In his recent book Healthy Organizations, B.C.-based workplace consultant Graham Lowe remembers back to the early 1980s, when smoking was banned in the workplace, and workers were huddled outside for the first time, in the cold of winter, puffing. That was 30 years ago, a powerful memory for many of us but the harbinger of such a revolutionary change that many workers today can't conceive of what life was like before smoking was elbowed out of the workplace.
They can understand it better, I'd suggest, and we can all profit, if we address the widespread addiction today to the gadgets in our hands. No, BlackBerrys – and their many handheld equivalents – don't cause cancer. But I'd like to suggest that smokers in the 1980s and BlackBerry users today have a lot in common. And once again, we need a wrenching, revolutionary change – one that I suggest should start with the turn of the New Year.
Smokers tended to be oblivious to their effect on others – let alone themselves. It's the same with BlackBerry users today, caught up in their addiction.
Until the 1980s, everyone was supposed to put up with the smoker's infernal habit in social situations. Smokers never recognized how inappropriate, indeed bullying, their behaviour was. When pushback came, some smokers started to apologize and seek permission to smoke, making it difficult for friends and family to give an honest answer.
As with smoking, the BlackBerry habit isolates you in your own cocoon during many social situations. Everyone is talking at a restaurant table, for example, and you are entranced by the machine in your hand. Others are supposed to accept your lack of courtesy and grace. You may seek permission, but is it being granted with a full heart? Usually only by those who are hunched over their own handheld, just as smokers always gladly granted other smokers the permission to smoke.
Smoking destroyed the smoker's lungs. BlackBerrys destroy your soul. The addiction – being always on – seems like a blessing, just as the first taste of smoke in your lungs gave a sense of bliss. But what are you doing to your mind – and those dearest to you?
I was in a bookstore recently. A man and woman came in with two kids – and an invisible cloud of tobacco aroma around all of them. The man reeked, and the woman only slightly less so. But I was taken by the children, who were around 10 years of age, and the pungent smoker's smell they gave off. Maybe they smoke, but I suspect it was secondhand. It was a form of child abuse that in polite company we don't call by that name.
And what about you on evenings and weekends, when you withdraw from family to check your e-mail, or carry out other business functions on your BlackBerry? What is the damage to your children?
(I use the term BlackBerry, by the way, as shorthand for the outpouring of similar handhelds, and not to pick solely on that company and product. It's Canadian, after all, and thus much more heart-warming as a generic term than the phrase I should probably use: evil gadget.)
BlackBerrys are a signal of importance. You are so vital to the operation of your organization that you must be always on. Some smokers also seemed in the past to swagger when they lit up, perhaps the image of Bogie coming to mind. Today we see celebrities clutching their handhelds as they walk out of swanky restaurants and clubs.
As BlackBerrys pervade society, they are becoming less a signal of your status to others, since often they carry the same proof in their hands. However, it certainly reassures you of your eminence. But do you truly need to be always on? Perhaps a fire chief does. Midwives. Snow removal crews. The prime minister. Even Kim Kardashian, perhaps. But do you really need to be on call, 24-7?
When I was a newspaper editor, I learned that the next morning's edition could be closed, with the front page adjusted to late-breaking news, while I was home, asleep. Others on staff could cope, without the immediacy of my brilliance. A touch of humility. Jim Collins found that great leaders were determined and humble. A BlackBerry shows your determination. But it doesn't help to teach humility.
Perhaps you are so disorganized that you must be always on. The clutter of your life follows you around 24-7 because you can't delegate effectively or orchestrate events efficiently? Is that the reason?
Much more likely it's that you can't abstract yourself from a life of urgency. Consultant Stephen Covey developed a classic matrix for time management based on whether what we are doing is urgent and/or important. Most of us spend our days mired in urgent, non-important stuff, and hardly little time in the highly productive quadrant of important, non-urgent. The BlackBerry keeps you in the realm of urgency, perhaps some of it important, but most of it not. It may well be the biggest sign of incompetence around.
So turn it off. The holiday season nears, and it's a good time to try going cold turkey or cutting back. Make a resolution to change in the New Year: Shut down when you go home at night, or on weekends – or part of the evening and weekends. Put some fresh air back into your life.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life balance column.
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