"Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them."
Alfred North Whitehead. 1861-1947.
"The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane."
Marcus Aurelius. 121-180 AD.
“If your laptop is open, you’re not listening. It’s [that] simple.”
@rands on Twitter. Emphasis added.
A colleague forwarded this tweet to me a few weeks after I announced a total ban on laptops and phones in my meetings. I would only allow the devices if they were used for the purposes of the meeting itself - to take notes or to make a presentation. No more seances with people sitting around the table staring at their screens and doing their best to ignore the speaker. No more huddles with half the team mentally absent.
The tweet came as a welcome surprise. It is so obvious yet most of us choose to ignore it. It was refreshing to hear someone else say the same thing and in such simple terms. If your laptop is open, if you’re looking at your phone, you are - by definition - not listening to what I’m saying. It’s that simple.
It’s easy to see this behavior as yet another manifestation of our obsession with multitasking. What's bizarre is that we seem to have all come to the mutual agreement that the "correct" behavior is to multiplex and ignore the meeting for something momentarily more urgent or more captivating.
The human brain, I'm sorry to say, has not evolved to handle multiple simultaneous but unrelated inputs efficiently. By necessity, nay - by evolution, it has learned to tune out one source in order to focus attention on another. That means you’re really not paying attention to the meeting while you read your email. Trust me, you’re not. Unfortunately, we the enlightened denizens of the twenty first century have recently stumbled upon the increased mental stimulation delivered through multitasking. Who cares if I ignore this guy for a few minutes while I pay attention to that email? I can follow both threads and get more work done at the same time.
There is a fatal fallacy in this argument. It just doesn't work. The human brain cannot do it. Period. You have to pay less attention to one input in order to focus on the other. Over an extended period of time, you have to let go of some details in one or the other thread of cognition. You have to drop some bits. Be it texting while driving or staring at your phone while sitting in a meeting, If you don't believe me, try reading a book while you are also pre-occupied with work. How often do you look up and realize you haven't parsed a single sentence in the previous paragraph - even though you "read" every word? If you still disagree with this logic, I would urge you to name two intellectual activities that you can do simultaneously with the same efficiency and attention to detail as doing them one at a time. Any two. Walking and chewing gum at the same time doesn't count, neither does rubbing your belly and patting your head.
I guarantee you that you are tuning one of the two trains of thought out for extended periods. I don't care if you are surfing the web or reading an email or tweeting or checking the stock market or even responding to an alert or debugging your code. You cannot do both at the same time. You are ignoring important details going on around you in the meeting in order to concentrate on the other input. The ubiquity of the information feeds coming at us at Internet speed does not reduce the intellectual capacity required to absorb them. If anything, it increases it as we try to time slice between the streams ever more frequently.
"You must pick up one or the other
Though neither of them are to be what they claim"
Bob Dylan. Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues. Highway 61 Revisited.
Now, since we are talking about attending meetings... The next logical question I have to ask, with no disrespect, is: Which one is more important? If your tweet, your email. your alert, your whatever requires your attention right now - by all means, please step outside and deal with it. Otherwise, please put it down and pay attention to the meeting. If the contents of the meeting are not important or relevant to you, why are you sitting there? Please go away and deal with the more important or urgent matter. When you are done, feel free to come back in. That way, we will all know which part of the discussion you missed, which action items we shouldn't depend on you for. When you sit there, you are giving everyone else in the room the impression that you are engaged, you are understanding their concerns and expectations, you are thinking through the problem. If your brain isn't there in the room, your body might as well not be either. Again - no disrespect intended. It's just human nature to not be able to multitask and the sooner we recognize that and compensate for it, the sooner we will all be more productive.
To be clear, I have personally been one of the worst offenders of this rule for many years. But I have repented. I stopped taking my laptop to meetings in order to resist the urge. The phone, I'm afraid, is surgically attached to my wrist and travels with me everywhere, even the bathroom. But I try not to - I constantly fight the urge to - pick it up during meetings.
The good news is that, in the intervening few months, we have managed to hold some excellent no-laptop no-phone meetings; ones where all attendees actually engaged in the topic at hand and participated actively in the discussion instead of reading their mail, IM’ing, tweeting, checking their stock portfolio, or otherwise distracting themselves.
It was tough going for the first few weeks. I had to keep reminding people of the rule. It was only after a few weeks, though, that I realized we had this whole thing backwards. I shouldn't have to ask you to close your laptop or put down your phone. Either you are interested in the topic of this meeting or you are not. If the former, please participate fully. If the latter, please leave so we know and can find someone else to fill the hole. As the meeting organizer, I should, of course, strive to make the meeting relevant and the decisions concrete. Otherwise, I deserve to be ignored for the latest tweet or alert. But I shouldn't have to beg you to close your laptop. Just like you shouldn't have to ask me to put down my cell phone. The onus should be on the offender to remedy his or her priority inversion problem. To me, this is a very binary situation. Either the meeting is more important and you should pay attention or your electronic friend is more important, in which case you should step outside and deal with it.
I'm happy to report that my meetings are more engaging, more purposeful, and more collaborative than before the rule was enforced. But the model falls apart as soon as we meet with other teams or other companies. As soon as we see the bad behavior reinforced, as soon as we see someone else "lighting up", we fall right back into the same old bad behavior and bury our heads in our phones too. Just like teenage peer pressure and smoking. If they can do it, so can I. And the whole enterprise falls apart.
Multitasking has become so ingrained in our culture that we take it for granted and fall back into bad habits at the first opportunity. Even our social encounters have suffered the same fate. How often do you look over at the next table and either the husband or the wife or the kids all have their heads buried in their phones? It wasn't until we, collectively and as a society, recognized smoking for what it was - an addictive and cancerous substance with no redeeming qualities - that we finally started to wean ourselves off of it. Even then, the effort took decades and required the re-education of an entire generation. I suspect the same pattern will repeat itself with our current infatuation with the glowing screens of our digital assistants. And, in this case too, the effort will have to start in the workplace.
A computer can multitask efficiently because it has perfect memory. It remembers every single memory location, every single register content, every single block of data on secondary storage, every open network connection - and restores them faithfully every time it returns to a task. Just as importantly, that task is suspended while the computer is busy with something else. Neither of those rules hold true in real life. Any operating systems guy will tell you: try dropping a bit from a single memory location, try corrupting a single register, try returning the wrong disk block, and the processor will screw up the task at hand. The computer can only multitask because it has perfect memory. We don't.
So - Am I cured? No, of course not. My case was more acute than most others. But I am glad to report that the disease is in remission. I have pretty much completely stopped carrying my laptop to meetings and I almost always avoid the temptation to pick up the phone during meetings. Almost always.
Go ahead. Close your laptop. Pick up a notepad. Maybe take some action items. Maybe even act on them later. Or just summarize the discussion for yourself. If you read it a week later, I promise you will realize you had already forgotten some of the finer points. Or forgotten to follow up on something you promised to do.
Let's start by having a "Leave Your Laptops at Home" day. Home, in this case, being your desk at work. Why not a "Step Away from that Phone" day? Let's holster it and leave it parked in your pocket for the duration of the meeting.
Update: Interesting and relevant article in the New York Times on the same topic.
If you enjoyed this blog, you may also want to check out the follow-up I wrote to address readers’ comments as well as broader “digital addiction” issues.