DESPERATELY SEEKING DOWNTIME

Couple Friday afternoon summer getaway days with a long weekend like the fourth of July and what do you get? Maybe not as much as you think.

A recent NY Times article pictures a family of four seated across their living room couch. Each has a laptop or handheld electronic device. They looked at the camera for the photo op, but the accompanying text demonstrates that they and many others are kidding themselves: physical proximity isn’t the same as spending time together.

Lawyers aren’t alone in pondering what quality time with others really means, but they confront special challenges in trying to find it. Once upon a time, work remained generally in the office; secretaries tracked down partners only for real emergencies; home was a refuge. Vacations meant that the entire family went someplace where everyone reconnected — and I don’t mean with WiFi.

Those good old days weren’t idyllic, but the lines separating work from everything else were clearer. The erosion began with voicemail. The ability to leave a message made it easier to do so while creating subtle pressure for recipients to check in periodically, even during vacations. E-mail made things worse. To the sender, it’s less intrusive than a phone call and, therefore, isn’t considered an interruption. BlackBerrys, text-messaging, and smart phones sped connection times and completed the melding of personal and professional existences.

Self-delusion about the consequences has become a special problem for attorneys who measure their lives in billable hours. They’ve convinced themselves that these technological innovations have come with no downside. Especially in big law, it’s all positive because everyone is just utilizing time more productively, i.e., it’s getting billed and the equity partners in particular are getting richer.

Associates supposedly benefit, too. Unlike earlier, “tougher” times, they can go home and continue billable activities in their virtual offices.

Clients? They get 24/7 access to their lawyers.

Everyone wins because the human mind can simultaneously do many things well, right? Not really.

The human brain processes information sequentially, that is, one thing at a time. When interrupted, the mind disengages from the original task, turns to the second one, and then disengages again before returning to what it was doing first. Not surprisingly, a recent scientific study found that young people (average age 24) switched tasks more quickly and easily than old ones (average age 69).

But another study reveals that people of all ages underestimate the extent to which they are, in fact, distracted in ways that burden the brain and diminish productivity. Using television and computer screens concurrently, the subjects multitasked between TV and internet content. On average, they switched between the two media four times per minute — or 120 times during the 27-minute experiment.

That’s stunning, but less shocking than the gap between reality and the subjects’ perceptions. Compared to the actual number of 120, they thought they’d switched between TV and computer screens only 15 times. The report concluded:

“That participants underreported their switching behavior so drastically echoes recent work in the applied multitasking field that illustrates how individuals tend to overestimate their multitasking ability and how heavy multitaskers are prone to distraction…[P]eople have little self-insight into multitasking behavior.”

If you’re checking for messages between innings at a ballgame or between shots on a golf course, you may not even know you’re doing it.

I’m not a technophobe. You’re reading this article because I sat at a computer, typed away, and then hit a button that propelled my musings into cyberspace. This very blog proves that technology has opened communication channels that facilitate intelligent interactions across continents and oceans. That won’t change and it shouldn’t.

But the next time you see couples or families at a restaurant, resort pool, or some other venue that’s supposed to bring them together, consider whether whatever each is doing independently proves that technology run amok may also be closing some important channels, too.

My recent family vacation reminded me that live conversations with all participants in the same place are still the best entertainment. Yes, even better than Skype and FaceTime. And no, I didn’t tweet while I was gone.

One thought on “DESPERATELY SEEKING DOWNTIME

  1. Well said, Steve. A week ago, as a result of a mid-level transgression at school, we disconnected our 13-year-old son from his electronics. No TV, Internet, Blackberry, texting, etc. At first, he was disconsolate, perceiving by default that there was nothing at all to do.

    To his credit, he must have decided to bear the punishment without being a pouting whiner. He read, contributed hugely to our packing and other relocation preparation, cleaned up the kitchen after meals, conversed with us during them, and generally functioned like a real human, rather than hibernating in his room, connected to his electronic lifelines. I said to him, “You’re really interesting when you’re not staring blankly at yet another episode of ‘Family Guy’ on the TV or sequestered with your door closed.”

    Such electronics dependence is not limited to teenagers, though. As you depict, many people are “together” only in the most strict physical sense. Sometimes, the most valuable function on any device is the “Off” switch.

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