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Around the world, we’re all becoming ‘connected’ 24 hours a day. We’re tweeting, texting, emailing, Facebooking, and generally accessing and accessible from the moment we wake up (sometimes even moments before), until after we’ve switched off the light and are about to drift off to sleep in bed. China has 500million internet users; Brazil had 210 million mobile phone subscribers in August 2011, for a population of 195 million people; almost 300 billion emails are sent every day worldwide (although 90% of these are SPAM which we need to filter in order to get to the ‘real stuff’).

Research by German IT association Bitkom found that 88% of German workers are reachable for clients, colleagues and bosses outside business hours, compared with 73% only two years ago.

On the one hand, we can’t remember how we survived before we had all this connectivity and information at our fingertips. But on the other hand, we’re struggling more than ever to put boundaries on our activities and just ‘be present’ with our family, friends, and even our work tasks. Whilst a degree of multi-tasking is a necessary human function, we struggle to perform to peak efficiency during our ‘normal work hours’, and then continue to have work bearing down on us in the evenings and on weekends when we should be relaxing and recharging.

Neuroscientists like Dr. Gary Small are confirming what we probably sub-consciously already know — multitaskers make more errors than people who focus on one task at a time.

Many of us escalate from multitasking to partial continuous attention: we’re constantly scanning the environment for the next exciting bit of information — the next text message, IM, email, or even land-line phone call. That next ping or buzz or ring interrupts our focus and charges up the dopamine reward system as we anticipate something new and more exciting than the task at hand.

When paying partial continuous attention, people may place their brains in a heightened state of stress. They no longer have time to reflect, contemplate or make thoughtful decisions. Instead, they exist in a state of constant tension — on alert for a new contact or item of news or information at any moment. And, once people get used to it, they tend to thrive on the perpetual connectivity. It becomes irresistible.

If we’re going to perform to our best, we’ve got to seriously reconsider the ways in which we work (and play). We need, as the new 21st century phenomena has come to be known, a digital detox. At work, we need to get serious about focussing on the task at hand.

  1. Create a list of tasks to work on today, and work your way through that list, only allowing yourself some preset times to attend to emails and other potentially distracting tasks.
  2. Turn off your email notifications so they don’t pop up while you’re working
  3. Switch off your iPhone, Blackberry, or HTC while you’re in the office, or at the very least while you’re working on your tasks. If you insist on just putting it into ‘silent’ mode, then place it in a drawer where you can’t see notifications popping up on the screen
  4. If you’re heading out for lunch or a coffee break, try leaving your phone behind. Chat to a friend/colleague instead, or enjoy the time out to read the newspaper, a book, or just ‘people watch’.

But just as significantly, we also need to reclaim our ‘personal’ time and make the most of that, enjoying the opportunity to socialise, relax, and not have to be constantly ‘switched on’.

In Brazil, new legislation was approved by President Rousseff last month deeming work emails sent and received outside business hours as ‘overtime’. Clearly workers had reached the point of saturation and were no longer happy to receive emails day and night without being compensated for being constantly ‘on duty’. Although the legislation doesn’t directly restrict the amount of after-hours communication, it should give employers good reason to reconsider sending emails if they’re going to incur additional overtime costs.

Automobile manufacturer Volkswagen has agreed with their employee’s labour representatives to limit emails to between 1/2 hour before the commencement of work until 1/2 hour after the end of their shift (Reuters). Whilst executives and mission-critical staff have been exempted, it’s clearly a significant step towards reclaiming a bit of work/life balance.

Numerous other examples of digital overload both during and after work hours are emerging:

  • German consumer goods manufacturer Henkel imposed a ‘Blackberry-free week’ for the management board between Christmas and New Year (to be broken only in the case of an emergency)
  • Telecommunications company Deutsche Telekom introduced a “Smart Device Policy” encouraging employees to claim communication-free time when they are off work, and promised in exchange not to expect them to read emails or answer their phones during those blackout times
  • Multi-national IT services firm Atos plans to eliminate email entirely by 2013, with their CEO Thierry Breton describing emails as “an instrument to shirk responsibility” — the shift is already on to use Instant Messaging and Facebook-style internal systems which allow project teams to collaborate and communicate by posting on socially-enabled intranet web pages
  • The Saudi Government has touted the idea of a complete ban on smart phone devices for Government employees during business hours (the concern being that staff were receiving too many non-work related interruptions which were impacting the quality of service they’re delivering. Although this idea may not be ideal, and has a lot of opposition, it nonetheless highlights the substantial number of distractions workers are confronted with every day

We’re clearly struggling to find a sustainable balance in the way we use all of our gadgets and technology. What do you think? I’d love to hear your comments, suggestions and anecdotes!