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Published 14 February 2013 00:50, Updated 15 April 2013 11:24
Mobile phones are one of the ‘trojans’ of distraction, says BT Futurologist Dr Nicola Millard Fairfax Media
If you ask British Telecom “futurologist” Nicola Millard what frightens her, she will dart a glance at her mobile phone.
That seemingly-benign tool of communication is a symbol of the way that we have allowed work to invade our lives so that we are now never not at work.
Our mobiles, tablet devices and laptops are now “trojan” carriers of electronic distraction – they beep, trill and trumpet 24 hours a day and we seem unable to resist checking them whether we are deeply engrossed in a task, at a romantic dinner, reading a bedtime story to an infant, or awakened from sleep in the middle of the night.
“We are infinitely distractable as human beings and we love novelty,” says Millard, who is visiting Australia from Britain where she works as a “customer experience futurologist” for BT.
“The decrease of boundaries. It is no longer nine-to-five, we are always on and globalisation is one of the things that is driving it.
“Devices are always on – and always on you. It is like having a crying baby and we are not very well equipped to deal with that sort of thing.”
One in three of us report we feel overwhelmed by communications technology, she says, quoting a BT/Cambridge University study.
But we have also created an expectation that emails, texts and messages will be instantly answered – and we have done this to ourselves. “There’s nothing written in the company rules that we must respond within five minutes,” she says.
“We are so virtualised [in terms of where we work]. How do we show we are working? There is an unwritten pressure to show that we are always available”, she says.
Even when we are at work, we are distracted and interrupted from our task every three minutes on average.
Millard knows the kind of stress that constant communication can have and has put herself on a technology “diet”. Like an over-eater clears the cupboard of chocolate before a weight loss program, Millard’s first step was to get rid of her BlackBerry.
“I was also doing too much emailing, spending 42 per cent of my day, typically, doing emails and catching up on emails. That’s stupid. That’s not my job,” she says.
So now she turns her email off when she needs to concentrate.
Some companies have taken a more prescriptive approach to taming the beast. Technology firm Atos has banned the use of email for internal communication. Employees must now talk face-to-face, use the phone or use its social media tools.
“We believe that email is on the way out as the best way to run a company and do business”, a statement on the company website says.
BMW Germany banned the use of company email after hours. Employees had been booking overtime just to cope with email.
Millard advises people to text her if they need to contact her urgently, using her out-of-office reply to instruct people about how and when she is available: “I look at texts ... but not at urgent texts that say they’ve just sent me an email”.
She also limits her access to wifi when she is travelling (and is quite pleased to discover that the Sydney Starbucks has a 20 minute limit to its free wifi service).
She also, purposely, does not take her power cord when she is out so that she can only use her laptop for the duration of its battery life.
“It is called a balanced communication diet,” she says.
“I am much more productive and much less stressed. I choose when to be ‘on’.”
In her paper Introducing The Balanced Communications Diet For Business , Millard offers the following tips to control electronic distraction:
Five steps to success on a technology diet