A quest to tame technology-driven interruptions and distractions in my daily life.

Stop the Insanity

Remember Susan Powter—the little spitfire of a woman with spiky platinum blonde hair who proselytized fitness and sensible portions? Well, I am hijacking her catch phrase: Stop the insanity!

I entered the office sector of the workforce in 1998 or so. This was right after colleges were requiring email accounts and innovations like instant messaging and e-commerce were hitting big. I had made the leap from food service to a dot com start up and I didn’t so much as know how to send a fax. You’d think that there would have been an insane pressure to keep up and communicate, but that was not yet a part of the general work culture. That would come later. But my point is that I can still remember a time when work was done 9-5 on weekdays. Getting or making a personal call at work was a major embarrassment. And with the exception of special occasions, no one but stock brokers, doctors, and maybe sales people were expected to carry or answer a cell phone on personal time. Your time was your time.

With the rapid acceleration of technology that’s cheaper, faster, and better… every professional industry from nonprofits to enterprises have hopped onto the manic treadmill of endless workloads and limitless communication for the sake of efficiency, productivity, and keeping up with the competition. I can remember the frog-in-a-boing-pot transition and we were all complicit. Employers piled digital duties onto our analog ones and we went along with it—either for job security or to round out our personal skill sets. In any case, I think we gave up something we shouldn’t have and I can see that it is going to be difficult to dial it back.

After 7 years in the world of arts organizations where everyone gets half a wage to wear 3 hats and is thankful for the chance to do so, my wife and I started our own business doing PR and design here in Austin. In my experience, when you start your own business, you are willing to give it 22 hours a day because 1) you want to see your fledgling venture succeed and 2) you’d do just about anything to not have to work for someone else again. For the past nearly-five years, this has definitely been the case with me.

I’ve given up almost every bit of free time and personal pursuits and in their place, I have spent building the business. When client and administrative work was done, there is always new business development, promoting the company, or tweaking existing work. Having your own venture is particularly seductive because it is completely rational and justified to put in the extra hours. But eventually, you have to ask yourself “at what cost?”

I think central to this mutually agreed-upon insanity that most of us participate in is the expectation that when we work 14 hours a day and into the night, that others are meant to play along. Just this morning, I sat down to my computer at work and saw that a client emailed at 6 pm then 8:30 am with an incredulous follow up: “I assume you got my message!” The subtext is not uncommon. It seems our professional culture has devolved to the point where instantaneous communication has become so effortless that people don’t think complete thoughts, can’t judge reasonable limits of communication (like when a 4 page email might have been better handled with a call or meeting), and have become increasingly impatient with one another.

"Lord of the Flies" (1963) directed by Peter Brook

 

This past summer as I was having a series of realizations about myself and the role of technology in my life, I began to see that there was no end in sight for the endless barrage of emails, voicemails, direct messages, tweets, status updates, comments to status updates, invitations to connect on LinkedIn, surveys, event invitations, newsletters, and so forth. With each passing month, more people are getting smart phones loaded with hyper-connected apps and the effect is like the Lord of the Flies. Sucks to your asthmar -I have the conch! People have no self-control (present company included) and with mass adoption comes mass blindness to the issue. In short, everyone is too busy staring into their phones and responding to midnight emails to see the madness in everyone staring into their phones and responding to midnight emails. I was just as bad as anyone really.

What I’ve decided is that while I am not interested in a crusade to change the habits of others, I no longer wish to participate. Our time is simply too finite to spend so much of it in a digital haze. Moreover, as my good friend David Craig said, “I don’t want people to have that kind of power over me.” That one hit home. When you are on vacation or laying in bed or in the park with your child and a work contact is able to reach through and pop up and interrupt to ask for a reply or to seek action immediately… that’s not cool. More specifically, when you allow that to happen—there is a problem.

Stop the insanity.

For the majority of the past 3 months, I have been shutting off work email when I left my desk and not opening it until I get back to work. There are usually about 20-30 waiting for me each day and while maybe one per night is presented as “urgent,” I can’t say that a colleague has bled to death pinned under an armoire or anything. My point is: it can wait.

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