The Answer Is Just A Click Away

How much tech is too much? How many of our gadgets are solving the annoyances of others? Dave Pell realised something gloomy about our fanciest tools: we're happier without a lot of them.

About 20 people walked into the room, sat down and slid their phones, iPads, and other devices towards the centre of the table. It was the last session of the conference and the rules were simple. We would work our way around the table twice. On the first pass, each person was required to name one obstacle to achieving balance in their life. On the second pass, each person would identify one thing that has seemed to help them overcome that obstacle. In the end, we would leave the room with a new understanding of the problems we face and new set of tools with which to overcome them.

These were the Type A personalities. The always-on crowd. They ran companies or led big teams. Most of them were at the top of of their professional game. By any standard of modern success, these folks were the achievers. They had the kinds of roles, careers, and lives where you get to maintain some control, to decide how to spend your time, to sit back - every now and then - and figure out your priorties.

One by one, each person described an obstacle. I need to manage my team more effectively. I need to make more efficient use of my time. I need to spend more time connecting with my kids before they're too old to need me. While the themes were varied, the obstacles really weren't. In each case, the key obstacle being described was resting on the table, for a rare moment, just beyond arm's reach.

Everyone was basically complaining about technology.

I need to turn off once in a while. I work with people all over the world, so there's always someone online who's ready to collaborate. My email inbox has become so cluttered that I spend more time managing it than the rest of my life. I'm distracted all the time. I'm never fully present when I'm with my family. Even when I know I should be taking a break, I feel the vibrating phone in my pocket and I get sucked back in.

Then came the second pass around the table. One by one, people described their solution - the fix they had found that made it a little easier to overcome the obstacle between their current life and a balanced one.

The first remedy mentioned was a company-wide software solution that enabled a manager to keep better track of ongoing projects. The next was a personal productivity app. Then someone described a strategy to fill the time wasted on a morning walk by working through a list of phone calls that had to be returned.

Like the obstacles, the solutions all had one thing in common: They were all technology.

It was like listening to a bunch of people explain how they used heroin to kick their methadone habit.

Technology used to be a way to solve life's little problems. Now, technology is used to solve the little problems caused by technology. On some level, we know that doesn't make sense, but we don't have an app to convince us. Where's the computer algorithm to prove that the quiet walk without the phone calls is the balance?

When it comes to our physical health, we often find ourselves popping new pills to ease the side-effects of the ones were already taking. Then the new pills have their own side-effects. It can be a neverending loop. But at least there is some evidence that the drugs can heal the original malady.

Being more connected can't cure us of being too connected. Being more wired can't make us less wired. Using one more app will never equal using one less app. There just isn't an app for that.

The idea that we need a technological solution for too much technology is, at best, the Internet era's great placebo effect. We feel like we're getting a little better, but that's just part of the same addiction. We'll always be just one more piece of technology away from the solution.

We are at the early stages of the information revolution. We will become more connected, more wired, and more distracted. There's no turning back at this point. And believe me, I'm right there with everyone who sat around that table. As you read this, I'll be watching my stats and tracking Twitter mentions. The number of browser tabs I have open grows faster than the national debt. When I fly on a plane with no Wi-Fi (the horror, the horror), I've usually switched out of aeroplane mode and checked email and five other apps by the time the wheels hit the tarmac - even if I've just landed on a tropical island for a family trip and it's the weekend. I'm in no position to tell anyone to quit technology. But I am convinced we can make better choices about the way we navigate this era.

And ironically I think I found one potential route while we were all sitting around a table during that conference session. Even though no one noticed it, everyone found, for a little while, some balance in their lives. We put down our devices. We closed our laptops. For a good hour, we just talked, face to face. And we all left the session feeling a lot better than we did when we came in.

We found the solution for technology overload. We turned it off. Who knew that a balanced life was just a click away?

Dave Pell writes the NextDraft iOS app and newsletter -- a quick, entertaining look at the day's most fascinating news.



    Poor diddums.... You, or they, are at a level where to succeed you must give 100% of your best, of your attention. Swim, or sink back down to a level where your 'comfortable'

    Your personal balance is down to you, be a Luddite and go live in a wood hit in a forest and continue your Unabomber type rail against progress.

    I love, and thank whoever god is that I am alive at a time when for the first time in existence of man that the information flow broadens and expands me in ways like never, ever before

    Keep up or get out of the fast lane, find somewhere more your style....

    Do you forget or don't know what it was like before?

    Agree to meet someone somewhere and while you waited at the north entrance they waited at the southern entrance and then a half hour later you went home alone. Or, correct mistakes in a document by pressing back space and retyping instead of using white out; feeding the page back into a typewriter; and, then re-photocopying. Or, faxing documents with blank spaces after questions so that the recipient could write in their responses and fax them back to you.

    Like that music group once sang "I'm the operator of my pocket calculator".

      You mean the days when everyone turned up where they were supposed to, on time? And if they didn't, that was their problem. Yeah, those were some terrible times. It may seem that you were less organised back then but the reality is that most of us were far more organised and spent our time far more usefully than we do now.

      It's also interesting that you think of faxes as old times. When I was in the army we used teletype machines and our own postal system for communication, faxes were far too new-fangled to be relied upon. Instead of an inbox full of rubbish, we had a clipboard full of telexes, memos and minutes that was passed from office to office. It took maybe 15-20 minutes to go through, then you initialed the distribution sheet that served as a top cover and passed it on. It wasn't really that much less convenient than email, really, simply because expectations were different.

      BTW, "that music group" was Kraftwerk and those are some of the saddest lyrics of all time.

    Yes back in the days when if someone was in fact late, they couldn't let you know so you wasted 30 mins waiting for them (to bring the tickets, you know printed on paper...) to find out the next day you were in the wrong bar

    Or when if you needed to get hold of someone directly by phone, leave a message during the day, wait till they get home, call you back the next day and miss you, either leaving a message you weren't given or didnt get answered at all (caller ID on rotary phone?), you call back not knowing even if they had called.... Amazing the amount of missed calls back then I'd get from people who claimed 'sure I called you back about the $50 I owe you, I left a message....'

    Faxes are all good though try faxing large spreadsheets in the hope of it being altered, edited and returned anything like it was sent..... And how long till all that by then outdated fax data got to the last person in the chain??

    Oh wait, and old people being found weeks after dying alone, now Grandma has a Bluetooth/wifi/cellular panic button beside her at all times which alerts us all she needs us

    Seems like it's "in" to bash technology. Hope it is just a fad.

    Learn to use your tools, and exercise some self control.

      I agree," you control the tools, the tools don't control you"..... that's what I was taught at an early age by my tradesman father...

      Often we have little or no control over it. e.g. If your boss tells you you have to have a smartphone so he can email you whenever he wants, then you have to deal with it.

        I see your point. However, the issue you've described is with the boss and not with the smartphone.

        Even without a smartphone, he can still call you whenever he wants, or even worse, door knock you.

        At my work a BlackBerry is standard issue, with the understanding responding outside of working hours is completely optional.

        Problem still resides with the user (in this case the boss) not the technology.

          The good thing abou that job was that he was in Singapore and I was here, so door-knocking was definitely out of the question.

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