Inboxes are clogging with unread emails. Voice-mailboxes and text are messaging tones causing tinnitus. Thumbs are cramping from pecking emails on mobile phones. No wonder it is so easy to become frustrated when the person on the other end sets off our fuses with a confusing message! By the way, are you reading this on your mobile phone at 2 a.m.?
When technology came along, business leaders saw the time-saving potential of number-crunching computers and near-human intelligence of supercomputers. What took months to calculate now takes milliseconds for a computer to analyze. So why do our lives seem to be busier, faster, and more stressful than before? How do we take control back from technology and enjoy the time between work? The answer is to reframe how we look at and use technology.
Rather than seeing technology as a 24/7 must-have part of our lives, it can be healthier and more beneficial to view it as a means to helping improve quality of life. In other words, instead of tying ourselves to the computer monitor or smart-phone screen all day long, it is necessary to draw boundaries around technology use. There are many tools available, and I have outlined the most common ones that I use to keep organized and connected.
Email and Phone Calls
As a business leader, it is easy to become tethered to smart-phones and be accessible all day and all night. But, is it worth it to wake up to read emails immediately, regardless of the urgency? Aside from the health concerns of not getting enough sleep and the effects on performance from fatigue, it also builds an organizational culture that inhibits proper use of delegation of authority. Staff become overly reliant on the leader who is always accessible, when it is possible to come up with a solution for medium- or low-priority issues in your absence.
With email inbox rules and smart-phone alert settings (some phones now come with “VIP Alerts”), it is now possible to set up a process where emails with certain urgency levels or subject lines get forwarded to you during your personal time, while others auto-reply with a message that you are away. Of course, this also requires discussing your boundaries with teammates and staff, so that they are aware of when you will respond and when it is up to them to take initiative. Also, remember to call people or meet them directly when discussing complicated or personal matters. Email is a great follow-up tool to confirm what was discussed verbally, but it lacks the tactfulness and quick richness of vocal dialogue.
Aside from personal boundary-setting, technology can help you to track your to-do lists, and even share them with others so that they know what is still in queue. Lists can be therapeutic in a sense as well, because crossing off completed items allows you to see how much you have already finished. This is especially rewarding when the number of action items seems unending: As you progress, you will see that you are making progress. Need to generate a status report? Refer back to your action item list to see what you have accomplished and what is yet to be done. My personal preference is for Apple’s Reminders app, because it syncs with my phone, home computer, and the iCloud. That way I receive reminders of all my action items’ due dates on my devices and can check them off wherever I am.
While I prefer reading printed copies over on-screen documents, it is generally faster (and more environmentally friendly) to view docs on a computer or smart phone. Sharing documents with teams can cause confusion when emailing different versions back and forth for editing: “Did I include Sally’s changes in that version? Wait, she sent two. Ok, now is this the final draft, or is that? Oops – I forgot that Jack’s email was saved in another folder, and I had not yet incorporated his changes.”
Two of the available options solve this problem: Subversion and the Cloud. Subversion allows users on the same network to share the same version of documents and includes version control (with locking and unlocking of files) to assist teams collaborating together. Cloud services offer similar functionality, without requiring everyone to be on the same server. I use Google Docs/Drive when collaborating with teams as well. It allows anyone with a Google Account (which can be created from generally any email address) to share documents online. It also lets you see who made which changes, and multiple users can edit the same document simultaneously. Google Docs are also accessible via smart phones and tablets with Internet access.
Paper and Pencil
Sometimes good ol’ fashioned paper and pencil (or whiteboard and marker) make for the best technology. This is especially the case when starting to draft an idea, diagram, or document from scratch. Mind-mapping, brainstorming, and sketching symbols, words, or phrases help to pull innovative thoughts out of your mind and put them onto paper. It is easy to edit using paper and pencil, shaping the idea until it looks just right. Then it is possible to take a photo or recreate the draft electronically to share with others on the team.
When preparing to use technology to help you organize or connect with others, it is important to first understand why you need the tool: what issue or challenge is being addressed? Then, analyze the different options available and select a medium that is optimal for the identified issue. Also remember to set some boundaries regarding when, how, and why you will use that tool. It is wise to use technology to your advantage so long as you remember to take breaks and recharge your own batteries.
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