Our ability to connect with others is phenomenal. People need that connection and we want information. Near-constant availability offers unprecedented opportunities to do so anytime, anywhere.
Too much information, however, can cause digital distraction and keep us from getting important things done. We now know humans are pretty terrible at multi-tasking and, once distracted, they take a long time to get back on track.
My colleagues and I are applying the notion of 'flow', a concept identified by renowned psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, to the digital world. Csikszentmihalyi says 'flow' is a psychological state in which a person is completely focused and absorbed by a task, unencumbered by distractions. Elite runners, for example, often report losing track of time while covering miles effortlessly.
So how do we achieve 'flow' in a digital world where the ever-growing clamour of technology never lets us rest?
My colleagues from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Boston, the University of Sydney and I discovered bankers with BlackBerrys were able to adapt and change their behaviour over time to avoid the dreaded 'CrackBerry' syndrome. Overall, we are finding technologies themselves are not the problem but individual and social learning are necessary to find the right balance.
Currently a team of researchers at the University of Auckland and a Singapore-based technology partner, with software developers in India, are monitoring user data (with permission) from smartphones to analyse patterns of media use, such as the proportion of email versus other social media. The aim is to help people monitor their media use patterns to make choices to improve their performance and well-being.
One CEO who takes this seriously is Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, who schedules up to two hours each day of blank space in his calendar. As Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The disciplined pursuit of less, puts it: "For Jeff, creating space is more than just a practice. It is part of a broader philosophy. He has seen the effects of the undisciplined pursuit of more in organisations and in the lives of executives. So, for him, it's not a slogan or a buzz phrase. It's a philosophy."
Another strong advocate of connecting with oneself in a world that demands we stay connected to everyone and everything else is Arianna Huffington, author of Thrive: The third metric to redefining success and creating a happier life. She strongly encourages successful people at all levels of the organisation to disconnect to make better decisions. Huffington notes: "Wherever we look around the world, we see smart leaders-in politics, in business, in media-making terrible decisions. What they're lacking is not IQ, but wisdom...Being connected in a shallow way to the entire world can prevent us from being deeply connected to those closest to us-including ourselves. And that is where wisdom is found."
So, how does one find Zen-like 'flow' in a world of email obsession, multiple streams of social media and other digital demands for our attention? How does one disconnect, or turn down the running tap? Here are a few ideas:
1. First, develop a personal philosophy of connectivity. What does the 'good life' look like to you? Is it constantly surfing a surge of information or sitting quietly sometimes and watching the stream flow by?
2. Once you have a philosophy, set some simple rules. For example, no 'screens' (smartphones, TV or tablets) one (or two) hours before sleeping. No work emails on the weekend. Take digital holidays. No phones at the dinner table, etc.
3. Conquer FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Think of no news or updates as a chance to relax, rather than worry about what you're missing. The world revolves just fine without you at the centre.
4. Remember, email is a social thing. Your inbox is full (or not) because of how you and others interact together. You cannot solve email overload unless others are also moderate in their use of the medium.
5. You first. Think about the example you are setting for others who report to you. Do you email mindless requests, copy everyone on everything and then wonder why your inbox is over the top?
6. Write fewer, better messages. Sending messages of higher quality buys you some time. Your thoughts are worth waiting for.
7. If three emails can't solve a problem, pick up the phone!
8. If something's really important, get on a plane. I once met a project manager in Boston, who said if he didn't have a reason to visit his team members in Seattle every three months, he would make up an excuse and go see them anyway.
9. Only 'follow' people you really care about. How many food pictures do you really need?
10. Don't treat your phone like a rosary or worry beads. If you're nervous, smile at people instead of looking down. Make eye contact and see how much more interesting life can be. Plus, you may live longer by not stepping in front of a bus.
Darl G. Kolb is Professor of Connectivity, Graduate School of Management, University of Auckland Business School. He discusses connects and disconnects on his blog: drdarlkolb.blogspot.com