The Big Idea - Look Up from the Screen

Peninsula Team

June 29 2012

Last Tuesday, my hard drive crashed. Not only crashed, but imploded, if hard drives can do that. I lost everything – every file I’d created, every photo I’d uploaded, every email I’d written since I got that particular computer.

Fortunately I’d backed up most of it, give or take, by using backups like Dropbox (www.dropbox.com) to save my documents and pictures. Such services are a godsend when you’re a small business. And others have told me subsequently of the value of ICloud, Google drive and other such programmes to back up files automatically. You live and learn.

But as a result, I started thinking about the current reliance on technology.

In a different generation, the thought of losing years of correspondence and communication because of a “virus in the system” would have been inconceivable. Everything was printed, filed and stored away. Only fire or flood could have destroyed it. So is the paperless office such a golden aspiration?

And we all know that’s just the start of it. Technology can kill human interaction. I’m no Neanderthal - I love Facebook and I thrive on texting, social networking and all the rest of it. And yet in a business environment, this can be a huge danger.

Here’s an example. Someone I know was pitching for a really important piece of business to extend an account where they already had a toehold. They got on a train for their journey home and were busy texting and catching up on emails on their Blackberry. They didn’t even take a second to check out the other people in the carriage. Just as they raised their head from their mobile device after half an hour’s frantic electronic communication, the very person they were due to pitch to stood up from his seat opposite to get off at his stop.

What an opportunity that was to strike up a bit of conversation, make human contact, develop a personal connection. Wasted. We all know business is about relationships, and relationships don’t come through a screen. They come by knowing people by name and by face and by building trust and confidence.

Don’t get me wrong - technology certainly has its place and there are many changes it has brought that we should value. News round the clock, industry information, share prices, market updates, shopping, books, anything you need on tap at the touch of a key. Tablets, handhelds, kindles, all the rest of it. But sometimes there’s so much information that you simply don’t know where to start and what to do with it. Just managing your email inbox can prove too much to deal with, never mind keep up with newsfeeds, Twitter and all the other sources of information.

So the first tip is, don’t try to monitor it all. Accept you can’t and also accept that trying to read everything could have a detrimental effect on your performance more generally. Be strict about how long you spend on dealing with email and only check your email at certain times of the day if your job possibly allows it. Work in a focused way on one thing at a time in blocks of ninety minutes – apparently the optimum working length for maximum concentration – and then move onto another task with a short break in between. When you’re focusing on your emails, focus on them entirely for that period, and then move on.

Secondly, be selective. You can’t be all things to all people. Know what’s important – where you find the most valuable information for your business, where you get the best news updates and refer to those sources. Consider using a news aggregator to get a lot of information in one place such as Google Reader to save time and see things at a glance. And learn to accept you can’t read every article, every email and take every call. Trying to read everything and take everything in means that we can miss the really important stuff.

Email is one of the real sources of procrastination and distraction in a business environment. Delete email ruthlessly and remove yourself from every unnecessary list, freeing up your inbox for what really matters. Reply quickly, succinctly and to the point making it clear exactly what is required from each recipient of the email. Stay on topic and be as brief as possible. By setting the tone in your emails, you set an example for employees and colleagues to use the same formal, professional and most importantly succinct language back to you.

Use folders smartly in your email system – rather than having them all sitting in your main inbox, consider having separate folders for your “to do” emails, your “waiting on others” emails and your “working on” emails. Also set up folders for “reference”, “of interest” and so on.
Call management is also a tough one to master. Let your calls go to voicemail when you need to focus or have someone else take messages for you and take a certain time in the day to deal with and return all your calls.

The main thing is to keep your priorities and goals clear and ensure that whatever you are doing is aligned to those priorities. Complete the major tasks first and don’t get distracted whilst performing them. Try to delegate the tasks that won’t add value to what you’re doing or that someone else can do just as effectively.

It’s really helpful to work out when you are most productive during the day – are you a morning person for example – and schedule the most important pieces of work for those periods.

And it’s vital to ensure that your technology is working for you rather than the other way around. Just because a piece of software exists doesn’t mean it is right for your business and your way of working. Sometimes a handwritten note can do the job far better than an email and a paper diary might suit you far better than a PDA.

Finally, focus on relationships over technology. Some relationships can be built, to a certain level, through social networking, Skype and other remote technologies. But ultimately it’s always worth getting out of your seat and speaking to someone or seeing them face-to-face as nothing replaces real human interaction.

We all recognise the value of technology, but as I learnt to my cost last week, overreliance on it can lead to potential disaster. So embrace it, learn how to handle it well, and let it serve you as a business rather than being its slave.

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