The dark side of technology

When I started my career in business over 27 years ago, times were simpler and even a bit barbaric. Mail used to come the old-fashioned way. Our phones were permanently affixed to our desk. There was not a computer in sight, and technology stopped at the fax machine. Presentations were done with overhead projectors and acetate slides, and we would hand-write memos for our secretaries to type.

Somehow, as primitive as all this sounds, we got the work done. We had a life. We were successful and built brands and built the business.

Today we revel in all our gadgets and technology. We can sit on airplanes and clear our e-mail while taxiing to the terminal. We can snap photos in a market and send them in a flash. We can connect with people anytime, anywhere through a myriad of options. We can project superb presentations we could have only dreamed of 25 years ago. We can multi-task like never before. Go into any public toilet today and you can hear people in the stalls typing away on their BlackBerries! Whatever happened to reading a good old-fashioned newspaper?

We believe all of the technology is good. It has made life easier. Simpler. And in some cases, it has. But like anything, technology is a double-edged sword that can cut both ways. It has its dark side, too. Nothing is 100-percent positive in life. There are always unintended consequences.

The concept of “work-life balance” is a hot topic today. It’s the buzz of the human resources community. And it’s a real issue.

Beyond my own organizations, as I have delivered training on the subject to a wide range of companies, I have seen one general observation: the more tapped into technology an employee is, the more work-life balance issues they have! Yes, it’s true — you can have too much of a good thing.
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So how can this be? There are a few key drivers:

No rest. We all need to recharge our batteries. Take vacations. Relax. Some people never switch off; never take a break. They are connected 24/7 and convinced if they don’t stay engaged, the business will collapse. Nobody can sustain this pace. We all burn out, slow down. Everyone needs rest and time to recharge.

Distractions. I see people today surrounded by tech gadgets and all kinds of “noise.” They have two iPhones with different ring tones. They have beeps and buzzes for chat rooms and Facebook updates. They are constantly distracted. Microsoft published a landmark study that showed when one is in deep concentration (like working on a major project) and then they are distracted, it takes 16 minutes to get back on task! And some of these people who are constantly being interrupted by beeps and buzzing and ring tones wonder why they can’t get their work done?

Time wasting. Anything you dedicate over an hour a day to is a major commitment. I counsel people all the time on personal fitness who claim they “want to be fit but don’t have time.” They claim they cannot even find 30 minutes per day! But then we do a time audit and discover they spend two-plus hours per day on Facebook, updating, chatting with friends, looking up old flames. Yes, it’s fun. But have we ever considered how much time we invest in social networking? For no tangible gain?

The advice I give to young business people just starting out today is simple. Use the best of technology. Control it. Don’t overdo it. Specifically, turn the phones off. I leave my phones permanently on silent. I miss calls all the time. And I see the number and call them back! But I don’t have incessant beeping in my ears all the time. Disable the chat rooms. If people want to find me, they have plenty of ways. They have e-mail. Fax. Cell phone. Landline. SMS. BBM. Regular mail. They don’t need to have “sametime” or some chat room to talk to me!

Take real vacations. Leave the BlackBerry and the laptop at home. Just take a simple Nokia phone with your SIM card. Take time to unwind and stay off the e-mail. Tell your team to only bother you in an emergency. As I tell people, “You didn’t have a real vacation unless you forget your passwords.” Come back energized.

And finally, control the social networking. I went off Facebook and MySpace a long time ago. I am today only on LinkedIn. Facebook is addictive and nothing eats up more time. People commenting on the picture of someone’s new dog can completely disrupt your day. Yes, it is fun. But sometimes we have to decide and we can’t have it all. It’s two hours a day on Facebook or two hours doing something else, be it a project at work or personal fitness. Life is all about choices.

Control the technology. Don’t let it control you.