How multitasking and smart phones change human interaction

How multitasking and smart phones change human interaction

Smart phone_Startup Stock PhotosI’ve had something of a busy travel schedule for the past 15 days, flying to the US for a series of board meetings, then working intensively with a new start-up client in New York during the last week of September. This week, I am back in Europe, preparing two corporate speeches, including one that takes me back to my former “hometown” of Grenoble, in the coming days.

My travel and projects have been compelling and all-absorbing, leaving less time than I would have liked for this blog. In fact, this trip left me wishing I had found a bit of “empty space” to write about these recent activities, or to continue on our discussion of the importance that moments of stillness and reflection can have in our lives.

During this busy time, though, I came across several fascinating articles on two subjects that have interested me for a number of years: (1) multitasking, and (2) the human impact of our digital devices. Of course, both of these themes are related to our topic of the past several weeks—the need to find some stillness in our lives, and how people such as Esther Dyson, Pico Iyer and Ricardo Semler do that.

On one level, the articles I saw last week in four different newspapers—which is proof that these things are on reader’s minds—stated something that should be clear to us all: We live in a world where multitasking has become the norm, and where smart phones and tablets are increasingly omnipresent. What is perhaps less understood, however, is the profound effect these two phenomena are having on our behavior—changing the very nature of human interaction, conversation, and reflection.

I find this all interesting, and I plan to write something more about these matters at a later date. For today, though, I will share two quick thoughts, one on conversation and another on reflection.

On the nature of conversation in the digital age: One of the insights I gleaned from my recent reading is that a mobile phone affects our face-to-face encounters in ways that can be quite subtle, and often detrimental to meaningful contact. Of course, it has been widely studied and understood that our smart phones can be sources of continuous interruption and distraction. The less obvious effect is this: When two people sit and talk, the mere presence of a phone on the table between them, even when nobody uses it, changes the subjects of conversation, and the degree of connection the participants feel.

A number of recent studies have shown that when cell phones are within reach, people tend to keep the conversation on topics where they don’t mind being interrupted. And, they simply don’t feel as invested in each other. This is a sobering thought: Even a silent, inert phone can disconnect us.

On the nature of reflection: As I have commented in several posts during the 8 years of this blog, the most effective managers of people spend a significant portion of their time exploring themselves. Throughout their lives, they periodically stop to ponder such deeper questions as: who am I, what do I truly stand for, how do I  see the future, and what influence would I like to have in my groups and in my world?

As I hold the firm belief that leadership begins with self-knowledge, I have long advocated that my clients work to put structured moments of reflection into their schedules. The most successful leaders engage in a continuous processing and reprocessing of their life experience; they are constantly revising and updating their views of themselves and their worlds. It is only through this type of reflection that an individual comes to understand what she stands for, and how to express it to the world.

General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt says that he regularly takes time to consider how he sees the world and his role in it. In his view, highly effective managers are characterized by an inherent curiosity about everything around them, and they spend a significant portion of their time trying to learn and understand things. Despite one of the corporate world’s most demanding schedules, Immelt strives to spend much of his time—up to 20% of it—reading and reflecting.

Given the busy lives of those who juggle work, private lives and a variety of external activities—and who are increasingly prone to multitasking with their smart devices—I cannot help but wonder where we will find the empty space, the stillness and reflective time that are so important to our ongoing growth and personal development.

Anyway, today I merely present a bit of food for thought, and suggest some concepts that we will no doubt come back to in more depth at a later point.

Flickr user: Startup Stock Photos

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