Are Smart Phones Making Us…Uh, Less Smart?

Memory is one of my talents.   Though hardly the stuff of poetry, one use for my memory is tracking how people like to be contacted.   Nancy texts, Will sends Twitter DMs, Alison only reads email during the week…

I send out a quarterly email newsletter.   It’s a select, permission-based list; if I don’t have value to offer to you, I won’t ask your permission.   It’s a labor of love, requited when people forward the newsletter to a friend, send me kind notes, or mention it in conversation.

To avoid spam-only relationships, usually I connect with people offline, too, or remove them from the email list.  Maybe they said “yes” to be polite.   (Thanks!)

The newsletter software package offers rough statistics, like how many opens, or clicks on links.

From 2009 to 2010, my open rate has gone from 50% to just above 40%.

This still far exceeds industry averages.   The software returns imperfect data.   I’m boring.

Beyond facts or fears, it feels like there’s more going on.  It’s been bugging me.

We all know dark email stories about conversations gone wrong:  “reply all” with a not-for-email comment; compounding interpersonal issues with quick responses that are misunderstood.   (Pick up the phone!)

Yet there are more subtle fails.   A response, but to one point in the mail.   An element presented as hypothesis, responded to as fact.

Or, a response makes me wonder if I’m insane.   I see the subject line, I know what I wrote (that’s there, too) and the response is so off topic that I wonder if my mail was even read.

When I got my smartphone, I used the word “love”.

But I never mastered typing with thumbs and fingers.    So I read email on the phone, respond from a keyboard.   This can create trouble:   something important marked as read, and buried by new mail before I return to the office.   And I don’t respond at all.  Epic fail.

Are my newsletter stats and seemingly disconnected email responses an artifact of smartphone behavior?  The newsletter’s not easily read via mobile; responding to the 8 points in my three paragraphs, complicated.

I get it.   Starting now, an experiment:  no emails longer than 8 sentences.   (What to do about the newsletter, unclear — thus renewed blogging, tweeting and entry to Facebook.)

We use email to manage people, too.   We’re in different locations, I want a paper trail, when it’s in writing they’ll understand me…sometimes, I’m lazy.

Business case studies of the space shuttle disasters illustrate the sometimes heartbreaking consequences of boiling the wrong things down, too simply.

Forget my communications issues:  can we manage people by smartphone?

More to the point:  is it really smart?

(Photo, adapted from “what, no cell phone?” by Beth Rankin, used under Creative Commons License.

Save 9 Stitches With 1 Basic Action!

Back in the day, a rough agreement arose in the blogosphere.   Action-oriented lists were great formats for blog posts.   The actions would be easy, lists would be short, and outcomes would be transformative:

  • 1 Quick Pic, Your High Schooler’s Fast Track To That 1,000-word Application Essay
  • 2 Simple Steps For Catching Flies:  Forget Vinegar;  Pour on that Honey!
  • 3 Easy Ways to Skin A Cat (sorry)

I’ve experimented with that convention.    (The title of my most read post followed that rule:  coincidence?)

We like things to be easy.   And quick is good, too, particularly with the explosion of information competing for our attention.

Harvard Business Review and my alma mater are now both in this game.

Wharton’s “Nano Tools for Leaders” are “tools you can learn and apply in less than 15 minutes”.    Here’s some of what I’ve received from HBR via Twitter:  4 Ways to Reduce Stage Fright; 3 Questions to Answer Before You Look For A New Job.

There’s great intelligence and thought behind the scenes here, by some of the best people I know.

Yet…why do we feel it needs to be quick or easy?   What happens when it’s not?

Scientists are looking at whether meditation decreases our reaction to stress.   I’ve been a meditation student since the last century, and I can tell you, it does.   Here’s how you meditate:

  • Sit down;
  • Pay attention to your breath, maybe by counting each breath;
  • When your attention wanders or you lose count, bring your attention back to your breath.

If you’re game, stop now and set the timer on your phone for 5 minutes. Try it.


Feel less stressed?   Maybe not.   Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Over the years I’ve talked with a lot of people about meditation.   When the basic steps don’t show an immediate result, we might reach conclusions.  It doesn’t work.   I’m doing it wrong.   I can’t do it.

(Hint:  the real key to learning meditation is finding human beings to teach you.   But I digress.   Kind of.)

To paraphrase Stephen Covey, when you manage people, it’s not possible to be efficient.   But you can be effective.

It’s not fast, it’s not easy, it’s not “nano”.   You need to practice for more than 15 minutes, and more than once.   You can read about it, and that helps.   But you’ll probably need human to mentor you as you develop your skills.

It’s sticky, it’s time-consuming.   And it’s big.   Big, because when you’re acting in either tail of the normal curve, you’re really having an impact on someone’s life:  for better or for worse.

If you’re in the center of that curve?   Well, suffice it to say that I was a prolific blogger when I wasn’t able to find a challenge in my corporate job.   (Now I’ll be lucky to post 3-4 times a month…)

Oh, and I didn’t mean for my title to merely steal your attention.   When you’re dealing with people, a stitch in time does save nine.

That difficult conversation you’ve been avoiding with one of your people, maybe someone whose performance isn’t up to snuff?

  1. Sit down.
  2. Write a script for the conversation:  it can be a list of bullet points.   (If you’re fortunate, you’ve got a mentor, boss, or peer who will partner with you to practice the discussion.)
  3. Make an appointment to have that conversation:  keep it.

This will definitely take longer than 15 minutes.

But what if, over the period of the next couple of weeks, it takes a half day?   What’s the potential return on your investment?

When my clients are working with these challenges, we discuss the business consequences of inaction.   We also look at the mental bandwidth devoted to avoidance, to conversations we’re having at home, or with friends, about our “problem person.”   When we take that stitch — in time– we might see people’s performance come up to speed.  Result: the potential to save more than just our own time.

It won’t be easy.   But if you’ve ever golfed, played a musical instrument, or made art, you know that you improve with practice.

You only improve with practice.

(Photo by Carly & Art, used under Creative Commons license.)