They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and I completely understand that. Heck, I’ve lived that. Back in the 90s, I made fun of people who had cell phones. “I never want to be that important,” I’d murmur to friends, watching blowhards conducting business transactions in the middle of the grocery store, shouting into their phones while the rest of us were just trying to find the best deal on breakfast cereal. “Who needs to have a phone with them everywhere? That’s just crazy.”
But then I had my first baby, and suddenly, a cell phone seemed like a good idea. You know—for emergencies. And then you know what happened after that, right? “Just for emergencies” became “well, as long as I’m in the car I’ll return some calls” became “you can reach me at absolutely any time at this number.” And then one day it was time to get a new cell phone and it was the weirdest thing—now you could actually check email on your phone if you wanted to. Huh. Well, that might be handy… you know, in case of emergency.
Down the slippery slope I went. By the time I got my first iPhone, I was freelancing. It was a business purchase; I would need to be reachable, even away from a computer, and while shuttling kids around to various things, it sure was handy to at least be able to catch up on email.
It’s not just email, of course, and it’s not just smartphones. It’s that we’ve become a nation of people who expect that everyone is reachable at any time, who rarely unplug for fear of being seen as less serious than our constantly-online colleagues. I think the worst part is that most of us don’t even realize we’re doing it.
I certainly did a guilty double-take while reading this recent CNN article about people who obsessively check their smartphones. At this point in my life, I have a desktop computer at home, an ultralight laptop (and portable wifi), and a smartphone. Even times when I don’t tote my laptop with me with the intention of arriving somewhere and committing myself to doing work, I find my hand reaches into my purse, extracts my iPhone, and checks email even if I have nothing pressing going on. It’s reflex.
Last night we went out to dinner as a family, and as we sat at the table waiting for our food, my teenage daughter pulled out her cell phone and began texting. My husband told her quite sternly that using her phone at the table is rude. (We have a no phones at the table rule at home, but this was probably our first meal out since she got her new phone.) “I’m just telling [my friend] to stop texting me because we’re about to eat!” she protested, which garnered a resigned nod from my husband. “Besides,” she added, under her breath, “Mom does it.”
Ouch. She’s right, though. I’m always checking my mail.
Even on a regular workday, I’ve got five different windows up and will click over to mail the moment I see I have a new message. “It’s okay!” I tell myself. “I’m multitasking!” But am I? How much time am I losing, collectively, constantly shifting my focus from task to task?
I’m going to think about being more intentional about my time on email. I don’t want to be that person with my phone constantly in hand, and I certainly don’t want to be checking email instead of paying attention to what’s going on around me. I’m even considering shutting down email on my computer while I’m doing other things… but I’m not sure I’m ready for that. Baby steps.
Tell me I’m not alone? Have you accidentally become an all-the-time-emailer?