or e-portfolios didn’t exist, would, in many ways, re-marginalize these students.

Yes, it’s time to slow down, look around, and take control of the technology to serve our ends. We can use the cell-phone off buttons a little more, turn off monitors or close laptop lids when people walk in our office, turn off the automatic e-mail check function in Outlook, and turn off the ‘white noise’ television. But polemic attacks on tools that literally save lives (e.g., stranded on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and using the cell to call for help) or change lives for the better (e.g., a working mother who could never have gone back to school if not for online learning) aren’t the dialogue to be had. It’s about balance, mindfulness, and intention.

So, in a truly balanced move, I’m going to sign off here so I can order Crazy Busy online and read it this weekend. You see, I’m traveling, and way to busy to get to a book store in the next two days. :)


Anonymous said...

Hey, Mark. I for one would be interested in hearing whatever strategies you've developed over the years for dealing with the crazy busy world. Other than opting out, which I strongly advocate and which my kids demand, of course. A friend at Gartner with whom I've had frequent variations of this conversation recommended a book called THE POWER OF FULL ENGAGEMENT, which posits that the key is managing energy, not time, but that's just one approach ( John (O'Brien) from Mpls. Great job at HLC, by the way.

Mark David Milliron said...

Thanks for the kind words. About the question, The Power of Full Engagement is a GREAT book. It is all about a concept I'm very fond of: Mindfulness. And, like you, I too have little ones you DEMAND it. Check out an article I wrote called "On The Road to DotCalm" ( you want to dive deep into my thoughts on this topic.