VACATION? WHAT’S THAT?

While dining out recently, my wife and I noticed a young couple at a nearby table. Their respective BlackBerrys mesmerized them; they rarely looked up or at each other. Even the arrival of entrees barely interrupted technological trances. During the hour-and-a-half we were there, they spoke only a handful of sentences.

According to a recent front page NY Times article, there’s a scientific explanation for such unsociable behavior. Unfortunately, the report filled two interior pages of the paper, which meant that it wasn’t likely to sustain the attention of those most needing its insights. Yes, I’m looking at you, my fellow lawyers, but you’re not the only culprits.

Young adults face a special challenge. If BlackBerrys and text-messaging feel familiar to you millennials, could it be related to the fact that you had Gameboys as kids?

Here’s a summary of “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price”:

1. Technology has reduced the need for direct human interaction. That produces important efficiencies, but it also inflicts collateral damage. For example, what was once considered family time has become parallel play on handheld devices. That’s what was happening with the couple seated near us at the restaurant. At another nearby table, a teenager and his younger sibling likewise lost themselves in their gadgets while preoccupied parents did likewise.

2. Multi-tasking is a myth for all but 3% of the population. The vast majority of us can do only one thing at a time reasonably well. Don’t blame me; that’s how the human mind operates.

3. When you try to multi-task, you become less efficient at juggling problems.

4. Multi-taskers are more sensitive to incoming information and, therefore, more easily distracted. But brains attempt to adapt. That can create problems, especially when the urge to remain plugged in assumes the attributes of an addiction. “The scary part,” notes Stanford professor of communications Clifford Nass, “is they can’t shut off their multi-tasking tendencies when they’re not multi-tasking.” Once the mind becomes attention deficit disordered (ADD), it gets bored more easily.

5. According to a recent poll, 30 percent of those under age 45 thought that cellphones, smart phones, and personal computers made it harder for them to focus.

All of this adds up to more stress — especially for lawyers and other professionals. So why do it? When economic historians revisit the stunning productivity gains of the 1990s and early 2000s, one big chunk will turn out to have been illusory. Specifically, technology facilitated the conversion of leisure time into working hours.

The legal profession epitomizes the phenomenon. In biglaw, productivity has become synonymous with billable hours, period. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what legal consultant Hildebrandt Baker Robbins said in its 2010 Client Advisory to our profession:

“The high point of law firm productivity was in the late 1990’s, when average annual billable hours for associates in many firms were hitting 2,300 to 2,500.”

In other words, the billable hours imperative destroyed the wall separating work from everything else. Especially in large firms charging ever-increasing rates, clients understandably expected their attorneys to be on-call — 24/7.  As client-billed time became a key metric for evaluating talent, senior partners demanded bigger  sacrifices all the way down the food chain. (“Keep your hours up,” they urged — and still do.)

Laptops, cellphones, and BlackBerrys have been aiders and abettors. After all, who can credibly claim to have been unavailable for any longer than it takes to visit the bathroom?

So the next time you tell yourself that you’re taking time off, spend a moment contemplating what that really means. Meanwhile, if you’re seeking my insights over the upcoming long holiday weekend, perhaps you’ll consider one of my books.

They’ll have to suffice because this blog will be idle until July 9. I’m taking an old-fashioned vacation: no computer; no BlackBerry; no cellphone. (Well, okay, I’ll take my cellphone so other family members can reach me in case of emergency; no one else has the number.) Sounds just like your vacations, right?

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