Let’s start with a simple (or maybe not-so-simple) question: Does modern technology help us to be more productive?
This one can often elicit a quick response.
Yes! :: People who answer this way remember that there was a time when information, and therefore business, moved at the speed of rotatory-dial phones and the US Postal Service. Now they send documents to the other side of the planet in seconds. Of course, the answer is a “yes!“
No! :: People who answer this way are witness to the constant distractions of our digital age – the endless multi-tasking, the massive volume of data that each of us have to process every day… it’s crazy! Of course, the answer is a “no!“
In reality, an honest appraisal of this question will yield both a “yes” and a “no.” Technology surely has made us more productive in myriad ways. It has also made us increasingly distracted by a seemingly-constant flood of information.
Yes and No.
While acknowledging the different ways of answering this question, I would submit that we are getting dangerously close to losing productivity by always focusing on device screens. Perhaps we are already there.
To make my point, I’ll describe two pictures. The first will show why technology is eroding our connections to each other. The second will show that we are still able to connect in unique ways.
Since I live on the East Coast of the US and work on the West Coast, I spend a great deal of time in airports and on airplanes.
In the CLT airport Monday morning, my morning went something like this:
- I went from the parking lot to the terminal on a bus filled with people reading their phones
- I stood in the security line… with a group of people reading their phones
- I waited at an airport coffee stand…. in a queue of people reading their phones
- At the gate….. phones and more phones
- Sit down next to my neighbor for five hours….. his phone was out
I could keep going, but it’s likely a picture you already know quite well.
There was one additional thing at the end of the flight, and it was new…
As I departed the plane in Silicon Valley, the two stewardesses who had served us on the flight were standing near the plane’s exit, reading their phones. The bright-eyed stewardesses of my youth stood at the planes’ exits and said goodbye to every passenger, “Buh-bye, bye, goodbye, bye now, buh-bye, bye, goodbye, take care, bye now, goodbye, bye, goodbye.” Now they had been replaced by two people looking down.
I thanked them both as I exited, which caused one to look up and say, “Yup, have a good one.”
Tuesday. Lunch time. I decided to go walk around the Silicon Valley campus where I work. Beautiful weather, mid-day…. time to go for a jaunt!
As I walked between the many tables of people having lunch in the sun, I passed by a sand pit filled with young Indian guys playing a rousing game of volleyball. Someone tapped my shoulder and asked if I wanted a free juggling lesson. My multi-decade-old desire to juggle shot to the surface.
“Yeah, we do it every Tuesday. Want to try?”
“Um, yeah, I’ve always wanted to know how. But, for real? You guys just do this?”
chuckle> “Yeah! Here, let’s start with one ball….”
The half hour that followed was brilliant! Great fun. And it happened at work.
Consider these two pictures as I work our question of technology and productivity into a business context.
Daydreaming Is Good For Your Productivity
Daniel Goleman, author of “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence” and “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ” talks of the benefits of daydreaming, which our brains do naturally up to 50% of the time. Our minds wander by nature, enabling us to process information in unstructured and creative ways. When our minds daydream, we can make connections between data points that can only be put together in a state of pondering. By taking a break, our brains have a chance to put together the information that can deluge us while we are looking at a screen.
According to Goleman, when your mind wanders away from the task at hand, perhaps it is wandering toward a consideration of a complex problem. Sometimes we are so befuddled by the scale of a challenge that we dare not consciously think about it. But then, when we’re staring off into space, our minds wander toward those intimidating challenges and unnoticed themes. And it’s then that we unthinkingly do some of our best thinking.
Consider how many times you have had trouble remembering something, but then you started to do something else….. Bingo! You remember the answer right when you stop trying to remember.
(Part of all this, of course, is that we tend to not want adults to focus on “play,” because we believe their focus should be virtuous work.)
Constantly staring at a screen gets in the way of such productive daydreaming.
An Hour A Day Is A Start
If our productivity is enhanced by insights acquired while daydreaming, the question becomes – How can we make time to do more of it? We are all way too busy for daydreaming and that sort of thing, correct?!
A discipline that might give you a chance to start practicing intentional daydreaming is by spending an hour a day free of all technology. I have been doing that for nearly two years, and it is making a difference.
When I go out to dinner while on business travel, I almost always leave my phone back in my hotel room.
Last week, I ate at one of my favorite Thai restaurants (Fantazia on lower 1st Street in SJ). I spent the meal looking at drawings pinned to the wall, made by children who had eaten there. As I ate the delicious yellow curry and looked at the pictures, it occurred to me that someone on my team probably needed to talk about a work challenge she was having. All of those e.mails I had been copied on were likely telling me that she was getting in a tough place.
I decided I would reach out to her in the morning.
When we spoke the next day, she said, “I’m very glad you called, I’ve been stressing out about this and did not know how to bring this up.”
A tech-free dinner with children’s drawings and yellow curry led to a business insight that helped a colleague. If I had spent my dinner with Angry Birds instead, it would have prevented the insight. My hour free of tech led to business benefit.
Simple as that.
Daydreaming is a big part of how the human mind works. When we daydream, we are processing information in ways that allow us to make connections and gain insights that can have business benefits. When we enable daydreaming, we are letting ourselves make connections about things that may not be evident in the midst of the churn that makes up a big part of our days. When we enable only the churn, we are short-circuiting the mode of thinking that can make us more productive.
Something to think about?
In closing, a note about the juggling….
I attempted to learn juggling Tuesday afternoon until I realized that I was seven minutes out from needing to be in a meeting where I was on the agenda to speak. I walked to the meeting in a relaxed and amused state of mind.
I gave a pretty good presentation, if I do say so myself. I even made the group laugh once, a goal I have for myself when I present. Did the juggling help? I like to think so.
May you find time every day to just sit and think, and other times to sit and think about thinking. You never know what business insights might show up!