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  Technology

Computers, Tequila and Hand Guns: Controlling Technology So It Doesn't Control You

August 2009
With so many rapid-fire changes in technology, can we really be expected to keep pace? Maybe it's time to return to a few basics before we burn our harddrives at both ends.

Veteran technology journalist Mitch Ratcliffe once said, “Computers have enabled people to make more mistakes faster than almost any invention in history, with the possible exception of tequila and hand guns” This simple statement sums up both the power and the potentially devastating consequences of computers and our growing reliance on them. While their ability to improve our lives cannot be doubted, every benefit can be a potential detriment if not managed properly. Consider the following:

Speed . Computers allow us to do more and to do it faster. Tasks that used to take days or weeks can now be done in a matter of minutes. But with this increased speed comes heightened expectations and pressure to perform at increasingly higher levels. And with this increased speed comes more opportunity for mistakes. Just ask the attorney at Pepper Hamilton who was defending Eli Lilly in a lawsuit and inadvertently sent a confidential email to a reporter at the New York Times rather than to co-counsel who had a similar name. As luck would have it, the reporter had written extensively about Eli Lilly and its legal woes and decided to use the email in a story. For that attorney, clicking the “send” button was the equivalent of firing a hand gun. Once the act was done, the only thing left to do was to assess the damage.

Collaboration. Computers and the internet have made the world a smaller place. We can collaborate on projects in real time with people on the other side of the globe. And we can do so from a Starbucks or our homes just as easily as we can from work. In some respects this has made our lives easier as “face time” has given way to “flex time.” But the ability to connect with others on a virtually unlimited basis has eroded our sense of personal time and space. Employers expect us to be available at all hours and even while we are on vacation. Clients expect answers to complex legal questions within minutes of sending an email. This constant “on call” mentality prevents us from being engaged in the moment and puts a strain on our relationships with our friends and families. For many of us, our reliance on computers, email, and the internet has become an addiction. Sound ridiculous? Neglecting important social, occupational, and recreational activities; excessive use; unsuccessful efforts to reduce consumption; and anxiety induced by withdraw are all symptoms of alcoholism that could just as easily describe the effects of our “crackberry” habits.

Access to Information. The amount of information available to us today is staggering. Not only is it growing at a faster rate than it has at any time throughout history, it also comes at us from an ever increasing variety of sources. On an average day at the office, we have to deal with multi-line phones, multi-function “smart” phones, multiple email accounts, and even multiple monitors. At the same time, we have multiple programs performing multiple tasks on our computers. While all of this multi-tasking is intended to meet the ever increasing demands imposed by technology, the reality is that it is counter-productive. Researchers at the University of Michigan estimate that we lose 20-40% of efficiency as a result of multi-tasking which wastes up to two to three hours per day. Likewise, a 2005 study commissioned by Hewlett-Packard found that multi-tasking lead to a temporary drop of 10 points in IQ test scores. To put that in perspective, that is more of a drop than is associated with losing an entire night of sleep or smoking marijuana. That’s right, multi-tasking makes you dumber than pot!

Unless you are Amish, chances are that your practice will become increasingly dependent on computers and technology. So how can you control technology rather allowing it to control you? Try these common sense tips:

  • Double-Check Everything. Wise carpenters follow the adage, “measure twice, cut once.” In today’s world, that adage would more aptly state: “check twice, click once.” Check to make sure that your email is directed to the proper recipient. Check to make sure that you are saving your document in the correct place. Think long and hard about hitting the delete button. If more of us followed this simple advice, the manufacturers of heartburn medication would be put out of business.
  • Slow Down. If it is true that thinking is the source of all power, then not taking time to think must be the source of that powerless feeling you get when you make a technology-related blunder. Just because technology allows you to do some things faster does not mean that you should do so. Remember, whether you are traveling on the interstate or on the information superhighway, speed kills.
  • Set boundaries . While your particular situation may not allow you to remove the “electronic leash” at night, on weekends, or even while on vacation, you have to carve out some time for yourself. It will allow you to recharge which will make you a happier and more productive worker. Even if you do not do it for yourself, do it for your family. They deserve it.
  • Schedule it . Rather than checking your email or voice mail in Pavlovian fashion every time your email alert chimes or your telephone light starts flashing, schedule times throughout the day to check them. This will allow you to focus your entire effort on the task at hand rather than wasting time constantly “cycling back” or reorienting to the previous task.
  • Monotask . Dr. Renee Marois from the Marois Laboratory on Human Information Processing at Vanderbilt studied brain activity and found that when participants were given two demanding tasks at the same time, the second task was postponed or “queued” until the first was completed. This is particularly true when the tasks involved the same part of the brain or complex tasks. This processing delay results in “inattention blindness” which can cause us to miss critical information when multi-tasking. As a result, some of the most productive attorneys are professed “monotaskers.” They realize that it is better to do one thing well than to do many things poorly. And if the science is not convincing enough, consider the ethics involved. If your client is paying for your time, shouldn’t it get the benefit of your undivided attention?

While these tips are admittedly basic, isn’t getting back to the basics what it is all about?

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About the Author

Thomas W. Shumate IV is Of Counsel to Kay, Griffin, Enkema & Brothers, PLLC in Nashville, Tennessee. He practices business and employment litigation and is the Chair of the Tennessee Bar Association’s Law Office and Technology Section. You can learn more about him at his blog on Tennessee non-compete law and business torts.

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