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Five Tips for Taking Your Life Back from Technology

Electronic communication! What did we ever do without it? Well, if you consider the research, the answer is a lot more than we’re doing now!

Much like Pavlov’s dog (a classic psychological experiment) who was taught to salivate at the mere ringing of a bell, every time we humans hear a ding, beep, swoosh, vibration, or whatever obnoxious tone we decide to program into our electronic devices these days, we jump! But unlike Pavlov’s dog, we’re not helpless animals at the mercy of a researcher. We’re actively and eagerly participating in our own classical conditioning! And if you believe the research, it’s wreaking havoc on our already overscheduled and overburdened lives.

Who these days doesn’t use a cell phone, text messaging, a personal computer, email, and instant messaging (to name only a few of the multitude of devices we can choose from to electronically communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime)? And who hasn’t programmed these devices to alert us in some way, shape, or form the millisecond someone decides to reach out and touch? Can you say no one?

Let’s face it! We’ve become addicted to instant gratification and a big part of that gratification is being able to reach just about anyone at just about any time, any place, anywhere. What’s so bad about that, you might ask? Well, let’s see.

According to numerous studies, the effects that interruptions (yes, I know … how dare I defame those precious devices by calling them interruptions—please just keep reading!) have on our productivity and performance is pretty substantial.

First, researchers have found that although we “users” (that’s the nice term researchers use for instant communication addicts) believe we have control over when we choose to respond to an “alert” (e.g., beep, ding, vibration signaling that a message is waiting) and therefore see no need to disable these alerts. The truth is that we don’t have as much control as we think.

Often, the identity of the sender of the message (the intruder trying to access us while we’re working) and the content of the message influence if we respond, even if the alert comes in when we’re working on something important. In other words, we may have the best intentions of not letting anything distract us from what we’re doing, but those intentions often fall to the wayside depending on who’s on the other end of the communication and how interesting the communication is to us.

Secondly, researchers have found that once we divert our attention away from what we’re doing by responding to an alert, we rarely leave what we were working on in a manner that will make it easy to pick up where we left off (e.g., not saving the document, not marking our place, not completing a sentence before we break away). The effect is that it takes us longer to get back to where we were when we left off, and in some cases we actually lose the work because we didn’t save it and have to start all over again.

Thirdly, although we like to think we’re in control of how long we “wander away” and stay gone from a task when we respond to an alert, the reality is that we’re not. In fact, research has shown that we’re largely unaware of how much time we spend away from the project we were originally working on. In fact, when we break away from a project to respond to an alert, we often are drawn to other tasks or alerts unrelated to either the original alert and unrelated to what we were originally working on.

Finally, research tells us that when we finally return to the original task, it takes us quite a bit of time to mentally return to where we left off. In fact, researchers Shamsi Iqbal and Eric Horvitz found that when we leave a task to respond to an email and then return to the task, it takes us, on average, about sixteen minutes to get back to the point of productivity we were at before we were distracted. For IMs, the average time to get back to where we were is eleven to twelve minutes.

So let’s do the math, and no cheating!

Part 1: How many times a day do you allow yourself to get distracted by an IM? Now multiply that number by twelve minutes, then add the total amount of time you spent responding to each IM.

Part 2: How many times a day do you allow yourself to get distracted by an email? Multiply that by sixteen, then add the total amount of time you sent responding to each email.

Part 3: Add the totals from … well, I think you get the picture.

We’re wasting a lot of time! And in today’s job market, with jobs on the line and time being money, is that the road you really want to be traveling? So here are five tips for taking back control from these intruders … sorry … um, devices that somehow have managed to take over our lives.

1. If possible, turn the dings, dongs, beeps, bells, and whistles off when you’re working on a task or project. And since I’ve pretty much established that most of us are addicts who’ll do just about anything to get our instant communication fix, I feel I should define “if possible.”

It does not mean “if it doesn’t make you uncomfortable or anxious.” If you’re addicted, turning off the alerts will definitely make you uncomfortable and anxious. Just think of the discomfort as a necessary part of the recovery process. “If possible” means “if responding to email, texts, cell phone calls, and/or IMs is not a part of your job description.” If it is a part of your job description, forget #1 and go to #2.

2. If you can’t turn off alerts, speak to your boss about his or her expectations of how quickly you’re expected to respond to alerts. Maybe giving your boss a copy of this article might help. If it’s acceptable to respond within an hour’s time, set a schedule in which you check your email or phone messages every hour, handle what is critical to handle as quickly as possible, and then return to whatever you were working on.

3. IMs, of course, are often used when a response is needed immediately, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, it’s the addict on the other end who just needs a fix of instant communication. If this is the case, quickly inform your fellow addict that you’re in recovery (e.g., you’re working) and can’t respond, then turn your IM status to “invisible” (which you should’ve done before you started your project anyway!). Keep your status on invisible until you’re finished the task, and then once you clock out, you can reward yourself for a job well done by IMing your little fingers off.

4. If possible (see #1 for definition), leave a message on your cell phone telling callers that you only respond to messages between the hours of [fill in the blank]. Then, listen to yourself and return messages only during that specified period of time.

This accomplishes two things:

  • It removes any expectation on the part of the caller that you will respond to them immediately or even quickly
  • You’re now in control of your schedule.

The truth is that when someone calls you, it’s usually because that the best time for them to talk. That doesn’t necessarily coincide with what’s the best time in your schedule for you to talk. So what if you have to leave a message when you call back? Just think of it as giving you more time to return your other calls. And who knows? Maybe the person will get tired of playing phone tag and stop calling all together.

5. If possible, set aside a specific amount of time each day to respond to emails (or times each day if you get an exceedingly large number of emails). During that time, clean out your in-box as much as you can by:

  • Deleting SPAM or messages that don’t require a response
  • Not being shy about using the forward feature; if the message is more appropriate for someone else to handle, send it on its merry way and move on to the messages that require your response
  • Responding to the messages that require your response.

The ultimate goal (and challenge) is to have an empty in-box at the end of your allotted email time. So that’s it! You’ve been given the keys to the kingdom. Of course, given your device-dominated life, getting to the door to use the key to get inside the kingdom is likely to be a challenge. You (and the world for that matter) are way too far gone for something like this to be easy. But before you go jonesing on me, I should point out that there is some good news in all of this.

The first piece of good news is that you’re not a dog! You can train yourself not to salivate when the bell (or ding or beep or whatever) goes off. The second bit of good news is … just think of all the extra time you’ll have on your hands once you do this!

What? No, you can’t use that extra time to email everyone in your address book to tell them the good news! Geez, maybe I was a little too quick in accepting that first piece of good news …

By Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter of WomenCo.