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Are You Using Technology or Is It Using You?

Remote access technologies are so effective now, some of us must learn self-control.

David J. Drucker, 01/11/2007

While in Florida on vacation last summer with my wife and daughter, my Treo broke.

If you're reading a column about technology, then you probably know what a Treo is. But just in case you don't, it's one of the most popular "smartphones," or phones that incorporate the functions of a PDA (personal digital assistant). Mine was a Treo 650 with the Palm operating system and Verizon service, including its $5.99-a-month replacement plan because, well, stuff happens.

The point here is that--while I'm not really a chatty kinda guy--I did rather like the Treo's e-mail capability. With the right aftermarket software, I could keep an eye on my one and only POP3 e-mail account, just as Blackberry users do.

Like many of you, I live and die by e-mail. Most of my business associates, as well as my few remaining clients, check e-mail daily. Frequent e-mail to and from my most active business partners function like instant messages as we discuss issues in (almost) real time. E-mail is so pervasive in my life that I probably check for new messages at least a hundred times a day. In fact, when away from my office with my Treo, I could (and would) discreetly check my e-mail whenever there was a lull in a conversation or I got bored sitting through yet another conference presentation on GRATS and CRUTS.

Perhaps it was meant to be that the Treo would break on vacation. Some people have their "a-ha" moments in the shower; mine come when I'm away from my office for an extended period of time. It's really the only chance I have to reflect on my life from a safe distance and ask whether I might be somewhat happier doing things differently than what my prevailing habits would dictate. So the Treo going south at the same time I did wasn't a chance happening--I believe. It was to make a point, which I'll lead up to eventually.

You see, our work lives have gotten easier in many ways, though at a more rapid pace. When I started in the world of finance, my main tools were a legal pad, an HP12, and a land-line telephone. Now, my main tools are a dual-core processor computer, a Broadband Internet connection, and always-on e-mail. In the old days, phone calls would come in periodically, interrupting my train of thought; now e-mails come in frequently (or constantly, if one counts spam), interrupting what can barely be called a train of thought.

But, you say, isn't the beauty of e-mail--that you can pay attention to it when you want, that you don't have to look at it or answer it immediately? Yes, for the self-disciplined, that's true. For borderline obsessive-compulsives, it's not so true. Apparently, scientists have now proven that e-mail is a stimulant as potentially addictive as coffee or maybe something stronger, depending on one's personality and lack of self-control. Which is why carrying an e-mail-enabled Treo was a high-risk behavior for the likes of me.

The drawback to all stimulants, of course, is the overload. Take too much and the smoke does, indeed, begin to waft from your ears. All of this is actually just a piece of a larger phenomenon reported in the March 27 issue of Time magazine in its article, "The Multitasking Generation." Although the article focuses primarily on teens, the lessons are virtually the same for adults: If we stay constantly wired to multiple devices and insist on multitasking with every one of them, not only does our work suffer (the depth we fail to give individual tasks means errors increase and it actually takes longer to complete those tasks), but our stress increases exponentially.

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