Last week, our team was sitting around a table discussing the specs of our new app. After years of focusing on our core training and consulting products, it’s become clear that in order to compete effectively, we need to have a substantial digital offering.
As we sat brainstorming, attempting to push the boundaries of our current assumptions, we heard the ping of a team members’ phone. He quickly grabbed it to shut the sound off, but it was clear he’d seen a message that was both distracting and upsetting. After a few more minutes, another team member’s phone rang. She apologized that she had to take it and left the room.
Here precisely lies the paradox of the information era. The disrupted, ultra-competitive work environment in which we operate demands innovation and mental agility, both of which require space and quiet for brainstorming, reflection, and big-picture thinking. Meanwhile, our hyper-connected digital world brings along with it ceaseless beeps, buzzes, and pings that all but eliminate that space and quiet.
Innovation – finding useful solutions to our increasingly complex problems – is a process of pondering, of adding new thoughts to previous ones, of assimilating different ideas and exploring their outcomes. The digital era, however, pushes us to use an “external brain,” which offers facts and information, but also hinders the investigation and problem-solving that we need to be doing at the human level, if we hope to find novel approaches to overcome our more critical challenges.
In addition, technology is addictive and all-consuming. With news articles that update with second-like precision, the possibility of shopping for anything at any hour, and the opportunity for continuous communication, our digital devices end up leaving us more anxious, more depleted, and more sedentary, all of which are antithetical to mental agility.
Reimagining our relationship to technology
The paradox of having to unplug from the system in order to be successful in it puts pressure on us to build awareness of our digital habits and take on the responsibility of rethinking our relationships to our devices.
One way to do this is by reflecting on why we’re so quick to interrupt ourselves to look at every incoming message. Any behavior that persists in our lives is filling certain needs, giving us specific benefits.
So firstly, ask yourself: “What are those benefits?” These could range from feeling connected to others and escaping a feeling of isolation or loneliness, to feeling and “looking” productive or not wanting to feel out-of-the-loop.
Next, ask yourself: “What are the costs?” These could be diminished productivity, not feeling in control of your agenda.
The challenge now becomes to retain the benefits while reducing the costs. How can you preserve your feeling of connection to the world without compromising your work? How can you ensure your supervisor sees that you are working hard, without responding to every incoming message immediately? How can you manage your feelings of disconnection, especially when you are working on deep, difficult work?
Here are a few ideas to experiment with:
- Don’t begin your day by checking email. Instead, before you leave work, choose the most important task for you to accomplish the following day. Then, set aside the first 60-90 minutes of your day to focus, uninterrupted, on that task. Then, take a break.
- Find a few times during the day when you can turn off your email entirely. If you’re extra ambitious, turn off your email for most of the day and put an away message up that lets people know that you check email only at designated times and that if anything is urgent, they should call you on your cell phone.
- If your distractions are more often from within your office environment, move to a conference room or separate office when you need to do work that requires focused concentration.
Try different approaches to see which ones fit your personal and professional needs. Challenge your own stories and assumptions about what is possible for you, what your boss might be open to, and what is feasible in your work culture. By presenting your idea as an experiment, about which you will gather feedback, you lower the stakes and give space for you and your supervisor to push beyond your current comfort zone. Ultimately, the goal is not to allow these digital interruptions to get in the way of living your life and accomplishing your goals.