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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.

An incident related to my vacation was my need to buy my 88-year-old mother her first cell phone. I got her a bottom-of-the-line, simple-as-can-be LG VX3300. My wife has the same phone; I bought hers about two months earlier. And in Florida, with my Treo being used as a doorstop, I was forced to use this 2.8 ounce, low-tech, not-capable-of-e-mail piece of plastic that I discovered was the perfect phone for me.

How can that be? I write about technology frequently, especially the utilities that make possible a life away from the office. If smartphones are essential to that life, then why would I not continue to use one?

First of all, the sheer simplicity of the LG was intoxicating. But it's more than that. In a book on Type-A personalities I read years ago, I learned that some Type-As actually hope they'll get sick now and then because it's the only time they can relax. Forced to remain in bed for a few days is an excuse to do what they've wanted to do all along but can't allow themselves to do--take a much-needed rest. The LG VX3300 served the same function for me while in Florida. It forced me to take a break from e-mail. (After all, I'd set up an auto-responder prior to making the trip; I didn't have to check my e-mail).

The challenge was more psychological. I had to remind myself many times each day that, not only did I not need to check my e-mail, I would be more relaxed if I didn't. In short, I had to learn to stop being a slave to technology. Let's face it, do we really need to continually ramp up our internal clock speeds just because external technology allows us to move increasingly faster?

Like the kid in the Time article plugged into an iPod with her eye on an Instant Messaging session, her cell phone sandwiched between her ear and her shoulder, and a PDA stuffed in her pocket, are we slowly frying our brains with this state of constant wiredness? Technology's great but, like all tools, we have to discipline ourselves to use it properly. Going back to the stimulant analogy--all good things in moderation. We know what happens if we drink 10 cups of coffee a day. Could it be we're getting a similar sensation when we interrupt what we're doing every three minutes to answer another e-mail? Yes, maybe.

In my office now, I still check for new e-mail every couple of minutes. But that's part of doing business, which I'm learning to do when in the office and not do when out of the office (unless I need to work on a writing deadline). While traveling, I still have my Sony Vaio if I absolutely need to check my e-mail. The Windows XP boot-up time will deter me from doing that often, though, which is now intentional.

So, the bottom line is that I've taken the difficult step of admitting to myself that, although I love what technology can do to make me more productive, I need to be more respectful of its power to control me. Perhaps there are times when we have to cut our umbilical cord to the Internet so as to preserve our humanity.

By the way, I had my Treo fixed under the Verizon replacement policy and sent off to eBay heaven. I now use an LG Chocolate phone from Verizon. Yeah, it's a bit of a gadget, but unlike the Treo, it's geared to entertainment rather than work. Now I use my phone to listen to music or books on MP3 instead of reading e-mail. This phone helps me control my stress rather than creating more of it.

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