I’ve tak­en steps to reduce my urgency addic­tion and cut down the time I spend online, but dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion is a neces­si­ty for my work.

5 min read

Opin­ions expressed by Entre­pre­neur con­trib­u­tors are their own.

I can be a lit­tle obses­sive about stay­ing in con­tact with peo­ple elec­tron­i­cal­ly. My com­pa­ny uses Slack as a com­mu­ni­ca­tion and data-shar­ing tool, and I’m cer­tain­ly guilty of just “hav­ing a look” in a spare five sec­onds to see what’s hap­pen­ing and what oth­ers are work­ing on. On the one hand, it does allow me to keep on top of things; on the oth­er, I do under­stand – reluc­tant­ly but gen­uine­ly – that it can put col­leagues on edge slight­ly. My obses­sion result­ed in a rad­i­cal over­haul where I turned noti­fi­ca­tions off, and it changed my life.

There’s been a lot of dis­cus­sion in the media about our over-reliance on elec­tron­ic devices, our excess con­nec­tiv­i­ty to the world around us – espe­cial­ly to work – and a great deal of hand-wring­ing about whether we are destroy­ing young minds by allow­ing our chil­dren to use their smart­phones and tablets to excess from too ear­ly an age. How much use is too much? When do we dis­ci­pline our­selves and oth­ers, and put away our hand-held man­a­cles to embrace nature and real­i­ty? Is there a sci­en­tif­ic basis for all this con­cern, or do we sim­ply as a soci­ety fret about the lat­est appar­ent­ly con­ve­nient and labour-sav­ing tech­nol­o­gy?

A few weeks ago, I was on hol­i­day in Italy with my wife. The mobile sig­nal and WiFi avail­abil­i­ty wasn’t espe­cial­ly good, so I decid­ed to make a virtue out of a neces­si­ty and try to ration pret­ty severe­ly my elec­tron­ic foot­print, just for a week. After all, I’ve read all the grim warn­ings and the puff pieces singing the prais­es of a “dig­i­tal detox,” and I’m always will­ing to learn from oth­er peo­ple. It’s an idea that my friend Bruce Dais­ley, VP of Twit­ter, had already expound­ed enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly to me, and which fea­tures in his book/podcast, The Joy of Work. I told Bruce I was skep­ti­cal, but I was pre­pared to give it a try.

I hat­ed it. It had exact­ly the oppo­site effect on me to the one intend­ed. I know that if I can log on just two or three times a day and see what’s hap­pen­ing, I can keep on top of emails and Slack noti­fi­ca­tions, and keep my vir­tu­al inbox man­age­able. I accept it must make me occa­sion­al­ly anti-social, but the truth is I work hard in an indus­try I adore and I try to employ col­leagues whose approach is the same. My team is a gen­uine­ly enthu­si­as­tic and engaged one, so peo­ple are will­ing to go the extra mile, to do that extra hour to get a project over the line or make a pro­pos­al that 10 per­cent bet­ter. I do have elec­tron­ic con­ver­sa­tions online, and in any case, as I spend half my time in the US and half back at home in Eng­land, the time dif­fer­ence means that I can nev­er guar­an­tee being on the same cycle as every­one else.

That was why it drove me mad. I knew that emails and mes­sages would be build­ing up; I could almost see my inbox ris­ing high with imag­i­nary paper, the pile list­ing increas­ing­ly to one side before col­laps­ing and flow­ing all over the desk. This was not a sooth­ing or relax­ing men­tal pic­ture as I sat by the pool in a sun­ny Umbria. It cer­tain­ly made me more tense for longer than sim­ply doing a lit­tle bit of work.

Every­one talks about work/life bal­ance now. It’s an idea that has con­cerned man­age­ment con­sul­tants for the past 40 years or so. I get it; if col­leagues have a ful­fill­ing life away from work, then they’ll be hap­pi­er – and, the evi­dence sug­gests, more pro­duc­tive – when they’re at work. Con­tent peo­ple get the job done quick­er and bet­ter.

That brings me to my point: it’s about what suits you. Some peo­ple love a dig­i­tal detox, and would adore these team exer­cis­es in which every­one agrees to go with­out con­nec­tion for a day or a week­end or what­ev­er. It helps some peo­ple to switch off com­plete­ly, to sep­a­rate work from life with a sharp divide. I can also see that some indus­tries are more amenable to this kind of sys­tem than oth­ers.

In com­mu­ni­ca­tions, we don’t have that lux­u­ry. Not only do we have clients across the globe, oper­at­ing in half a dozen time zones, but the very nature of their busi­ness means they will often need our sup­port and advice out-of-hours. Prob­lems don’t lim­it them­selves to aris­ing between nine and five. We have to be agile and respon­sive, and that’s some­times at incon­ve­nient times.

I’m not closed to inno­va­tion. Try a dig­i­tal detox if you like. Give your col­leagues the oppor­tu­ni­ty to try it. Pro­vid­ed your busi­ness still deliv­ers its essen­tial ser­vices, that shouldn’t be a prob­lem. Dif­fer­ent peo­ple will react to it dif­fer­ent­ly, depend­ing on their style and mind­set. And if it makes your staff hap­pi­er and more pro­duc­tive, great, that’s a win. But it’s not for me. If you need me, send me an email.

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