Thursday, July 24, 2008

Keeping Technology in its Place

Some articles that I've recently seen in the blogosphere have dealt with acting well. Often, these are articles that discuss basics of etiquette in various settings that are unfamiliar. How to behave in a “fancy” restaurant (with actual cloth napkins) without looking like a complete jerk (“I need this!”—no, not that kind of Jerk). How to impress your date. How to impress her mother. It goes on ad infinitum.

I have been intrigued by the frequency with which these articles discuss not just how to handle silverware but how to handle mobile phones, pagers, BlackBerrys, and so on. It would seem that we are well on our way to becoming a society of nitwits, more focused on responding to the devices that hang around our waists like Batman's utility belt (you knew that I had to get a reference in there somewhere, didn't you?) than we are to paying attention to the person standing right in front of us. I am, of course, now getting into something I wrote about just recently: hyperconnected, multitasking nonsense.

What interests me presently is not just identification of the problem, but how it is that we are able to manage it.

I personally have been around this sort of technology for a long time. My initial forays into what is now typically known as cyberspace were made when Ronald Reagan was president. The first time that I wrote software used by people beyond those who knew me personally came via online distribution (on CompuServe, of course) in 1988. I was a sophomore in high school, and received electronic messages sent to me from people using the software from all over the world. Corresponding so quickly with people from literally the other side of the world was much less commonplace then. Of course I spent long hours in front of The Machine; it's how software gets written. It's how we learn the details of computers' inner workings. I spent my fair share of time engaged in social activity online (I built early multiplayer online text-based adventure games).

There was a time when I made it a point to make myself highly available for people who “needed” to reach me. While I was at Bell Labs, I came across an essay written by a personal hero of mine, Donald E. Knuth. Entitled “Knuth versus Email,” the piece discusses email not only from the perspective of what it does well, but what it does poorly, and how that works with what the esteemed professor really needs to do. The basic thrust of what he was saying was surprising to me—and not something I was quite ready to swallow, given that at the time I was the postmaster for one of the largest domains on the Internet. Before I ran across this, however, I learned two rules about Knuth: 1) Knuth is always right, and 2) If not, see #1. Like anyone whose opinion is different from Knuth would do well to do, I accepted the wisdom and had faith that one day I would understand if I had the good fortune to live long enough.

These days, I am reasonably connected, but in such a way that I feel no qualms whatsoever about dropping off the grid when the need arises. Vacations, days off, and even specific hours that I have simply reserved for other purposes will make me inaccessible. I find that I am much more highly functional, creative, patient, and generally more pleasant if instead of staying up as late as I can working my way through email, blogs, and whatever else one might be inclined to do on the computer online, I disconnect at an appointed time. It's completely arbitrary. It means that there are things that I would like to do that I simply don't. But what I do, I do well enough to feel comfortable putting my name on it. Quidvis recte factum quamvis humile praeclarum.

It also means that I get to spend some time reading my books every evening. I have time to sit in peace, quietly thinking about what I've read, what I've experienced, and what others have said. And I sleep well, not wound up from flooding my senses for eighteen hours straight.

Even throughout the day, unless there is something specific that I know that I need to be personally involved in watching, I will allow email to come in and to sit there unread. I'll not tell people around me by my actions that my BlackBerry is more important than they are (because it's not). More often than not, it can rest there for a few hours. Or if it's really that hot (and that happens more than a little bit in my business), someone else will also be assigned to the project and can handle communication for the project while I'm taking an hour or two to do something else that's also important.

Getting to this point has taken some work, and there are a few guidelines that I propose to help to get communication under control:
  1. Set reasonable expectations. Don't get people in the mode of thinking that they can contact you out of the blue and get a response in twelve seconds. One business day is probably a reasonable expectation for most situations.
  2. Work in batches. This is antithetical to a lot of people who came to know technology in an always-connected environment, who think that batch-processing is for mainframe computers running programs written in COBOL. The truth is, however, that you'll be much more effective if you deal with voicemail and email in groups. You'll also have the ability to see everything in total and then to set priority. Figure out how much of your day you'll spend dealing with those things, then schedule it and stick with it. This is far more productive than dealing with each message as it comes in, interrupting you in the process.
  3. Set priorities for communication methods. My priorities work like this: someone in my presence gets top priority, a phone call will get next priority, then batch-oriented: email, FAXes, and so on. That, of course, assumes all other things being equal, which is rarely the case. As a general rule, any of these things will be handled at a scheduled time; I don't much deal with interruptions.
  4. Understand urgency vs. importance. Urgency is how quickly something needs to be resolved; importance is a measure of the impact of something not happening. Not everything important needs to be done right away. Not everything urgent needs ever to get done. Find a way to decide quickly what will be dealt with and what won't.
  5. Track reality. Record your activity and see how well you do at the end of the week. You'll likely find that to be realistic, you need to make some changes to your plan from time to time. You'll also likely find that an awful lot of stuff that you don't ever really need to deal with is eating up massive amounts of time.
A few other things that I've taken to do include using various technologies for what they do well, while not completely leaving out the “older” technology that might do a better job of the task at hand. When I need the personal touch in communication with someone, I send a note. On stationary. Handwritten. Sent snail-mail. With a stamp. Sometimes it's not just the information that counts, but how it's delivered that's needed to convey the right message: I did this myself because you're important to me.

How well do you do when it comes to managing your communications technology? Is it working for you, or are you working for it? What strategies do you follow to avoid getting buried?



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