Summary: leave your phone, disconnect from the Internet and reconnect with people.
Just to catch you up – I’ve been travelling a lot recently (hence also the lack of posts) – I visited Wiesbaden, Frankfurt, Madrid, Lisbon and Philadelphia in the last four weeks and it’s been a blast. I ran in each of them, got incredibly lost in Madrid (ended up doing 25 km instead of 15 km), experienced the unforgiving hilliness of Lisbon and the grid of American streets in Philly. I was also ill for a week – some virus was tormenting me, causing a 7-day break in training – but am almost back to full health now, continuing the training and the journey to becoming an IRONMAN (which is still on track).
This post is about something I noticed & experienced during my trip to Germany and the US of A. As I’m saving up for a house and every penny goes towards that goal, I didn’t enable data roaming during any of the above mentioned trips – I was accompanied by other consultants on these two visits, though and that opened my eyes to a simple truth that we all know about, but sometimes forget how overwhelming it is: Internet can be an addiction. Hearing your phone buzzing and picking it up to check who commented on your new Facebook picture or what Donald J. Trump did this time has become an involuntary action. As with any involuntary actions, the first step to controlling it is becoming conscious of it. And particularly those two trips made me ultra-aware of the involuntary craving for being able to scroll through something on my phone.
I couldn’t, though – no WiFi, no data roaming, no text messages or Facebook updates, no news from BBC or the NYTimes, no tweets, nothing of these sorts. The only times I was able to check the social media or the news was in the evening and in the morning over breakfast. By the way, are you cringing a little bit while reading this? Are you imagining yourself in my situation and thinking “I wouldn’t be able to survive this”?
Anyway, I’m sure you’ve already guessed what happened: due to lack of WiFi / Internet connectivity, my connections with real people enhanced (surprise surprise!). In my job as a management consultant, you cannot overestimate the value of relationships with other people and this situation only reaffirmed the truth of it. In a few bullet points, these are my key takeaways:
- I felt a lot more connected to people. Recently I went through a stakeholder engagement course where one of the key messages was ‘active listening’ – it can seem like a fancy buzzword until you actually put it into work and experience how it can improve your relationships. As my concentration wasn’t broken by my phone buzzing away, I was able to focus fully on the other person, be it a client or a fellow consultant. I never take my phone into meetings anyway exactly for that reason, to ensure the involuntary action of picking it up doesn’t occur. This was a level up, though, as I couldn’t look at it throughout the whole day and therefore could focus my energy on the relationships.
- Not looking at your phone is a huge differentiator – I was always very conscious of how much people use their phone during their working day and how it distracts them from the job at hand. Many times I’ve experienced it first hand – I’d talk to someone and they’d pick up their phone to respond to someone on WhatsApp or text someone back, reassuring you that they’re listening, but actually not being able to do it (as multitasking in this form is really hard, if not impossible – maybe more on this in a different post). It might be that I’m just a boring person and that’s why it happens to me 🙂 Cast your mind back to any meeting in the last week that you participated in. How many people were either on their phones during it or were replying to their emails (thus being prisoners of WiFi)? I’ve just spent a week in a workshop in Philly and 99% of the room were doing exactly that. So what do you think, how will it look like when you’re the only person fully paying attention and being engaged at all times, without having to do the phoney “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that, can you repeat the question” because you were too bogged down in BAU emails instead of paying attention? Be present, be active, be engaged – make active listening your differentiator, something that you’re known for and you’ll soon see the difference.
- Less emails = not feeding the beast. In Germany, my fellow consultant and I weren’t on WiFi or connected to the Internet in any other way and therefore couldn’t send any emails. The surprising consequence of that was the fact that we were receiving a lot less emails! You’d normally expect a double-digit number of unread emails in your inbox in the evening after a whole day of being disconnected, but that was not the case. It turned out that because we weren’t feeding the beast by sending emails on every thought that came to our mind, we were also getting a lot less back, which was really fascinating to me. It reminded me of a story another fellow consultant – ex-Army man – told us once. His unit suffered from a major IT problem at some point which disabled their emails and other electronic communication. They had to revert to using pen and paper (!!!, right?) and that was how the orders and important messages were passed on for a number of days. Due to the fact that pen and paper required the effort of writing something down, then physically taking it to the person who would deliver it etc., the amount of messages was cut dramatically. Whenever someone thought that they had something important to communicate, they would self-assess it and decide to invest the effort only then, when it was really mission-critical, which was not often, as it was the case. The ease of just firing off an email makes you almost turn off that self-assessment of the message, which not only feeds the beast, but also can cause the really crucial messages to be lost / overlooked in the flood of other communications.
- A little epiphany: you don’t need to know everything at the exact time it happens. This might blow your mind: if you read the news in the evening and find out then that something important happened, the world won’t end. Being fed the news immediately might aid as a conversation starter, sure. But how often will you get lost in the reading and will jump from one story to another while wasting an opportunity to connect with others? Same goes for emails: if there’s something really urgent in your inbox they’ll call you. In many cases you’re just assigning a level of high urgency to incoming emails (see: Eisenhower matrix) and feel like being disconnected will cause armageddon. Another mind-blowing observation: it won’t.
- And finally, one last small thing: don’t use your phone / WiFi throughout the day and you’ll have more to look forward to in the evening. I personally enjoy knowing stuff (wow, the complexity of this statement is stunning) and I found the catching up in the evening after work exciting! What has happened during the day when I was disconnected? What are my friends doing? How many political talk shows can I catch up on before dinner? And so on. This made the reading / watching a bit more special and actually shorter than before. A great example of self-imposed scarcity rule (read some Cialdini if you’re interested in that).
I know all of these might be pretty trivial for you. They were eye-reopeners for me, though. ‘Re’-openers, as I knew this stuff already, but these past few weeks reminded me of how much of a prison can the ubiquitous access to Internet be, how negative impact it can have on productivity and human relations. So let me end with a picture from my favourite trilogy:
Be like Neo. Free your mind and learn how to stop the Internet connectivity bullets attacking you from every angle. I can’t go deeper than that.
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Stay healthy and awesome!