Friday, April 21, 2006

"Tech makes working harder, not easier..."

"If the world is flat, why is my head spinning?" - David Thornburg.

The constant pull of technology--cell phones, email, and the web--seems to be taking its toll. I don't think this will come as much of a surprise to anyone who didn't grow up to the interruption-ridden life that technology now provides for us. Maybe a little tongue-in-cheek (and maybe not), it seems surprising that anything of significance can get done in this environment. As reported in a recent article by Reuters, "[w]orkers completed two-thirds of their work in an average day last year, down from about three-quarters in a 1994 study, according to research conducted for Day-Timers Inc., an East Texas, Pennsylvania-based maker of organizational products." The article quotes John Challenger, who says that by speeding everything up, technology has slowed everything down. "We never concentrate on one task anymore. You take a little chip out of it, and then you're on to the next thing." And not only is the formal work week getting longer, but I notice from time stamps that people are working on their email (and sending replies) late at night and on weekends. Me included!

However, technology has changed work in two real ways over the last ten years that are worth remembering:

First, it's increased communication and presentation significantly, so arguably the two-thirds of our work that we are getting done is more than the three-quarters of work that was getting done ten years ago. I'm not sure if that's true or not, but I have a sense that it is. Maybe what we are saying is that it feels like we are getting less done because the expectations are higher. And that goes along with the shift in sensitivity I think we've seen over the last fifteen years away from the worker--companies that had been conscientious employers for decades began rounds of layoffs as a profit improvement focus, and the duties of those laid off often just added to the existing workload of those remaining.

Second, technology has given some flexibility in work schedules and habits. Telecommuting was a rarity ten years ago--now I frequently find I am talking to someone on their cell or VOIP phone while they are someplace remote from their official work desk--if they even have one. I personally like that flexibility.

So even though we feel more frazzled, I'm not sure that means we are getting less done. But I still think there is a real problem.

It might help to re-frame the issue here a little. I don't think the real issue is quantity of work. I think it's quality of work. Just as I find it is hard to have a serious conversation with someone who is taking cell phone calls or checking their email while we are talking, there are certain work situations that require focus and attention, and carving that time out in the new busy work world gets harder and harder with every advance in technology. It's the work of Stephen Covey's "important, not urgent" quadrant that often gets lost in our frenetic world today.

It's not just that we work in an environment of constant interruption, but also that we have to struggle with the feeling that we are always behind in our keeping up with changes taking place. The pace of business innovation is incredible: witness Web 2.0 companies coming out of nowhere and being worth hundreds of millions of dollars in a matter of months. How can one possibly keep up with what is going on? And if we don't feel caught up, how can we make smart decisions?

I used to read books. Now I read blogs. Classic books were the result of years of thinking about serious issues, and trying to communicate the core issues of being human. Blogs are wonderful (I like to think of blogging as "open source ideas"), but I miss the weight and calm of good book. I also miss the thoughtfulness of working with others at a reasonable pace.

My personal solution in the last few years has been to keep a daily journal. There is something about writing down the important events of my life, and my responses and reactions to them, that helps to give me a sense of balance, reflection, and focus--and helps me to get ready to face the next day...

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