Busy is not the same as productive

'Always on' culture can make it hard to recognize, solve problems

Many of the technologies springing forth from the Internet are communication tools.

This makes sense. When Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web back in the day, he did it to help scientists share their work with one another.

Before him, the military computer scientists who created the technology that would become the Internet were focused on solving message routing problems that might be brought about if a nuclear war wiped out major cities and the communications networks that pass through them.

Digital technologies often are focused on the very human activity of communication.

The past 10 years have been focused on optimizing those communication tools. We’ve had long-form asymmetric publishing channels in the form of blogs for a long time.

Twitter and Facebook revised the old hacker ".plan" status update into something less arcane for the mainstream audience their customers — advertisers — pursue. A variety of notifications and bells and buzzers have been added to ancient email technology.

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Adding mobile access to these myriad ways of connecting to one another has added fuel to the fires. Now — sometimes to our delight, and other times to our dismay — we can be reached (and reach others) instantaneously, nearly anytime and anywhere.

A client of mine recently came back from his "vacation" feeling like maybe he didn’t have a vacation. This was in spite of turning off many, but not all, of his communication channels. Turning off notifications completely is nearly impossible for anyone who, for all purposes, is self-employed — as many real estate professionals are.

But this isn’t just about vacations being interrupted by iPhones. You see, it isn’t just the technology that has changed. It’s us.

Many have begun to feel that it’s a good idea to view all of our messages across a variety of technologies first thing in the day, perhaps before eating breakfast even. Ten years ago we did something else with that time.

During the day, interruptions flow in a continuous stream of beeps, vibrations and scrolling notifications across a screen. Work that at one time would have required uninterrupted thought to perform now must make do with the margins between Facebook notifications, text messages and the latest "Words With Friends" game.

Many of us seem to think this is a good way to work, because we do it every day — even on days that technically aren’t work days.

This is probably a good time to note that multitasking is a myth. The brain really can’t focus effectively on two things at once. You can divide your attention between two things, certainly. But fast switching isn’t the same as focus.

There is a problem, and that problem is that many people (and I’m probably more guilty of this than any readers of this column) have passed the peak of efficiency that instant, constant communication gives. And the other side of that bell curve drops off much more steeply than it rises.

Note also that the cultural decision to allow others to interrupt our work at any time is not a technology problem. Nor is it, in many cases, a personal or individual problem. It is a cultural problem.

If your organization expects everyone to be reachable at all times or if it seeks to have everyone be instantly responsive, then your organization is also enforcing a lack of focus. Even worse, I’d suggest that if your organization doesn’t actively encourage setting aside time to be focused (without any interruptions digital or otherwise), your organization is allowing the general culture at large to determine how much focus your team can muster (and it will not be enough).

It’s true that there are definite benefits to being "always on" — especially in a sales-focused industry like real estate where the stats regarding responsiveness are dismal at best. We meet more people — perhaps we start more things with others. These are good things even outside of business.

But we also trade something, not completely, but in degrees — like the frog in the pot of water slowly coming to a boil. What do we exchange when our focus cannot be sustained?

  • Learning new nontrivial skills
  • Analyzing nontrivial data
  • Understanding nontrivial information
  • Making nontrivial decisions
  • Completing nontrivial and complex tasks

These losses are threats to to our existence. Metaphors that come to mind that, although not exactly defining the situation of allowing others to interrupt us continually, approach the same sentiment are "fiddling while Rome burns" and "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

I suspect, from conversations with my clients and from conversations with my fellow consultants, that a great number of real estate agents are "fiddling while Rome burns" in their efforts to maintain an "always on" social media existence. How can they possibly service their clients and also be interrupted constantly? Are the tasks required of a real estate agent trivial?

I also suspect that many consultants, brokers and technology cheerleaders are "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" by pursuing technological "fixes" to the problem of constant interruption. The problem, as I asserted earlier, is a cultural one not a technological one.

The problem is how humans behave in a world of social technologies, and more technologies won’t solve the problem. Sure you can use HootSuite to access most of your social feeds all at once. But that doesn’t help you if you’re still checking it constantly and allowing others to interrupt you.

Technology is good. It helps us solve problems and do things we simply couldn’t do without it. But our minds and our culture are not always well adapted to technology. The systems and "realities" of our business environments may well be encouraging nonproductive behavior.

Solving the issues of the match between technology, culture, service, audience and business objectives requires nontrivial thinking and action.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt.

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