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The Age of Responsiveness

by Jeremy McCarthy

I overheard this on a bus: “I’ve set a notification on my phone so now it will buzz me anytime she sends an e-mail. I can respond right away, even at 3 a.m.” Who was he talking about? His boss? An important new client? A disgruntled customer? I can only hope he was talking about his spouse or teen daughter, because family members are the only ones who should be able to reach us at three o’clock in the morning. But I doubt it.

Half my career was spent during the analog age. We didn’t send texts and e-mails, and we certainly didn’t expect an immediate response. In the ancient world, we used to type memos, which would languish in the outbox for hours at a time. (Note: By “outbox,” I refer to an artifact from days gone by consisting of an actual box that sat on one’s desk for outgoing mail and memos printed on actual paper—not the modern digital equivalent.)

Once leaving the outbox, a memo would make a long, slow journey to the mailroom (remember those, old-timers?) where it would sit in a nice cubby for a day or more (gasp!) before it would finally be picked up and viewed by the intended recipient. No reasonable person would expect a response in less than three to four days. Today, a Twitter war could flare up and eventually resolve itself before one of my memos would have even left my desk.

We now live in the age of hyperresponsiveness. Communication is virtually at the speed of thought. If we don’t respond quickly, we are penalized with the dreaded follow-up message: “Did you get my text?” This follow-up message is so effective at inducing a guilt-ridden response that e-mail spammers now bypass the first message altogether, jumping right to, “Hi, did you receive my last email?” We are being trained to respond faster and faster.

Naturally, responding quickly seems like a good thing, especially in the competitive world of business. Of course I want to respond to my customers as soon as possible when they need something. Of course I want to respond to my boss’ requests immediately. Of course I want to resolve issues that come up in my business as soon as they pop up. These things are all important to success.

“We become so accustomed to responding to every beep and buzz from our devices that we don’t notice the sacrifices we make along the way.”

The question becomes, what is this hyperresponsiveness costing us? We become so accustomed to responding to every beep and buzz from our devices that we don’t notice the sacrifices we make along the way. We lose time, unlocking our phones more than 80 times a day (on average). We lose sleep, checking messages right before bed and first thing in the morning (not to mention the urgent 3 a.m. e-mail notifications). Most importantly, we lose the quality engagement in whatever else we are doing with whomever else we are doing it with. Some part of our attention is always on the alert for incoming messages.

At a “Digital Wellness Retreat” at one of our hotels, recently, we invited guests to put their phones away for an afternoon and focus on their own personal wellness. You might be thinking that half a day without a phone could hardly be impactful. But it is actually quite transformational, which goes to show how rare it is that we step away from our device long enough to notice what it means to be a non-digital human.

The people who attend these retreats quickly notice three things:

+ They realize all the things they were doing on technology are actually not as important as they thought they were.

+ They become more aware of the sacrifices they have been making for the sake of their technology.

+ They become more connected to the people around them.

The impact of these retreats is powerful, but fleeting. Our guests return to their homes and their businesses, where the expectations of hyperresponsiveness are incompatible with their newly re-established non-digital humanity. I, too, struggle with this balance. But I have learned to draw the line at the 3 a.m. e-mail. My phone spends the night sleeping quietly in its own “bed” at the opposite end of the house. And I sleep quietly in mine.

Read more of Jeremy McCarthy's Organic Spa Magazine articles here:

How we become our tools | Vacation Time Travel | Raising Digital Natives | What's Good About Social Media?

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