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Staying in Touch Too Much

It’s safe to say that information overload is a much greater problem today for most professionals than information scarcity. Information overload also introduces new mental, emotional, social, and interpersonal issues. For example, while many researchers believe that attention deficit disorder (ADD) is a purely biochemical phenomenon, a growing number believe that attention deficit disorder can also be influenced by environmental factors such as the onslaught of too much information. I agree with the second camp.

Interruptions Abound


The typical worker is confronted by six interruptions every hour, averaging one every ten minutes. The average number of messages received in a day by the typical U.S. office worker breaks down as follows:

Phone calls 52
Email 36
Voice Mail 23
Postal Mail 18
Interoffice mail 18
Post it messages 13
Cell phone messages 4
Express mail 3

Source: Intertec Publishing, Stamford Connecticut © 9/99

The same study showed that 68% of email and instant messaging services users cite that their long distance bills have decreased. The study also showed that an exceptionally high segment of women 55 and older benefitted the most from these email and instant message savings.

Messages received via cell phone are on the rise. The typical office worker has experienced a decrease in actual phone calls, postal mail, fax, and interoffice memos, while receiving more email and cell phone calls.

Disturbances We All Could Do Without


In the last five years, every 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 beeps, 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.

Today, some people wear beepers or 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 wearing a beeper 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 message via a beeper – 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 beepers can end up enslaving the user. Those who wear a beeper essentially are giving the message to all others that it’s okay to interrupt whatever is going on with them.

Alas, now nearly everywhere you turn, you see someone talking on a cell phone, and the phenomena isn’t limited to the business world. Consider the true story of Elizabeth, the full-time college freshman. Her mother, Teresa, was extremely concerned about staying in touch with her daughter, and because of this concern, Teresa has armed Elizabeth with a cell phone with capabilities galore and a laptop computer .

As a result, Elizabeth spends most of her time in lectures playing games, buying movie tickets, or reading the latest news on her phone. When in her room, Elizabeth is a true child of the 21st century, downloading movies and videos onto her computer. The technology that her mother wanted to keep her child safe and informed has isolated Elizabeth from the surrounding college world and distracts her from her studies.

What about Teresa? As a corporate executive, she preaches the importance of “staying connected.” Maybe you’ve seen her, speeding down the highway, haphazardly weaving in and out of traffic; all the while a cell phone headset rests atop her head.

Do you know someone like David, the manager of a sales team for a small food manufacturer? David’s company supplied him with a cell phone and a laptop to keep in touch with him on his trips out of town. As a result, even when on vacation, David finds himself connecting his with his boss “just to remain in sync.” On a romantic getaway with his wife to St. Thomas, David spends oodles of time in his hotel room instant messaging his boss about an upcoming deal, instead of parasailing or cliff gliding with his wife.

Bit by Bit to Death


When the big book of human civilization is written, someone will look back and say that the beeper 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.

Put It in Writing


If your employment is based on a contract – and, increasingly, this is true of top managers and executives – then you have options for not being enslaved to your beeper. When renegotiating your contract, insert a clause allowing for specific times throughout the day or week when you expressly are not responsible for being on call.

If performance reviews and/or appraisals don’t happen frequently enough for you where you work, or if one is not slated until the distant future, arrange a meeting specifically to address this issue. You don’t want to let too many more days or weeks pass before sharing your views with those who would otherwise have you chained to a phone around the clock and never have another word on the topic.

Whether your employment is based on a contract or not, negotiate to achieve the same results. Whenever it’s time for a performance review and appraisal, take the opportunity to discuss with your immediate supervisor the potential disruption to your psyche and physiology of being constantly on-call.

As tactfully and professionally as possible, inform the powers that be that maintaining ever-ready responsiveness with a cell phone diminishes your capacity for creativity in those tasks and responsibilities where it’s needed.

A Message Hierarchy


If most of your calls and messages originate from a central source, such as an executive assistant, instruct that person as to when it’s okay for you to be contacted versus not okay. For example, you could use a system such as the one laid out in the table below:

Redirecting Messages
Level 1 Contact me now.
Level 2 Contact me within X hours.
Level 3 Contact me sometime today.
Level 4 No need to contact me at all.

To make this system work, you decide in advance precisely what represents Level 1, so that Level 1 summoning of you is indeed rare. These would be absolute and dire emergencies where your input is absolutely essential. Everything else does not require contacting you every minute.

Level 2-4 issues can wait. Level 2 represents important bits of information but those that are not necessarily urgent. Level 3 represents messages that you could receive at any time during the day because they’re not time-related in any way. Most of the messages you receive in a day undoubtedly will fall in this category. Once your assistant becomes adept at recognizing that most messages are Level 3, you’ll find you have more stretches of uninterrupted time during the day.

Level 4 represents those messages that your executive assistant might have sent previously, but now based on a clearer understanding of what needs to be transmitted and what doesn’t, fall into the “no need to contact me at all” category. These represent questions that are already addressed by existing printed materials, such as these:
  • Policies and procedures manuals
  • Memos
  • Other items the assistant can retrieve on his or her own
You want to admonish the assistant anytime he or she sends a Level 4 message because you didn’t need to be contacted. You can curtail your assistant’s behavior in this category by pointing out, “That was a Level 4 message,” whenever you receive one.

Using this system, you’ll find that in a matter of weeks – and, more often, in a matter of only days – your assistant will begin to understand with relative accuracy what level to assign to information that potentially could be beeped your way.

Relay and Forwarding Options


Another measure on the road to managing your time is to 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? You’ve gotten through this chapter thus far, so perhaps you have a newfound appreciation for what you’re putting your staff through.

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 beeping at 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.