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Digital dependency: do you need to detox?

by Pamela Hamilton

It is common to see people in meetings being distracted by their smartphones and laptops, and not giving their full attention. Most would agree it is rude to take out a phone and start texting at a family dinner or romantic meal.  But at work, because of the mountain of emails we get, we let each other multi-task during meetings, because it seems more efficient.

There is a real pressure to keep up with emails.  It is estimated that office workers can spend up to 40% of their time getting through their emails, which means in a 5 day week only starting your “proper” work on Wednesday.

However, recent neurological research has found that the term “multi-tasking” is not possible, as our brains can’t actually do 2 things at once. Instead, we are “rapid task switching” when trying to be on emails and participate in meetings at the same time.  Scientists have shown that people who multi-task have trouble paying attention and are more easily distracted, and are not processing information as effectively as people who focus.

So why do we feel so compelled to keep checking our phones, and find it so difficult to put them away?  Blame dopamine, the reward and pleasure chemical in the brain.  Each new email, text or alert gives us a shot of dopamine as we check, open, read, reply and check again. This digital dependency can become an addiction. Humans are drawn to novelty (new alerts) and love being needed (this person has written to me, I must answer them now).  We become digitally dependent because the instant pleasure is easier to focus on than the more difficult discussion needed at a meeting, which can’t be answered with a quick text or a well-chosen emoticon.

In any behaviour, we are either rewarded by others (and keep doing the same thing) or punished (which makes us change).  When someone brings out their phone in a meeting, it gives everyone else the excuse they need to check theirs.  We enable and reward each other’s digital dependency because it gives us an excuse to indulge in our own.

When we multi-task in important meetings we are not present or focused on the important debates and decisions.  In email culture, the speed of the reply feels just as important (if not more so) than the response.  So if you combine doing emails with participating in a meeting, it is hard to switch your behaviour from quick fire email thinking to a deep and considered debate. Digital dependency can mean shallow decisions.

A US study showed that 68% of people check their emails before 8am each day, and before they sleep at night, equaling an extra day per week worked.  This means both our attention and energy levels are literally used up, leaving less time for us to connect as people.   Psychologists have found evidence mobiles can have negative effects on closeness, connection, and conversation quality between people.  Ironically, because we feel connected to each other via email, we place less value on face to face time.  If you’ve emailed someone first thing you feel you’ve already communicated, no need for further interaction, even if it was one-sided.

To overcome digital dependency, start a digital detox during meetings. I’m the first to admit that I rely heavily on my smartphone; it helps me run my business and my life. But, when I’m in any meeting I put my own phone and laptop away completely (which means out of sight, on silent, and not on my person), and require everyone else to do the same.

The workshops I run with big global companies are with very senior, very busy people, sometimes with big egos to match, and it can be hard to get them to follow suit. But, by taking the time to explain the points above, even the most important people are persuaded to follow the digital detox meeting rule.

Quality face to face time is rare. Let’s value it and respect each other by looking up, being present, putting away phones and laptops, and having a proper meeting.

Pam Hamilton is the author of The Workshop Book, how to design and lead successful workshops.  Her company “Paraffin” is a global consultancy based in the Portsmouth Guildhall that runs innovation and training projects for FMCG, Media and Financial Services clients.