Wednesday, November 02, 2020

Dealing with Distractions (Part 2)

Technology has improved our lives in important ways, but it's also created a new group of distractions. By giving us the ability to contact others, and be contacted ourselves, almost any place and time, it's created an expectation that was never there before.

Not so long ago, it was understood that there were times when people were out of contact. They were away from their office; it was after working hours; they were on a plane or train. Longer ago still, when letters were the principal way of staying in touch, it might take weeks for something to be sent and a reply received.

Since instantaneous contact is now expected, so are instant answers. Not only do people interrupt you on a whim, they want an answer or an opinion on the spot. This may be the new norm for the media, who have people available to "analyze" an event or a speech before the echoes have died away, but does it make sense for leaders who take their job seriously?

Immediate responses are more likely to be poorly informed, inadequately thought through and wide of the mark. They also demand that you play safe. With no time to think, it's the only way to avoid playing Russian roulette with your credibility. You can't stop people demanding instant answers (though you can limit the danger, as I explained in Part 1). But you can make it harder for them to reach you and catch you unawares.

There are three major culprits in the crime of breaking in on you when you don't expect it: cellphones, email and instant messages.

I've already suggested that cellphones should be silenced or turned off, emails ignored and instant message software shut down for significant parts of the day. It seems so simple, yet people don't do it. There has to be a reason.

In face, there are several. Fear is one: the fear that something important will happen and you won't know about it. Another is the lust for control. If you forbid anyone else from making decisions, you'll need to be contactable nearly all the time. Then there's ego. I believe the primary reason so many people try to stay in touch all the time is that it makes them feel important.

I can already hear people complaining they don't want to be interrupted anytime, anywhere, but that's what the corporation expects. It's not their fault. That may be true, but there's still no need to collude with the process. Besides, if you're in a significant leadership role, you are the corporation – at least for your group.

Let's look at this logically.
  • People need time to think and time to do their own work.

  • Constant distractions impact productivity and lower quality.

  • Instant decisions and opinions tend to be poorly considered and are rarely necessary. They may even do harm.

  • The cult of instantaneous contact relieves people from prioritizing or judging whether any contact is needed.

  • People waste large amounts of time on unnecessary emails, instant messages and calls.

Now ask yourself why the organization tolerates, let alone expects, such actions?

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Brendon said...

How 'bout the phone on the desk? My desk phone tells me who is calling. My wife always gets an answer, others aren't always so lucky.

In general, I've been comfortable letting the phone ring when it rings, but there are times when I've adjusted the settings so that calls go directly to voicemail.

Same with the other distractions you mention. Cell phone stays on "vibrate" and it's usually in my briefcase rather than on the desk or in my pocket. Instant messages are rare. I usually fire up the programs only when I want to reach somebody, and then shut down when I'm done.

Email, as you know, stays open all day, but I check it on my own schedule rather than allowing it to interrupt me.

9:44 PM  

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