Technological innovations, you know those things that are supposed to make our lives easier, usually end up becoming the bane of our existence not too long after they’ve lost their novelty. I can’t tell you how many times people have said that they’ve lost control of their email inbox or how they’re constantly distracted by people trying to contact them over the phone, damning the technology for allowing people to interrupt whatever the heck it was they were doing. What amuses me though is I use many of the same technologies that they do yet I don’t feel the same level of pressure that they do, leading me to wonder what the heck they’re complaining about.
Now I’m not saying that email, IM, Twitter et. al. are not distracting, indeed our techno-centric culture is increasingly skewed towards being a distracted one by a veritable tsunami communications tools. I myself struggled with Twitter not too long ago when I attempted to use it the “proper” way over a weekend, seeing my productivity hit the floor as I struggled to strike a balance between my level of engagement and the amount of work I got done. However I soon realised that using said service in the proper way meant that I just ended up as distracted as everyone else, with almost 0 benefit to me other than the small bit of self satisfaction that I was totally doing this social media thing right for a change.
In essence I feel that the reason people get so distracted by these tools is that they feel obligated to respond to them immediately, rather than at a time which suits them best. Thus the tool which is meant to help your productivity becomes a burden, interrupting you at the worst possible time and breaking you out of the flow of the work you were in. If you find yourself in this position you need to set up strict rules for interacting with that particular technology that suit you rather than what suits everyone else. How you go about this is left as an exercise for the reader, but the most effective tool (I’ve found, at least) is to only check your email/Twitter/whatever at certain times during the day and ignoring it at all other times.
The retort I usually get for advocating this kind of stance is “What if something important happens in the interim?”. Thinking really hard about it I can’t think of anything really important that’s come to me via the medium of email, IM, Twitter that didn’t first reach me through some more direct means (like my phone). If you’re relying on these distinctly one way, no way to verify if the person has actually received your message platforms then the message you’re sending can’t really be all that important and can wait a few hours before being responded to. If it can’t then use some more direct means of communicating otherwise you’re just forcing people into the same technological hell that you yourself feel trapped in, continuing the vicious cycle that just doesn’t need to exist.
However sometimes people are just looking for a scapegoat for their situation and it’s far easier to blame a faceless technology than it is to look internally and work out why they’re so distracted. I can kind of sort of understand people getting caught up with communications clients, especially when it’s part of your job, but when you think something like RSS is too distracting (you know, where you choose to subscribe to a site because you’re interested in it) then the problem isn’t the technology it’s your lack of ability to recognize that you’re wasting time. I get literally hundreds of items in my RSS reader every day but do I read them all? Heck no, at most I’ll skim the titles and if I recognize a story I’ve already read then I won’t go back and read it again.
Just seems like common sense to me.
It’s also not helped by the fact that many of us now carry our distractions with us. My phone has all the distraction capability of a modern PC and if it weren’t for my strict rules about only checking things at certain times I’m sure I’d be in the same distraction hell that everyone else is. Of course even though the platform may be different the same rules apply, it’s the feeling of obligation that drives us to distraction when realistically the obligation doesn’t exist, and we’re just slotting into a social norm that ends up wrecking havoc.
Thus all I’m advocating is taking back control of the technology rather than letting it control us. All of these distractions are tools to be used to our advantage and the second they stop being helpful we need to step back and question our use of them to see if we should change the way we use them. Otherwise we just end up being misused by the tools we wish to use and end up blaming them for the problems we in fact caused ourselves.