The right technology can make an enormous difference, but it needs to be put in the proper perspective.
I remember when cell phones were a bit of a novelty but then became a regular everyday tool. It was as if the world couldn’t have existed without them (but it did). Many technological tools have arrived since then and followed the same trajectory of becoming completely indispensable until something better came along. Now we have watches that provide instantaneous indications that someone is trying to reach you through either text or email. You can know what your favorite sports team and or celebrity is up to whenever something happens as it happens regardless of whether it is consequential or not. In addition, you can review standard health metrics in real-time to see if there are any minor second to second fluctuations in how your body is performing (weird if you think about it). It has all become a bit too much.
I am not a doctor or scientist (thank goodness for society), but I can observe the negative consequences of these tools that were designed to make our lives and professional performance better:
- Individuals who used to be able to sit and engage in thoughtful conversations quickly lose focus if the attention ever drifts from them or what they think;
- Side conversations when others are talking has become a bigger issue than ever before in my professional lifetime;
- People get jittery if they don’t check their phones or watches repeatedly to see if anything interesting or important pops up (and it rarely does, if they are being honest with themselves);
- Manners have dropped off a bit as people get up, look out windows and walk about when their colleagues are talking. It’s as if they can’t stand to sit still and stay engaged on any one thing for more than a brief period of time;
- Parties to a group conversation often half-listen and as a result only get half the facts and respond in a less than optimal fashion (often repeating things that have already been said);
- Impatience has become an acceptable character trait; if the conversational momentum isn’t fast paced, people check out, not allowing the interaction the proper time to come to fruition;
- Group participation has become more about performing once you have the floor rather than engaging with others;
- People attempt to do too much at once (and struggle to do it well), increasing their workload of unfinished tasks or things that must be managed;
- Micromanaging has become much easier for bosses since they can check-in and inject themselves in real time conversations as they see fit;
- You and your colleagues never get a needed sustained break from one another;
- It feels like being busy has become equally if not more important than being effective;
- People say they want to guard their time more carefully and ironically have less of it;
- There is an overriding sense that there is something else going on that is better or different from what you are doing now which hinders your effectiveness in the moment.
I am not writing this to complain, but instead to raise a red flag. I can be just as guilty as anyone else of the above behaviors. In my experience, high quality focused conversations will always trump high quantity sporadic conversations. Doing a few things well will always beat doing too many things in a mediocre fashion. Making personal connections with other people (in business and life) still matters. And, you can’t fully connect with another person if you are always distracted. Moreover, listening always bonds you closer to another person than talking at them. Having quick answers to tough questions doesn’t work if you haven’t thought through the right questions to ask in the first place. Lastly, mutual respect is always laid upon a foundation of common courtesy.
Tools are only useful if they allow their users to become better, more effective bosses, employees, spouses, etc. As high performers, we typically rush to leverage technology to add even more activity to our already full plates and minds, thereby perpetuating a cycle of creating expectations that will become increasingly difficult to meet. Overusing tools is tempting, especially when they are so readily available. However, never confuse inputs with outputs or objectives with activities. Being present is a skill that will work wonders in our life if we can only develop the discipline to practice it and discipline requires focus. As one of my colleagues is fond of saying, “there is no better place than here, nor better time than now.” Don’t get distracted by something else when what you need to be doing is usually right in front of you.
The next time you are in a meeting with someone, consider turning off your phone or taking off your watch. Maybe take notes to keep you focused and ask clarifying questions. Make good eye contact. Try to listen more than you talk. Minimize repeating points that have already been made. Don’t push through an agenda just to check off boxes. Do your best to enjoy the company of the people you are with and engage them in productive dialogue. Lead by example…