How many of us feel like this?   And, if you’re not imprisoned by your cell phone, maybe you’re boxed in by your inbox.

Whether you’re in a cell or a box, it is hard to be engaged in the lives and concerns of those around you when you’re held hostage by technology. (Even as you’re reading this, how many of you have already glanced away at that email notification that came in at the bottom of your screen, or the buzz of an IM on your smartphone?)

It is my assessment that one of the biggest reasons for the disengagement felt in the workplace these days is the fact that we, in general, aren’t engaged fully in anything we do. How can we be, when we’re pushed around by the buzz, beep, ring and songs coming from our technology.

The other day I took a walk down the hall from our offices to….well….how do I say this delicately…so as not to offend? I had to go pee. So, as I said I walked down the hall and into the Men’s Room. As I was standing there doing my business, I heard a cellphone ring. I was a tad startled, since I didn’t know anyone else was in there. Knowing my cellphone was safely sitting in my office, I thought little of it, UNTIL………………………………..

I heard someone answer it.

Yes ladies and gentlemen, from the stall in the Men’s room on the third floor of our office building, the cellphone was answered. Not only that, but a meeting was begun! This fully multi-tasking individual started the conversation by saying, “Good Morning, I was expecting your call. Is now still a good time for you?

Really? Is now a good time for you? Apparently it was still a good time for him.

Is this what we have come to? Are there really no safe harbors from technology? Not even the third floor Men’s Room?

The saddest part of this story is that when as I have related this to others, no one is surprised. No one I have told the story to has not experienced the same thing. When did everything become so urgent that all of us have been privy to a cellphone call in the privy?


This is really the “Tyranny of the Urgent”!

As I mused about when this all started, I did some research on the phrase, “Tyranny of the Urgent.” Where did it come from? When did all this start?

What I found was a short pamphlet (all of 31 pages) entitled, “Tyranny of the Urgent” by Charles Hummel. The first paragraph of which describes what most of us feel on a day-to-day basis:

“Have you ever wished for a thirty-hour day? Surely this extra time would relieve the tremendous pressure under which we live. Our lives leave a trail of unfinished tasks. Unanswered letters, unvisited friends, unread books haunt quiet moments when we stop to evaluate what we have accomplished. We desperately need relief. But would that longer day really solve our problem? Wouldn’t we soon be just as frustrated as we are now with our twenty-four-hour allotment?”

A little later he writes:

“The winds of other people’s demands, and our own inner compulsions, have driven us onto a reef frustration.”

Sounding familiar? You would think that Mr. Hummel was like you and I, trapped in a cell by his cellphone, or boxed-in by his inbox. You might think that, but you would be wrong.

These words were written in 1967. Well before our time of perpetual technology. Makes you wonder what he might have thought about today’s environment.

And unlike in 1967, today the incoming never stops. Yahoo Labs and the University of Southern California studied more than 2 million users with over 16 BILLION emails and found that “…..most replies (to the emails) were quick: 90% occurred on the same day the email was received, and the most likely response time was within 2 minutes of receipt.” Let that sink in, “…within 2 minutes of receipt.”

That number is even more incredible when you look at the estimates of how many emails you have to respond to each day. Average numbers vary wildly, the low I found was 114 per day and the high around 200 emails every day. So let’s be conservative here, let’s say we take the low number of 114 and assume that it only takes you (on average) 3 minutes to read, type and respond to each email. That’s a total of 242 minute per day doing nothing but responding (within 2 minutes of receipt) to emails. 50% of your day involves doing nothing but reacting to the ping coming from your inbox.

And, how long does it take you to get back to whatever it was that you were doing before being interrupted by that ping every 4 minutes (114/8=14.3 emails every hour or almost one every 4 minutes)?

And here we are only talking about emails. What abut IM’s, Texts, Tweets or (for those of us (like me) who are relics) actual telephone calls.

Talk about being a slave to the “Tyranny of the Urgent.”

I actually think we need a stronger phrase, one more attuned to the current day. I believe we are actually Driven by the Urgent. I like replacing the Tyranny with Driven because Driven denotes action….power. Webster’s defines it as, “having a compulsive or urgent quality,” while the Oxford Dictionary says it’s, “operated, moved or controlled by a specified person or source of power.”

Those certainly describe our plight. If we are answering 114 emails every day, most within 2 minutes of that ping coming in, we surely are acting both compulsively and being operated, moved or controlled by a source of power.


Regaining Power

So how do we get our power back? How do we move from being Driven by the Urgent to Moving with the Important? The answers are simple, just not easy.

Make the choice.

Choose to take back the control of your day. Use the technology to get back in the driver’s seat of your time, instead of being driven by it.

First, turn off all incoming message notifications– from your email, from your your text messages, even (and I KNOW I am getting quite radical here) powering off your cellphone when you are in a meeting or busy with more important items. Yes, I said power off, not just turn it on silent/vibrate, but actually using that little known app called the ‘power off’ button. This will eliminate what I have come to call SOS (Shiny Object Syndrome). That urge technology has trained in us that we need to look at, examine and think about every new thing that comes our way (remember the 2 minute response times). This will save you from the Pavlovian drive of the buzz, ping, ring and popup.

Second, schedule how often you will check messages and stick to your schedule. Not only that, but pre-determine how long you will spend on emails during those times. For 99% of us, checking our messages 4 times during our 10 hour day (let’s been honest with ourselves, how many of us really only work 8 hours. Gallup tells us the a full 39% of us work at least 10 hours a day and over half of us work over 9 hour a day. So if you spend ½ hour four times a day dealing with emails, you have gain an additional 3 hours to your day.

Third, remember you don’t need to answer/comment/respond to every email sent your way. You do not have the time, nor the need to touch all 114 emails that just happen to land in your inbox. Just because it was sent to you (and, in many cases at least 2 others) does not mean you need to respond.

Be in choice.