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Is That a Vibrator in Your Pocket, or You Just Happy to See Me? Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Workopolis.com Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit www.CareerActivist.com.

Unplugging From the Office at the End of Your Workday

Beep, ring, tap, buzz. Sigh. The chorus of gadgets in our brave new world: cell phones, pagers and faxes. Laptop computers and Palm Pilots. Not to mention the Internet, e-mail and that perennial favourite, voicemail. Crucial time-saving necessities? Or BlackBerries slung around our necks like an albatross?

For the Type As among us, being connected is a dream come true. It fuels our 24/7 economy. Now you can make your mark while the slackers are asleep. Why snooze comfortably like a wimp when you can answer that backlog of e-mails at 3:00 a.m.?

All of this may well be a boon for employers. But it's a mixed blessing otherwise, according to Gil Gordon, author of Turn It Off : How to Unplug From the Anytime-Anywhere Office Without Disconnecting Your Career (Three Rivers Press, 2001).

''It's great to be able to do increasingly sophisticated, complex office work at home,'' writes Gordon, who consults on doing work virtually. ''It's not so great when we aren't able to close the door (literally or figuratively) and wind up working well into time we'd rather reserve for ourselves.''

Electronics Rule! Being plugged in can lead to feelings of schizophrenia. On the one hand, it gives us more potential control over when, where and how we do our work. It also facilitates instant communication, which helps expedite important decisions. And it gives those who really want to get ahead an even better chance of doing so.

The downsides, however, cannot be easily sloughed off. ''Our technologies are shaping us into a nation of info-hungry, data-dizzy 'button smackers,' risking the quality of our life and culture for the doubtful thrill of instant knowledge,'' observes David Shenk, in The End of Patience: Cautionary Notes on the Information Revolution (Indiana University Press, 1999).

Shenk points out that we're at risk of being overwhelmed by input. He blames this on the rise of ''data smog'': the proliferation of spam, junk mail, needlessly flashy websites, more and more cable channels and other sources of info--some of it useful, much of it trivial and distracting.

Equally disturbing is the ubiquitous rise of ''worry sickness,'' a term coined by technology critic James Gleik. In his book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (Pantheon Books, 1999), Gleik sounds the alarm on our ''epoch of the nanosecond.'' He is all for a world of accessibility and striving to reach our human potential. ''Yet for all the hours, minutes and even seconds being saved, we're still filling our days to the point that we have no time for such basic human activities as eating, sex and relating to our families,'' Gleik laments.

Having to be continually ''on'' can be a grinding reality. Ever answered an e-mail while out for the evening at a dance club? Or been hushed by an angry audience as your cellphone rings during a movie? Welcome to the end of boundaries: where we dare not let down our guard for a moment, lest our boss, or peers, think we're disloyal enough to value our personal time.

Loosening the Noose Fortunately, there are ways to push back against the techno-invasion. Gordon suggests that we act as our own gate-keeper. His approach has us dividing our week into three specific zones, depending on our desired level of availability: 100 per cent for always on, 60 per cent for tuned in (but not enslaved), and 0 per cent for sanity restoration. Gordon also gives advice on how to deal with employers, clients and family in terms of securing their buy-in. The secret is to give them enough of our time to satisfy their essential needs, without frying ourselves to a crisp.

Here are some general principles to help you start loosening the noose:
  • Determine what your own limits are in terms of being available. This means making trade-offs between what you gain from having downtime versus what you lose from not being constantly reachable.
  • Let people know specific times and days that are best to get hold of you. It's all about managing expectations, communicating clearly and sticking to your resolve.
  • Take a course in time or priority management to help you set limits, parcel out your week effectively and let go of what you can't get accomplished.

Unplugging In terms of technology, there are effective (though not always easy) strategies you can implement:
  • Don't answer the phone, cell, pager or an e-mail alert just because it happens to blare at you. Set up periods of quieter time to respond at predetermined intervals during your day.
  • Leave all non-essential gear turned off when you're nearby. Any messages received will be stored until you're ready to retrieve them.
  • Get an e-mail service that offers spam protection, and ask how to use its filters for maximum protection against unwanted messages.
  • Make sure that same e-mail service gives you an auto-response option--it will automatically let those who write you know you'll get back to them within whatever time period you stipulate.
  • Clear out your voicemail regularly. Return urgent calls immediately, put less important calls on a ''to do'' list and expunge the ones you'll never get around to answering.
More advice on turning off without becoming marginalized is available at www.technorealism.org. It's the home a movement called ''technorealism,'' of which Shenk is a charter member. The aim is not to turn back time, but to ''understand [technology] and apply it in a manner more consistent with basic human values.''

Sounds like a fine way to go. Getting all we can from the productivity gizmos, while holding on to our private lives. Maybe even living at a pace that better suits our particular temperaments.

As Gordon points out, ultimately, we get to decide if we'll expose ourselves to more lost weekends, interrupted dinners, taking work on vacation and so forth. Setting limits has its price, but it doesn't have to mean getting banished. The solution rests in finding balance--between being plugged in and protecting our turf from unwanted intrusions.

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