Ding. I turn to the computer screen and look as today’s 113th little announcement box for e-mail emerges. Ring. While I’m still on the other line, I scan my Blackberry screen to see whose calling. Ping. A pre-selected sonar sound announces an incoming instant message. Fling. I hurl myself from the open balcony.
OK, the last one’s a joke. But after a day full of these Pavlovian prompts pushing persistent partial attention, anyone can get pretty close to making the leap. There are some simple things, however, we can do to take on these Pavlovian problems. I’ll offer just three of them here that can help make a dent in our Crazy Busy lifestyles. They take a little time, and sometimes even some tech support. But they are worthwhile to ensure that we are using technology, not being used by it.
First, turn off the automatic download function in your e-mail program. Whether it’s Outlook or Netscape, you can stop the preconfigured “check the server for e-mail every two minutes” function. By doing this, e-mail only comes in when you hit send/receive. You take the control back. Why do this? Imagine if 15 years ago the mail clerk jetted by your office or cube every two minutes with new memos, letters, and junk mail and yelled “Mail!” as he threw them in your inbox. Even without the ubiquitous Viagra ads, it still might be a little distracting, no? The constant ding of your e-mail is the modern virtual equivalent. Some have related to me that the e-mail chime problem is so bad that they feel their workday is nothing more than responding to e-mails—no time for reflection, planning, execution, or interaction. Talk about being reactive instead of proactive! Worse yet, I’ve seen more than one person’s e-mail announcements go off during major presentations in front of hundreds of folks. It’s just that pernicious, persistent, and deeply problematic. Take the controls back.
Second, all-in-one devices are wonderful. Blackberry’s, Treos, and web phones make mobility and ease of connection a reality. I’m all for them. With my Blackberry, I can knock out little office emergencies quickly, clean out the inbox before I ever sit down back at my desk, access my full contact list whenever and wherever, and hop online for quick Google lookups as necessary. At their best, there are a thousand reasons whey these devices are useful and just plain lifesaving. At their worst, however, they can become painful Pavlovian pals. How many of us see our colleagues ding, ring, and ping their way through their meetings, lunches, and conversations. It’s almost an epidemic.
This is where profile management comes in. It takes some work, but dive into the profiles on your device and ensure that you choose the least distracting notifications (if any at all)—don’t take the defaults. For example, the Blackberry’s default has you buzzing and ringing and beeping with every task, e-mail, and phone call. It’s impossible to go 3 minutes without some sound or blinker going off. Stop it. Change the settings to fit your tastes, and remember, the person or people in front of you deserve your attention. The task at hand is best done without a divided mind. We need to get off the "Crackberry pipe." Remember, off buttons can be amazing things. Not taking a call may say more to the person you’re with than you may ever know.
Third, wireless technology is freeing, but it’s becoming a meeting and class killer. Trying to teach a class or hold a meeting with keyboards clamoring is stunningly distracting. I’ve been in meetings where the leader is checking their laptop while running the discussion! If that doesn’t say something about the value of the meeting, I don’t know what does. Worse yet, if the folks at the table haven’t muted their sound, you get this wonderful concert of dings and pings all throughout the dialogue. And every once and awhile someone turns their machine on, off, or reboots and you get that marvelous Microsoft minute that brings the meeting to a halt as the Windows theme song serenades you all.
Think long and hard about bringing your laptop to a meeting. If you must, mute it well before the meeting begins. And don’t kid yourself; if you try to steal a minute for a quick check of the e-mail or to scan a website, someone notices. It sends a loud cultural message about your commitment to the group. If the meeting is that bad, then you may want to lead a larger conversation about why are you having the meeting in the first place.
Well, these are just a few observations and ideas drawn from colleagues around the country as they have taken on these challenges. Make no mistake about it, we’re all figuring this out as we go along. So sharing some best practices is probably a good thing (e.g., visit the TLTGroup’s Overloadatorium). It can be our own little massive multiplayer online support group. And it may just help us solve some of these Pavlovian problems before they take too big a bite out of our lives.