Always Connected, But Always Distracted!

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December 29, 2012

Take a step back and ask what's more important: taking in what's online or taking in what's right in front of you? This article might be something to think about for 2013. (The article As Told by John McGreavy appeared in the December 12, 2012 Information Week The author is the real-life CIO of a billion-dollar-plus company, shares his experiences under the pseudonym John McGreavy.) Since I first became an IT manager, I've taken pride in being reachable pretty much at all times. After all, I'm in the business of enabling fast, immediate and cost-effective communications of relevant information. Today, our CEO, CFO and other senior leaders, as well as my direct reports, know they can email, call or text me anytime they need me and I'll respond. For instance, our email system had a short, unplanned outage a few years ago on Christmas Eve, and I already knew the ETA to a fix by the time our CEO left me a voice mail about it. His expectation was the same as mine: I would respond right away, which I did.

One day last year I took off to get some chores done around the house. I was out in the yard for a couple of hours and had left my BlackBerry in the garage. When I returned, I found an urgent email from one of our divisional presidents about a personnel issue I needed to address. I apologized for not responding earlier, and that's how I felt. Call me anytime, because I will respond. Count on it.

At a conference I attended several weeks ago, I planned to get some work done during the sessions. It's a conference, right? I'll just answer email while I listen and learn, I figured. But the conference organizers had assigned seating, and everyone behind me would have been able to see me working on email. This was not the impression I wanted to leave, especially because most of the attendees were IT managers and supervisors, many of whom aspire to become CIOs. So I had no choice but to pay attention to the conversations of the moment. One of the presenters echoed my fondest self-help sentiment: It all starts with me, not you or them. Stephen Covey's Circle of Influence vs. Circle of Concern and his Habit No. 1: Be proactive. I was listening because I had put my laptop and smartphone away. My action to appear in the moment actually put me in the moment. It was an interesting experience. Change starts with me. I remember now.

A week later, I took a few days of vacation at a hotel in a warm climate. As my wife and I sat in the lobby bar, I noticed a couple nearby. They didn't speak to or look at each other for at least an hour because they were too busy staring at their smartphones. I noticed another young couple with a small baby, and while the mother kept the baby entertained, her husband was preoccupied with his smartphone. At one point, he looked up, waved at the baby, and then returned to his device. A half-hour later, both he and his wife were engrossed in their phones while the baby played by himself.

After making the observation to my wife about these couples' technological detachment, she responded: "It's very interesting that you notice this. You're looking at yourself." It was an eye opener. I didn't see myself in these other people. I have a reason for constantly checking my phone, I reasoned. I manage technology for a living, so I have an excuse. And then I thought about the conference session of the prior week. I realized at that moment that it's time for me to make a change. I tried to put my smartphone away for the next few days of my vacation. I still checked it regularly, but far less frequently than I normally would have. It was more difficult than I thought, but it was a start. I survived, and so did my company.

Find a Balance

The issue of the social and personal impact of technology is a bit above my academic acumen, so I'm not going to comment on that general topic. But for those of us who deliver and manage enterprise IT services, consider this a cautionary commentary. Being reachable 24/7 is critical for those in our profession, but there's a balance. I don't know where the right balance point is, I admit, but it's not where it has been. If you're like me, it's time to step back and ask what's more important: taking in what's online or taking in what's right in front of you? I'm going to make a change, and I'm going to encourage the people I work with to do the same, because change starts with me.

What are you planning to do in 2013?

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