Jeff Davidson's book, Simpler Living, was Amazon Kindle #1 in its category, first quarter, 2012. Jeff is featured in the NY Times, Forbes, Chicago Tribune, Businessweek, Fortune, Organized Executive, and Success.

Managing Interruptions and Distractions

Over the last several years, every other time I’ve given a speech to an audience, whether there are 50 or 500 people in attendance, about 30 minutes into it, somebody’s cell phone sounds. It happens so frequently that I’m used to it, and it neither upsets me nor throws off my timing. I find it curious, however, that someone could sit down to a scheduled presentation of 45 minutes to several hours seemingly oblivious to the fact that his cell phone may sound.

When a phone sounds, wouldn’t you expect the offender to stand up and go dashing out of the room? After all, if someone has called him, you’d think that the alert signals something important.

In all the times no such offenders in my audiences have gotten up. I guess most people invest in technology that they never fully understand, let alone master. If you can’t control when one of the devices you’re wearing sounds, I wonder what chance you have of controlling your time.

Once, the world was not populated by people with cell phones. You could attend a movie or a play and not have a beeper-clad patron in the row behind you demonstrate the essence of crassness by allowing his or her pager to sound during the performance.

In the late 1970s, wearing a beeper was a mark of distinction. It meant that you were a top executive who made major decisions that impacted thousands of people or millions of dollars. Or, perchance, you were in the healthcare field and every day made crucial decisions, some of which meant the difference between life and death for your patients. Or, it signified that you were in the military, perhaps in command of strategic operations.

Disturbances We All Could Do Without

Today, most people carry cell phones in the name of being in touch with others at any given moment. Any darned fool can have a cell phone – and practically every one of them does. Being “locatable”, however, is not much different in concept than a pet who’s kept within the bounds of a back yard via an invisible electrical fence.

The prevailing argument is: “If I’m electronically connected to the great mass of humanity at all times, then I can be available when people need me, respond to emergencies, and, in turn be in touch with others when the need arises.” It’s a Faustian bargain, however, because the price for this sense of security is the elimination of the following luxuries:
  • Being alone
  • Dwelling on one’s own thoughts without fear of interruption
  • Working in harmony with one’s own internal rhythms, with no break in the action
  • Becoming comfortable, happy, and even content with the entity known as yourself
Is it any wonder why attention spans have dropped to all-time lows? Is an entire generation doomed to believing that being chained to a cell phone is normal? Will anybody be left who can go for hours – let alone days – without getting all bent out of shape because they’re not “in touch?”

Connected in Spirit?

The typical, yet odd, reasoning behind carrying a phone all day long is to stay connected to others. Is this being connected to others in a meaningful way? Or is it a disguise for individual and mass anxiety?

The need, however, to constantly keep in touch about everything ranging from the magnificent to the utterly mundane, from that of utmost importance to that which is absurdly trivial, spells a much deeper and insidious problem. Over-communication is not necessarily effective communication.

A generation of people are experiencing little sense of being spiritually in touch with one another, for they are electronically in touch around the clock. Consider that the people you love and like and are most in touch with in this world. Sure, an occasional text message – similar to an occasional e-mail or an occasional phone call to someone who wasn’t expecting it – can help brighten their day.

A Cell Phone Fetish?

Dr. Peter Crabb, a professor of physiology at Pennsylvania State University, has been studying technology’s impact on behavior. He says that the instant gratification brought on by technology can end up enslaving the user. Those who constantly carry a cell phone are essentially giving the message to all others that it’s okay to interrupt whatever is going on with them.

When the big book of human civilization is written, someone will look back and say that the cell phone was among the most dubious developments in the course of humanity. We don’t need drips and drops, tiny bits of information coming to us all day long. It’s not the best way to function, and it may be deleterious to effective functioning.

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron recommends that when someone who is trying to be creative feels blocked, there is a simple cure. Rather than bombardment by the thoughts and words of others, for one week give up reading, watching television, and listening to the radio. This exercise helps the person searching for his or her own ideas and creativity to encourage them to emerge.

The most effective way to manage your time is to stay in control of it, to protect yourself from unwanted intrusions. Receiving email, texts, and voicemail around the clock all disrupt your potential for highly productive, clear, cool thinking. You need peace and quiet when you’re pondering how to best make a new product or service offering, reflecting on what you’ve accomplished, or fathoming where you or your organization is heading.

The following letter, which I received from a man after a speech I gave, is one of the saddest commentaries on working in contemporary society that I’ve ever encountered:

While you were lecturing, my cell phone, pager, voice mail (mental and physical torture device) vibrated no less than three times. Usually I leave the room to listen to the voice mail and return the calls. During your presentation I just let it vibrate. However, I can’t turn it off. I carry the phone as a requirement of my job. I must carry it whenever I am officially on the job. Yet, I know peers who are on-call 24 hours to their organizations. They are interrupted by pages and cell-phone calls at dinners, church, the theater, everywhere.

If the above scenario even mildly describes your situation, it’s time to take control in major ways. If you don’t take control, who else on the planet will do it for you?

Dr. Jaclyn Kostner, author of Virtual Leadership, advises displaying proper etiquette when you take a cell phone with you:
  • Turn off your device when attending face-to-face meetings.
  • Turn off your device during lunch, dinner, or other professional occasions.
  • Turn off your gadget in nonbusiness public places, such as restaurants, movies, and performances.
  • Turn off your beeper or cell phone to be with your family and friends.
In fact, some theaters in London request attendees to turn off cell phones before the performance begins. In the United States, many business establishments, such as restaurants, are adopting strict policies regarding the use of cell phones, with some places regarding them with the same disdain as smoking.

Relay and Forwarding Options

Use all relay and forwarding options available. Leave instructive messages on your voicemail that let callers know when and where you can best be reached.

Also, leave instructive messages that enable callers to have a higher probability of being served by you without necessarily having to contact you immediately. This can be done by employing the various voice mail boxes available on many systems: “Press number one if you have a question about XYZ,” Press number two if you have a question about DEF,” and so on.

Get in the habit of specifically announcing that such-and-such person can take care of ABC, that you’ll be reachable Tuesday from 2 p.m. until 4 p.m., or that the best way to handle JKL problems is to send an e-mail to accounting. In this manner, you may be able to deflect half or more of the messages that would otherwise disturb you.

At certain times on some days, don’t carry a cell phone at all, and inform others that you will not be so equipped. Once the umbilical cord is disconnected, certainly your staff, and many others, learns new ways to proceed on matters without instinctively and incessantly beeping you.

How about the situation where you’re supervising others, and you’re the one continually sending messages to them so that they’re being contacted all day long?

Can you find it in your heart, and does your newfound awareness lead you to the conclusion that you could be sending fewer messages per day? Chances are highly likely that you could. In most professions, effective managing does not encompass micro-managing around the clock.

If you’ve selected the right people, have trained them accordingly, have given them the opportunity to develop on-the-job skills, have given them appropriate feedback, are available for coaching, and give them adequate tools with which to perform their assigned tasks, why do you need to be contacting them all day long?

To Summarize:

  • The need to constantly make contact with others is not necessarily effective communication; it is anxiety.
  • If you lack a spiritual connection with someone, constant communication through technology is unlikely to create one.
  • Tell your immediate supervisor about the disruption to your psyche and physiology. Bargain for time off the phone.
  • If primarily one person calls you, indicate when it’s okay for you to be contacted and when it’s not.
  • Sometimes don’t take your phone with you, and inform others that you will not be so equipped.