Is it, or are we, really that important?

Michael Zeytoonian Business, Perspectives

The other day I was in the men’s bathroom.  I couldn’t help but notice that the guy standing next to me was holding up his phone and texting someone.  On another occasion I had seen the same guy in the bathroom holding up and reading a document while standing there.

We often notice things about people and their cell phones, which have now become a body part for many.  Texting under the table during a meeting, texting while driving, texting while at the Red Sox game, checking messages while out to dinner, and my personal favorite –  a man and a women out to dinner and both of them texting and/or talking on their phones and not saying more than a sentence or two to each other.

I wonder if we ask ourselves:  What is so important about the message on the cell that we feel so compelled to answer right now, even when we are doing something else that should be calling for our attention?  I can pretty much guarantee that in more than 90% of these instances that we are on our cells when we’re supposed to be doing something else, whatever it is we are texting or talking about can definitely wait until we finish going to the bathroom, arrive at our destination (or at least until we pull over somewhere), until the meeting has finished, the ball game is over or our dinner date has ended.  The truth is, unless it’s a real health or safety emergency, there is no 24/7 urgency.

If a person spent the lion’s share of the time on his or her cell while out to a meal with me, it would likely be the last meal we’d be sharing.  And I’m not sure I’d feel good about getting billed for my advisor’s time if I knew that he was doing that which he is billing for while going to the bathroom, or at another meeting (which I’m thinking he is also billing someone else for).
So really, what is so important that it can’t wait until we can give it the attention it deserves, or not give it our attention if it’s right up there with going to the bathroom?  Do we really believe that we are so important or indispensable that the person on the other end can’t wait a while for a response?  Or conversely, what are we saying about how important that person’s communication is to us if we’re sharing it with other tasks?  With all due respect to the overrated skill of multitasking, are we really giving these things our best and fullest concentration?

Tom Cruise in "The Last Samurai" - Courtesy Warner Bros.

There’s a teaching moment in the wonderful movie, The Last Samurai, with Ken Watanabe and Tom Cruise. In one scene, Cruise, a talented American military officer, is trying to learn Samurai combat techniques, and continually getting beaten by the Samurai.  Young kids are laughing as they watch.  Though no more than teenagers, they have already diagnosed Cruise’s problem.  Pointing to their heads with both hands, they yell to him:  “Too many minds; too many minds.”  When he finally learns the discipline lesson of focusing his thought on just the one thing he is engaged in at that moment, he starts to win matches.

Good athletes know this; often the difference between them and others is not raw athletic talent or ability, but the ability to focus completely on the moment.  With all other distractions and thoughts gone except that moment, the game slows down in their minds, allowing them to excel.  Buddhists and those who practice meditation would call this “living in the moment”, or being “all in”.  I’m not a science person (that’s why I’m a lawyer), but I’m fairly certain the reason humans only tap into 10% of our brain’s potential has a lot to do with these distractions and unconscious mental multitasking.

Hey, I’ll reluctantly admit that I’m a fan of information technology.  It allows me to sit in my home and write this and then post it, and let my thoughts reach widely the same day.  I can see my daughter in California via Skype, get my son’s attention by texting when all else fails and make a call when I have an emergency.  But information technology is like nuclear energy or fire:  Used appropriately, it can serve our good, but if misused or abused, can hurt us and those we touch.

We often muse about how we ever functioned before cell phones or computers came, but the truth is while we we functioned more slowly, our work, our relationships, our efforts and the results were much better.  The interests served behind the discipline of IT moderation are acting with respect for others, and tapping our highest selves and best talent.