Thursday, November 12, 2015

A 24/7 World Doesn't Have to be Hectic

(From the November 12, 2015 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

“It’s a 24/7 world,” he said. As if that explained everything. As if I should know better. As if this were a new concept.

He was a fellow professional with whom I was supposed to meet for coffee. The meeting had been set and confirmed. But at the pointed time, I sat there alone. So I called him, and he explained he had emailed me earlier that day with apologies but he had to cancel because of some sudden client demands.

I explained I had been at other appointments and do not have my work email come to my personal phone. Some say it would be convenient to do so and would have saved me an unnecessary trip to a coffee shop. But my employer did not pay for my phone, and the fact that I get 200 emails a day does temper the notion that it would be convenient to have them assaulting my personal phone.

But that’s when he said it, in a tone that mixed matter-of-fact incredulity and a shocked scolding of me.

Never mind that I always include my cell number when I make appointments, and he could have called me. There was no consideration of the fact that the other appointments earlier in the day were medical appointments with my wife. It would be inappropriate, an--given the nature of some doctor’s offices deep in the concrete labyrinth of hospitals—impossible for me to check email while talking about the results of a serious medical test.
let the meeting mix up pass. 

I got a cup of coffee and some precious moments alone to think.

But I came back to the statement “it’s a 24/7 world” as I nursed my coffee. It was said as an explanation and a justification. It implied that, given the realities of a 24/7 world, we have no choice but to be tethered to our phones and other technology constantly. It would follow that people, like me, who don’t check their phones constantly are somehow backward.

I beg to differ. I think people who check their tech constantly have mixed priorities, and miss the point.

Here’s a data point for such people to download: it has ALWAYS been a 24/7 world. As long as there has been a sun and earth there have been 24 hours in each day, and seven days in each week. All that has changed is our choices in what to do with that constant amount of time.

Much of my own work happens offline. Meetings, grading, class preparation, reading, writing. Because of this, I have learned to do what some call “batch management” of email—that means I don’t check it every time I hear a little “bing” that I have received a new email. I am not a canine enslaved to Pavlov. I am a human, with self control, and things to do.

I have found that managing email and other messages in batches has significantly improved my life and work in several ways. For one, I have deeper focus. I read things with greater thought and therefore understanding. A second improvement is my productivity. Psychologists have noted that a single interruption, however short, can set back a cognitive work effort by a half hour. I don’t know if this is true, but if it is, it only takes 16 email interruptions and an 8-hour days is shot. A final benefit to handling email and messages in batches is that I feel less stressed, less hectic.

The fact that it’s a 24/7 world doesn’t mean that we need to be constantly engaged. It means we need to manage each hour and each day judiciously. Sometimes that means ignoring messages for long stretches of that time.

All of this talk of 24/7 time frame reminds me of a colleague who was nearing retirement. I joked with him that he was slowing down at the end of his career. He protested: “I’m working 24/7!” When I looked at him in confusion and disbelief he smiled and explained: “24 hours a week, seven months a year.”

That’s a world  a lot of us could live in.