Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Digitally Addicted!

“We will embarrass our descendants, just as our ancestors embarrassed us. This is moral progress.”
Sam Harris. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.

“There’s nothing more exhilarating than pointing out the shortcomings of other people.”
Jeff Anderson. Clerks.

“Next time your kid's watching television, just come up behind them when they don't know you're there, and just turn it off without any warning. Just go--pfft. Watch what happens. They go-- [Screams] Do you think that's a good sign? You think it's a sign that it's healthy for them? That when it's taken away they go-- [Mutters] because you've created such a high bar of stimulus that nothing competes. A beautiful day is shit to a child now. A gorgeous, panoramic day with hawks catching fucking mice and flying away and bears with fucking fish in their teeth. And the kid's like, [screaming] ‘I want to watch the television! This is nothing!’"
Louis C.K. Hilarious.

I recently published a blog (about banning laptops and smartphones in meetings) that received quite a bit of attention. It has had two orders of magnitude more views than I normally get as well as lots of comments on HackerNews, where a colleague kindly posted it. Interestingly, the comments seem to fall into several broad categories.

As usual, there were those who agreed with me wholeheartedly.

A few people pointed out that it was idiotic of me to ask people not to use their laptops. They needed the devices to take notes in the meeting. Yes, of course it’s perfectly reasonable to take notes in a meeting. I said so in the second sentence of the blog: “
... if they were used for the purposes of the meeting itself - to take notes or to make a presentation.” These are not the people I’m talking about.

Some people commented that they suffered from ADHD and that they actually perform better when they multitask. Great for you. You’re not the people I’m talking about either. Roughly 10% of the population has been diagnosed with ADHD (and that’s after a 40% increase in the past decade). That leaves the other 90% of the population. Those are the folks I’m talking about.

There were also those who pointed out that my meetings must be awfully boring if people are resorting to laptops for entertainment. Yes, I agree wholeheartedly that it's the job of the presenter to make the meeting content useful and the meeting itself interesting. I said so as well: “
As the meeting organizer, I should, of course, strive to make the meeting relevant and the decisions concrete. Otherwise, I deserve to be ignored for the latest tweet or alert.” But, here, I want to refer back to Louis C.K.’s words. You are likely to find your digital world more entertaining than pretty much any meeting content - exactly because it’s constantly changing and updating and new and increasingly relevant to you. It would be pretty hard to find a speaker and a topic that can compete with a dozen simultaneous social media feeds, news sources, email, and chat conversations. To do so for an entire hour or two would be a Herculean task when compared to ten popups a minute.

I would even be willing to buy this argument if the folks I'm talking about open their laptops and pick up their phones only in a subset of the meetings they attend. And I definitely see some of those folks - fully engaged when the meeting is relevant and their attention is needed, but also with their heads buried in their laptops when the meeting is irrelevant. More power to you if you can do that consistently.

Instead, what I've found is that even the best of us become bewitched by the digital genie in our laptops and phones. The email, chat, IM, stock ticker, Facebook, Twitter, and the browser tabs with my favorite news sites - all conspire to create a massively compelling and constantly engaging digital universe that no meeting can match. Cue Louis C.K. As soon as there is a lull in the meeting, the first thing we do is open our laptop or grab our phone. This digital universe is so compelling that it becomes addictive. Pretty soon, the same well meaning folks are slumped in their chairs in every single meeting, grabbing instinctively for their digital crutches.

These are the folks I'm talking about: the Fellowship of the Digitally Addicted. Believe me, I know the disease of which I speak. I'm not only the president, I'm also a client. Over the past dozen years, it seems, we have become so addicted to our devices that we don’t even notice any longer. I keep finding myself buried in my phone for hours on end while commuting on the train, just trying to catch up with the news or some urgent mail from work, reading and responding to email at 3 am while lying wide awake in bed, even thinking about a dozen burning fires at work while spending time with family and friends. It's relentless and it has become so commonplace so quickly that we don't even realize it's not normal. It's not healthy. It's not smart.

I do admit to having found one small saving grace - one small silver lining - in all this digital addiction. On weekend days, I usually go for a three to four hour bike ride. Doing so forces me to walk away from the digital world for a few hours. This is the only activity that seems to clear my head of all the clutter of the past week. I often find myself coming back from these rides, taking a glance at my inbox, and instantly recognizing a solution to a nasty problem, some common theme between multiple projects that is really the root cause of our problems, or even a new idea that we should be pursuing.

I don't claim that these are all my ideas. In fact, I’m sure I have heard bits and pieces of these same ideas from colleagues over the past week or month. It’s just that I've been so busy with the details of a spreadsheet or responding to emails or keeping up with Hipchat or handling operational issues at work that I have failed to see the forest for the trees. I just didn't have enough time to put two and two together.

We have to give ours brain a chance to digest the barrage of information, to draw parallels amongst the various threads, to actually think instead of being told what is “new” every second and every minute of the day. Then and only then do the answers become palm to forehead obvious.

Yes, of course, we are all slaves to information and hungry for more of it. We used to get our news, at most, once a day. And we used to spend the rest of that day pondering the ramifications. Now, we get our news every minute of every day through a dozen channels and it’s tailored to our exact requirements - be it work related or personal. Even assuming we need to know all the minutiae that that entails, you have to admit that our brains need some time to make sense of it all. The endorphin rush of constant stimulation is indeed addictive but allowing others to tell you the “right” answer every minute of every day is not a recipe for success. And the main problem with constantly plugging into the digital world is that our brains are so busy processing the incoming flow of information that they don’t have a chance to think for themselves.

So my advice to you is this: Put down your phone. Close the laptop. Step away slowly. Stop jamming all that information into your brain every minute of every day. Clear your head. Stop looking at the screen. Get out. Do something analog. Maybe even get some exercise!

It’s that simple.

I’m sure this will be ridiculed by some as obvious and by others as impractical. I would have said the same thing a few years ago. But, I promise. It works. Try it. Not for five minutes. But for five hours. Can you avoid touching your phone for five hours?

Admittedly, meetings were the first digital-free zone for me. My time on the bike is a second such digital-free zone. I hope, one day, there will be “PDA-Free Zones” just like we have “No Smoking” zones today. I hope, one day, to be strong enough to stop reaching for my phone even when talking to a friend or having dinner with my family.


Update: Interesting and relevant article in the New York Times on the same topic.