Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Distracting, Interrupt-driven Work-life

Prioritizing is difficult these days. Between email, IM, phonecalls, blogs, rss feeds, my addiction to The Superficial and my recent concessions to Facebook and LinkedIn, it all gets to be a bit much.

Everything is an interrupt of an interrupt, it seems. I've heard tell that the CEO at the company where I work, Return Path's Matt Blumberg is thinking of instituting a 'no laptops at meetings' policy which I could agree with more. I have found myself trying to address people engrossed in whatever was on the screen in front of them, and when I try to get their attention I've gotten the typical, dismissive "yeah yeah, I'm listening" response we all utter when caught short. The screen continued to captivate their attention more than the meeting at hand.

Countless 'Driving with Mobile phone' studies have proven we don't multi-task nearly as well as we would like to think we do, I think we all have the egotistical thought that we are smarter than that other person who gets distracted. I watched the free episode of America's Most Smartest Model I got off've iTunes last night makes it quite clear that even the dumbest among us (even those with spectacular breasts) all think they are smart, and everyone else is dumb. Watch it for the puerile bits, take away a philosophical blog post. What can I say?

One on my greatest frustrations is attending MAAWG meetings and looking over a sea of laptops, people busily typing away, clear indication that there is stuff elsewhere that is seemingly more important than actually concentrating and participating in the events at hand. I have suggested a no-wireless policy but that was met with stony silence and an indication that there would be a revolution in the ranks. This, despite companies spending literally millions in having people to represent them at these meetings, which are more communal wireless, VPNed access-back-to-the-home-office-typathons than actual meetings. I mean, why bother?

I read a good piece in the New York Times just now about a counter-revolution to all-on all-the-time (I am torn if I really want an iPhone, which really is so squishy one could have carnal relations with the thing, so I can 'have' (or 'have thrust upon me'?) all my IMs, text messages, and emails available, 24/7). The link is via the blog title above (see, another interrupt!), the money quote is below:

After reading Mr. Ferriss’s recent best seller, “The 4-Hour Workweek” (Crown), Jason Hoffman, a founder of Joyent, which designs Web-based software for small businesses, urged his employees to cut out the instant-messaging and swear off multitasking. From now on, he told them, severely restrict e-mail use and conduct business the old-fashioned way, by telephone.

In what is probably an incoherent, disparate post to begin with, I offer these last bits of spastic thinkery:
  • I was speaking with a kid a while back, he was 'attending' class at Concordia University, my former employer. He had already become cynical as to the quality of where we are heading, his comments were disparaging as well to people who do nothing but email, blogs and IMs in class, when they bother to show up, because classes are also webcast. He had attended classes with as few as 3 people in them, with an enrollment of 50+. Of course, people can IM the professor and ask questions, but it just ain't the same as an actual discussion, now is it? I worry about how well an gaming/IM/text-driven generation will be able to consume things like Shakespeare, or Beethoven, or even this 'longish' blog post.
  • Last year, when I was in Toulouse, France at a friend's place over Christmas, there was lousy connectivity. So it was just me and the computer, a tabula rasa. Not to surprisingly, that's when creative thoughts started coming, and I began to write more extensive think pieces than I had in, well, blush, years.
  • A possibly counter-argument: I recall a former colleague, Anne Bennet at Concordia who would make it clear that your phonecall, a 'real-time interrupt' had better be damned important.She was the very geeky postmaster of the place at the time, and she concentrated on email. But it did mean I got my ducks in a row before calling her. I wonder what doing away with trivial interrupts will do for phone-call content ...
  • My direct boss, Tom Bartel, has a marked and unmissable marked uptick in the amount of work he gets done when he works from home judging by the number of historical emails he gets around to answering. Beyond what I've noted herein, his work life is also driven by 'walk by' meetings, scheduled meetings, and a massive inundation of email from little old me (obviously as well as emails, calls and IMs from everyone else he must deal with); our primary source of communication upon which we rely.
So yes, Matt, if you are wondering (and reading), I am 100% behind the idea of starting with 'no laptops in meetings'. I think I might just shut down IM too, which I understand is one of the banes of the VP & General Manager George Bilbrey's existence, and a technology he uses sparingly, and grudgingly.

I think it might be an interesting experiment to encourage people to work from home one day/week to concentrate on long-term big picture stuff. Although, as a remote worker, there are serious challenges to that mode of travails, too, so work at home should be doled out judiciously, IMO, lest one runs up against the out-of-sight, out-of-mind syndrome I am actively trying to counteract.

Seditious talk from someone working at an email company, I know, but hey, give me a few minutes, or hours to THINK! And maybe it'll lessen the underlying tension that invariably comes from all this ... wait, what? Or sorry, gotta go, my girlfriend is Skyping me. And there's a party about 100 yards down the beach across the street that is begging my attention. Forget this computer stuff!

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