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E-mail, social media, interruptions keep us from thinking deeply

"Happiness can only be found if you can free yourself of all other distractions." ---Saul Bellow

I’m really trying hard to do only one thing at a time, like writing this column. I’m trying hard not to glance at the red icon that announces that new e-mail has arrived and how much has arrived since the last time I checked. In fact, I’m closing down e-mail right now. I’m ignoring all of my social media connections, putting on a little Norman Brown and Ahmad Jamal jazz in the background, a fresh cup of Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee. Life is good … isn’t it?

Oh, if it were only that simple, and I could keep blocking out all those pesky little distractions. Think how much you’d actually get done if you were focused on getting things done instead of operating with the attention span of a mosquito, bopping from one e-mail message to another text message, back to another call, another email, a tweet, poke, alert, post, update ….

When was the last time you completed anything without a single interruption? Maybe you got through a phone call without someone stopping by your desk or knocking on your office door, but if you were reading a document, or preparing one, have you ever finished without distractions?

Do you find yourself taking that stuff home at night so you can finally get some quiet time to read, write, think? Of course, you have to wait until the kids are in bed, and by then you’re pretty drained after a long day -- “I guess I can get into the office early tomorrow and get a head start.” And so the cycle continues.

Sound familiar? It sure was to Bill Powers, who last year published "Hamlet’s Blackberry," a thoughtful and provocative look at the bombardment of inputs attacking our craniums every day and our inability to find any quiet headroom.

I was already prepared to point out that the nagging distractions -- the archenemy of productivity -- are hardly a new phenomenon. I was going to point to some old news about a 1970s movement I clearly recall that promoted a “quiet hour,” during an era when the principal distractions were people hanging from your door frame, the usual phone calls and the “connectivity” of a new-fangled intercom system. The latest gimmick then was to hang bright red stop signs on our office doors, announcing that a certain hour that day would be interruption free. You might be able to break the rule if there was blood on the floor but, otherwise, not.

That’s not old news to Bill Powers, because he ventures back to Plato in ancient Greece and the philosopher Seneca in ancient Rome and their encounter with the “technology” of the day: document overflow. Powers recounts Seneca’s stress, that as the Roman empire expanded, they were inundated with documents of all types and became obsessed with checking on the latest boat arrival to see what else required their attention. Powers traces confrontations with encroaching “technologies” through Shakespeare as well as Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, who believed that as peoples’ inward lives failed, they were regularly, and more desperately, going to the post office to check their mail.

Today, the incessant flood is fueled by the e-mail tsunami, the social media hydra, blinking icons and action dashboards. Technology has become the new enemy, enhancing our ability to communicate across the globe with speed and equanimity, while tethering us to a steady barrage of inviting distractions.  (Ignore for a moment the distractions … and consider what it is doing to our brains. Check out "Is Google Making us Stupid?," to dig deeper into this invidious phenomenon.)

But, technology is not the mother of this invention. Maybe it’s too revealing to acknowledge that we can’t stay focused and seem powerless to stop the latest wave of technology. Maybe it’s too painful to consider that we may be simply dissatisfied with what we’re doing at the moment and are unwittingly searching for something more interesting. Or, maybe we lack the self-discipline to police ourselves. It’s just easier to be swept along by the current, grabbing a passing tree limb on occasion, but mostly, tugging at the nits and gnats of our daily lives without control or perspective on what best serves our objectives.

This saga is endlessly repeated every single day in my conversations with CEOs and senior executives, and replicated throughout their organizations. There is no longer a bright line between home and work life because an infinite palette of barely differentiated colors obscures it. The so-called work/life balance is disrupted by a 24/7 connectivity that’s both empowering and debilitating. It’s a thin line between freedom and slavery.

What do you think is going on? Even if we are getting more done, at what price? Why do we feel always “on” and unable to think clearly for even a moment before we admit the latest intruder? Join the conversation and leave a comment here or on the Exkalibur website about your experiences with the deluge of distractions.

Think about this and I’ll be back next time with some thoughts about specific steps, and welcome tools, to tame this monster and restore some sanity to both our productivity and our work/life balance.

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Lary Kirchenbauer is the president of Exkalibur Advisors Inc., providing practical business strategies for family and other privately owned businesses in the middle market. Exkalibur works closely with senior executives and their businesses at the intersection of leadership and business strategy, and hosts the Exkalibur Leadership Forum for leaders of middle market companies in the North Bay.

You can subscribe to his newsletter at the Exkalibur website at www.Exkalibur.com. You’ll also find a library of valuable resources, including a new video and podcast library as well as articles and insights related to middle market businesses.