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How to Regain Control From Your BlackBerry

March 2008

Blackberries and other smart phone devices are supposed to provide the flexibility to be able to work anywhere but are they really allowing us more freedom? It is important to recognize when your Blackberry has become more of a burden than resource and how to solve this problem.

The BlackBerry & the Treo are ubiquitous addictive functional devices. They are known as smart phones. Sometimes I wonder if the name is appropriate because they may be smarter than we are.

Look around. People are on their blackberries at the airport, walking around town, in meetings, while driving (yes, while driving) and over family dinner. They are very practical devices that have created their own kind of manic behavior. Research in Motion, the manufacturer of the BlackBerry, has an extensive advertising campaign in print and on the web with real people answering the question: “Ask Someone Why They Love Their Blackberry.”

By the way, I use the term “blackberry” in a generic sense, just like certain other brand names. I happen to use a Palm Treo myself, but the purposes are essentially the same and I will use the term “blackberry” to describe the devices.

Blackberries are tools that are supposed to make us more productive. Yet managing the onslaught of information, and the continuing concern that something is being missed, can have a negative effect on productivity. The advantage of the blackberry is that you can work from anywhere, anytime. The disadvantage is precisely the same. Hence, they are known as “crackberries,” and I’ve heard of a repetitive stress situation called “blackberry thumb.” Yet, mobile professionals are so wired to these things that various forms of aberrant behavior ensue.

On my way to present a program at a law firm in Washington, D.C. several months ago, I followed a very well-dressed, distinguished looking gentleman down Pennsylvania Avenue for about ten blocks. He had his arm out in front of him with his blackberry cradled in his palm the entire way, just waiting for a vibration. He did get a couple of messages during his brief walk. Couldn’t he just as well have checked when he arrived at his office?

The tools that we think are making us more productive can rob us of concentration, harm relationships, and keep us from focusing on critical tasks. One of the leading thinkers and practitioners on attention deficit disorder, Dr. Edward Hallowell, wrote a book last year called CrazyBusy where he noted that, due to the nature of our information age, many of us exhibit attention deficit traits although we do not have clinical ADD. Dr. Hallowell stated that “we need to be careful that we don’t allow our electronic devices – and the curious magnetism they exert on our minds – to take control of us….”

We need to learn how to manage our tools rather than have them manage us. One of my favorite blackberry stories, which I tell in my programs on managing e-mail overload, is that of a colleague checking his blackberry in the locker room after emerging from the shower. There he stands stark naked, dripping wet, checking his blackberry before even drying off. I said, “Be careful, you might electrocute yourself.” Without skipping a beat, or looking up from the blackberry, he said, “I’ve already checked – low voltage!”

Just because you can doesn’t mean that you should. So how do we learn to let go? Didn’t we all get by before we had all of these high tech tethers? Please understand that I am not suggesting that we get rid of our blackberries. I use one myself and have no intention of giving it up. But, I have learned how to manage and use it as a tool to enhance my productivity.

Here are some suggestions for taking back some control.

Be wary of multitasking – learn to focus:

E-mail will interrupt your work if you let it. Research in England several years ago found that checking e-mail as it comes in, and thereby letting it become a distraction and interrupt your flow of concentrated work, results in a greater loss of IQ than smoking marijuana. Now I don’t know how the researchers monitored the control group or measured the difference between the two groups, but they were making a point. Distraction interferes with focus, and lack of focus leads to work taking more time than it needs to take.

Did you ever attend a meeting where many of the participants are constantly checking their blackberries? They are not engaged in the meeting. While there is the impression of great productivity, there is also the risk of missing something important. In CrazyBusy, Dr. Hallowell states that “it is a myth that you can perform two tasks simultaneously as well as you can perform one. It is fine to believe that multitasking is a skill necessary in the modern world, but to believe it is an equivalent substitute for single-minded focus on one task is incorrect.”

