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Strategies for Taking Control of Our Constantly Connected Lives

Phil Covington headshotWords by Phil Covington
Leadership & Transparency

We've all heard the phrase, "there's an app for that," but when you consider it didn't exist before the first iPhone launched six years ago, it illustrates just how rapidly we've integrated mobile technology into all facets of our daily lives.

But, the positive impact that constant digital connectivity may have on our lives has to be weighed against the potential for the overload and anxiety it sometimes causes, too. How we bring technology into balance in our lives was the subject of a panel discussion, "Returning to your senses" at the Go Further with Ford 2013 Trend Conference on Tuesday, June 25th.

Experts in the field discussed where tech-based connectivity helps us, where it hinders us and offered some tips to ensure we make technology work for us, rather than letting it control us.

So, what can we do to stay on the right side of technology?

We've become content alone together

Sherry Turkle, author and MIT professor who has spent 30 years researching people's relationships with technology, asserts that while she's no technology luddite, there are several worrying social trends resulting from being constantly wedded to our devices.

For example, her research has found that people often prefer to text rather than talk, because it allows us to, "communicate with people in amounts we can control." As a consequence, the skill of discourse is being lost while we willingly, "sacrifice conversation in favor of connection." It's easy to recall those moments when we've seen others, or perhaps even ourselves, hanging out in a group, faces buried in devices, apparently, "content to be alone together."

There's clearly a social price to be paid if technology usurps conversation, and Turkle's prescription is to meter our addiction to devices. Especially when it comes to young children. We need to turn off occasionally, engage with real people, make eye contact with others, and most important, learn to develop an appreciation for solitude, rather than reach for the phone to see if someone has replied to our last text. Turkle asserts we'll be less anxious and less lonely if we can do that.

Calm - the absence of anxiety

Neema Moraveji, who runs the Calming Technology Lab at Stanford University, has a Ph.D. on "Augmented Self-Regulation" and founded Spire Inc, certainly agrees with the pitfalls of constant connectedness, though you might say his solution differs in that it perhaps suggests fighting technology, with technology.

Moraveji believes that we can develop apps designed to move us away from a state of anxiety towards one of calm; the state of mind in which we are most effective. He advocates that because we're unlikely to give up our devices, we need new apps that will serve as tools to help us build self awareness.

For example, an e-mail platform which shows how many times you've checked messages today, might help curb the compulsion to needlessly look at them again. Or, perhaps, providing creative ways to delete messages, such as slashing them, or exploding them (virtually, of course) rather than simply sending them to trash - might help us fight the banality of our e-mail load.

Finding inner calm? There's an app for that!

Creating the optimal workplace

Of course, the corporate world is where perhaps the stress of technology is often felt the most. Jenny Lykken, a learning and development specialist in the area of "people operations,"  (don't call it HR) at Google, explains how they try to provide "Googlers" with the resources they need to enable mindfulness, health and happiness. These are based on three pillars.

Firstly, they promote guided meditation to bring people from different parts of the organization together in a mindful way. Secondly, "transforming failure" helps people figure out "where the finish line is." For example, there's always one more e-mail you can send today, so where do you draw the line? And how do you set expectations with your co-workers? Thirdly, they promote "compassionate leadership" - a condition based fundamentally on both effective listening and authenticity.

The point of all this is to help individuals at work take the opportunity to drive the process of change and mindfulness themselves.

The car that cares

Speaking of driving, the car has become the ultimate technology-enabled mobile device, where distraction is potentially lethal. Gary Strumolo, head of Ford Motor Company's research labs, described some of the health and wellness opportunities connected cars might offer us in the future, calling it, "The car that cares."

In the realm of driving, it's about delivering useful technology, but keeping it out of your way, so you can focus and be safe. For example, one application might be in-seat heart rate monitoring, providing a measure of driver stress. Coupling this information with data from sensors monitoring traffic and weather conditions outside, the car can create a driver "workload estimate." Depending on this estimate, an incoming phone call might be routed directly to voice mail to avoid distraction at moments of high-stress driving conditions. Clever stuff, and potentially life saving!

The bottom line

The tools to help us manage the digital overload will no doubt continue to evolve. But maybe we simply need to empower ourselves to live more consciously, step away from our devices from time to time, and give ourselves a break from constant multitasking. We can start that today.

 Ed Note: Travel to Detroit was covered by Ford.

Phil Covington headshotPhil Covington

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.

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