By: Chris White, Center for Positive Organizations, University of Michigan
Walking down the street is a hazardous experience these days. People have their heads down, eyes glued to their smartphones, while walking full speed ahead (or unconsciously zigzagging), oblivious to people walking in the other direction. From time to time, collisions occur and people and gadgets come crashing down in a heap. Other times, those without a device in their hands are forced to adjust their path to avoid the oblivious human-meteor coming toward them.
Collisions happen in organizations too. Sometimes they happen physically, in the corridor as they would happen in the New York street scene described above. Other times, they are psychological collisions. The collisions take different and more subtle forms, but are real nonetheless. For example, studies show that the mere presence of a cell phone on the table is enough to reduce the extent to which we experience empathy for those around us. It doesn't matter if it is turned on. It doesn't matter if it belongs to anyone around the table, or whether it rings or not. Because we are now primed to check our devices so much, their mere presence is enough to cause a collective empathy-reducing psychological collision. Yikes.
Choosing to give your attention to your device over the person in front of you can be experienced as a values-based decision. Many of us have prioritized our gadget ahead of the person in front of us, me included. In fact, doing so is so widespread that we have come to accept it as normal and okay. It is not. It is a small example of the psychological collision described above. It takes a de-energizing toll on the workplace and the individuals in it.
Do not get me wrong: I do not believe the solution is tech abstinence. Technology can offer many benefits. It is about constructing a healthy relationship to technology in our lives and our families and our organizations. How can we get the benefits our gadgets offer us, while mitigating the downside to ourselves and those around us. An example of this paradox in action is down the street from me in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at Menlo Innovations. Menlo is an excellent software company; their job is to create technology. (Disclosure: Menlo is a member of the Consortium of Positive Organizations at the Center for Positive Organizations. I am an unapologetic fan). They do so in very thoughtful and innovative ways. One such way is by having project boards made from pen and paper rather than sophisticated project management software. At Menlo, they believe this gives a better way to visualize work in progress, and allow team members to connect with each other around the work in meaningful ways. Founders Rich Sheridan and James Goebel are making deliberate choices about when to get technology out of the way.
In recent months I have found myself running some small experiments. My goal has been to increase my overall presence, wellbeing, and effectiveness by making deliberate choices about my use of technology. In some cases, this has involved using more technology. In others, this has involved using less technology. So, yes, I keep my cell phone off the table. And here are four other such experiments that might be of interest:
1. Removing email and social media from my smart phone.
I have been trying to follow the widely-offered advice to batch email and social media time into two-to-three 30-minute chunks a day. I have been failing. However, I made significant progress recently when I removed all email and social media apps from my phone. I have found myself able to take what I call "micro-sabbaticals" while in the elevator, or walking along the street, instead of taking out my device in every spare moment. It has also been enlightening through this process to realize how strong my connectivity addiction is at present. When I first removed email and social media from my phone, I noticed my hand would still twitch toward my pocket when walking along the street, conditioned to check for new messages or updates. When I would get home at night, I would open my laptop on the kitchen counter, insanely rationalizing to myself that this little workaround was somehow okay, because I sticking to my resolution to remove email and social media from my phone. The behaviors of an addict, for sure. Over time, my overall addiction is waning. I notice my mind - and schedule - feeling less busy. And yet I am still operating at an almost-zero inbox, with a response rate to most messages of 24 hours or less. Progress indeed.
2. The JOOL app has helped me stay focused on the right things.
Living life in alignment to a purpose that is meaningful to you has many benefits. Similarly, paying due attention to sleep, presence, activity, creativity, and eating (S.P.A.C.E., per Professor Vic Strecher), pays dividends in energy and wellbeing. The JOOL app encourages daily reflection and tracking of these factors, and then offers insightful analytics about the elements that lead to you being at your best. Recording this daily is a good daily reminder for me to pay attention to the things that lead to sustainable performance in all parts of my life.
3. Using a Fitbit (for me the Charge 2, specifically) has had unexpected benefits.
It is nice to track how many steps I have taken per day, and to be reminded to get up and move. It is also helpful to get some information about the length and depth of my sleep cycles. I expected these benefits. The unexpected boost has been that my Fitbit buzzes on my wrist when I get a text or phone call. This builds on the progress made by removing email and social media from my smart phone. Now, I have no reason at all to check my smart phone "just in case I have received a text or missed a call". The compulsive checking of my phone is fading into the distance.
4. Evernote to notebook for tracking agenda topics
I have found Evernote to be my preferred digital notebook. It is simple, searchable, and synchronizes across all my devices easily. Wherever I am, I can pull up an article I clipped, or a note I made. One way I use Evernote is to keep track of topics I would like to discuss in recurring one-on-one meetings with my team. Increasingly, I am getting into the habit of transposing the items to my written notebook immediately before the meeting. This serves a double purpose. Firstly, it enables me to review the agenda before getting into the room, which helps me make a running start on getting the outcomes we are working toward. Secondly, it allows me to extend the principle of "no cellphones on the table" to "no laptops between us." Of the changes I have listed here, this is the one that is the most "in progress" for me. Like everyone, I too am a work in progress!
I am still very much in the experimental phase in seeking a healthy relationship with technology. I would love to hear how you have changed your own technology individually or organizationally to enhance your presence, wellbeing, and effectiveness!
Chris White (@leadpositively, leadpositively.com) is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@positiveorg) at the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business.