Determine a reasonable interval for checking messages:

In order to keep e-mail from interfering with your ability to focus and get things done, try to develop a reasonable interval for checking e-mail given your responsibilities. Lawyers are often tied up for some period of time during court hearings, depositions, negotiations, client meetings, closings, etc. We make do with checking our blackberries during breaks. We should bring the same practice into the office when we are trying to concentrate on a project.

Many lawyers I work with say it is difficult to let a period of time go by before responding to e-mails because they have spoiled the senders by developing the habit of immediate response. If they don’t respond almost instantaneously, the sender wonders what’s going on with them.

If your interval for check and response time is immediate, then you will be continually distracted. Yes, you will get through your e-mails faster, but what else will you have accomplished?

Discuss expectations with colleagues and clients:

Don’t assume your supervisor’s or client’s expectations on response time to e-mail. Last year, the lawyers in the litigation practice group of a large law firm entered their conference room for a program on “overcoming information overload.” Every associate put a Treo down on the table in front of them; none of the partners did so. I asked why the associates had their blackberries with them since we were going to do a two-hour workshop. Answer: “so we can respond immediately to a partner’s e-mail.” I pointed out that none of the partners had their blackberries in the room.

The chair of the practice group asked an associate, “Who ever said that we expected immediate response to our e-mails?” The associate responded that he assumed it. But, the issue had never been discussed within the practice group, nor had mutual expectations and responsibilities been established.

With some exceptions, such as if you have an IP practice, most people do not expect instant turnaround on e-mail. Try to check on an hourly basis or when you are making a transition between tasks. To determine what is expected of you, discuss the situation with colleagues and clients and reach a mutually agreeable response time. Don’t just assume.

Unplug periodically – give it a rest:

Last December, the Wall Street Journal had a story on “BlackBerry Orphans” which discussed the impact that chronic use of the devices are having on family dynamics. It was the most read and, ironically, the most e-mailed story that day. The side-bar to the article had a 12-step program for blackberry addicts. Among the suggestions are: leave the device in your car or at home when you are attending a function for your child; set boundaries (let colleagues know that it will be turned off for a designated period of time); declare a blackberry-free zone in your home.

Just the other day, a story in The Recorder in San Francisco discussed the effect of billable hour requirements on associate retention and considered flexible work schedules. While blackberries provide the freedom for such flexible work schedules, they can also interfere with the reasons for seeking such flexibility in the first place. The article referred to an accounting firm that apparently adds a message to all e-mails entering or leaving the server after 7 P.M. on Fridays: “Are you sure you want to send this message or can it wait till Monday morning?”

Don’t be rude:

Have you ever been in a discussion or meeting with someone who steals glances at his or her blackberry. It’s hard enough to be a good listener without additional distractions.

Carrying the 12-step program even further, the website CrackBerry.com, the self-described “#1 site for BlackBerry Users (& Abusers!)” has developed “13 steps to breaking a CrackBerry Addiction” because they didn’t think 12 steps were enough. Step 6 suggests that the abuser “make a list of all persons we have harmed through our rudeness, inconsideration and pretentious self-involvement, and make amends to them all.”

Conclusion – determine what’s right for you:

How we decide to use our available tools is a personal choice. I’m just suggesting that you recognize when your behavior is borderline addictive rather than purposeful. Discuss expectations with colleagues. Learn how to disengage with the device to concentrate on projects, rejuvenate yourself and spend uninterrupted time with family. You may actually be more productive in the long run.

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About the Author

Irwin Karp is a productivity consultant with Productive Time in Sacramento, California. He presents practical time management seminars for lawyers at bar association CLE programs and customized in-house workshops at law firms around the country. Irwin is also an attorney, former managing partner of a small environmental law firm, Special Advisor to the Executive Committee of the Law Practice Management and Technology Section, and a member of the Association for Continuing Legal Education. Irwin can be reached by phone: (916) 446-6846 or by e-mail: ikarp@productivetime.com.


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