How Smart Should Smartphones Be?

I vividly remember the times in the past when I upgraded my personal time management system with the help of outside tools, but today, in 2010, I am stymied by the hype around smartphones.

The first upgrade occurred in 1980 when, as a teenager, I received an appointment diary from my parents.  The second occurred in 1991 when I purchased a DayRunner and the last happened in about 1996 when I purchased a Palm Pilot.

In each instance it was clear what I was doing — changing the way I dealt with all the stuff I needed to take care of, with the aid of a new tool.  In each case, I had to make some significant habit changes to get the new system to work, and I fully expect to do that when I complete the planned purchase of a smartphone in early 2011.

Or not.

I’m ambivalent, to be honest, about joining the millions of smartphone users around the world because I am suspicious that these devices don’t actually improve productivity.

Sure, they provide entertainment, and a pleasing distraction while waiting at the doctor’s office.  And they definitely are convenient.  I have carried around a knapsack of gadgets (cellphone, PDA, camera etc.) on overseas trips, and I imagine that I could replace it with a decent smartphone.

I’d also expect be the envy of my friends, as they see me watching television at the beach, or texting my friends from a bike ride in the mountains.  It’s likely to be the latest model, packed with all the miniature gadgets that their older models don’t have.

Entertainment, convenience and sex-appeal are certainly interesting and valuable things, but what do they have to do with productivity?

When I switched over to using my diary, DayRunner and Palm Pilot, I noticed that they helped me to process the demands on my time in a far more efficient way.  I saw fewer items fall through the cracks, and I made better decisions about what to do and what to ignore.  My skills at storing critical information were enhanced as I created routine backups.  Lists of stuff to do were better managed and I certainly made a dramatic improvement in the way I scheduled each day, using an electronic calendar.

These are bread and butter time management practices, and they are the ones that must change in order to experience a permanent boost in productivity.  They are not sexy in any way, but they are the kinds of activities that we use every minute of every day to process all the demands on our time.

Simply being able to send and receive email from a smaller device than ever before does not appear to me to be much of an improvement.  From mainframe to desktop to laptop to netbook to smartphone… the trend of squeezing more capability into smaller spaces has continued.  Smartphones are (the latest) clever miniatures, but just because they are the smallest of the email devices to be created up until now, does not mean that they have made a profound impact on our email productivity, for example.

In fact, the evidence is to the contrary, as the bad habits around smartphones (such as driving while texting) have more than nullified any productivity gains.

I believe that manufacturers have missed the plot.

Smartphones should leverage the fact that they bring diverse functionality together in a single unit for the very first time.

Here are some possible innovations that could improve our productivity:

#1:  Calendar Control

Given the problem we have with digital distractions, why can’t smartphones be programmed to turn off certain features depending on the activity that’s in the calendar?  For example, during a meeting the phone could turn the ringer off.

Idea #2:  Inbox Reporting

A smartphone could give us a status report on different aspects of our time management system e.g. that we have email messages that have been unread for 2 days.

Idea #3:  Multimedia Capturing

With the help of voice and handwriting recognition, time demands from all sources such as email, IM, Facebook and  handwritten notes, could be brought together into a single multimedia Inbox so that they could be processed together.

These ideas are the kinds of capabilities that are unique to smartphones, and actually could make users more productive.  There are sure to be many others, but manufacturers need to first understand that people want to be more productive in substantial ways that help them save real time.

Funny Smartphone Abuse

As I continue the process of deciding whether or not to get a smartphone, there are a few sites that have expressed some similar sentiments, mostly in the form of humorous rants.

The funniest of the bunch is, which has a hilarious collection of graphics and videos on the craziness that comes with inappropriate cellphone use.  It gives some graphical “advice” on using text messaging instead of a live conversation in critical moments e.g. giving your marriage vows, sitting on the toilet or hanging from the rings in gymnastics.

A recent post on the ZNet blog entitled “Smartphones Are Turning Us Into Idiots” is a colorful rant on the bad habits we are developing by paying more attention to the little screen on the phone than the people, or environment, around us.

They are both funny, in a smart, insightful way, and without saying it they ask the question: “Is there no end in sight?”

I’m Not Crazy, But I Am Quite Alone

According to a recent survey carried in the New York Times, the number one use of smartphones is to play games.

Number 2 is to check the weather.

As you may know, I have been scratching my head wondering whether or not I should buy a smartphone, because I cannot clearly see where they have been designed for the purposes of boosting people’s productivity.

Apparently, I’m not alone — “productivity” ranks a lowly 10th on the list of smartphone uses with a puny 22%, right below “Sports.”

Clearly, the manufacturers are giving people what they want.

Or are they?

Obviously, I’m not getting what I want and neither are those companies who are buying them for their employees, who must look at research like this and wonder what the payback is for the US$100 a month they are paying in subscription fees.

Would a more intelligent design make a difference?

The article can be found here: How Do People Use Their Smartphones?

Here’s the graphic from the article.

Choosing My First Smartphone (for Productivity’s Sake)

If you are a frequent reader of this site you will know that I have questioned at length the unproductive practices and habits that have arisen around smartphones.

With that in mind, I have decided to start a quest to discover whether or not I can boost my productivity with a Blackberry, iPhone, Android or one of the newer devices.  I am going to share the process with readers, and I kicked this off with a new article over at the Stepcase Lifehack website, entitled:  How I’m Getting a Smartphone, While Avoiding Crazy Habits.

I may choose not to make a purchase, by the way… find out more by reading the article.

P.S. I just made a video to help describe what I’m doing by trying to make a “smartphone decision.”

Wish me luck!

The Smartphone Survey is Open

istock_000001000665small.jpg(To answer the 9 question survey click here.)

It’s dawning on me after some reflection that I am developing a real yen for not just time management, but how it is practiced in workplaces around the world.

I remember sitting in meetings in Caracas, Venezuela, back in 1999 and being amazed that a ringing cell-phone would stop a meeting in its tracks, even if the owner happened to be presenting.  As a result, meetings took longer than they should resulting in a profound feeling of frustration on all sides.  The old habit of answering the phone whenever it rang obviously wasn’t working in 1999, let alone 2010.

But no-one ever said anything, or did anything about the problem.

It was a good experience for me, because the very high cellphone penetration found in Caracas was a useful predictor of behavior that would become commonplace in companies in every country around the world.

As you can see from my recent posts, I have been digging up all the research I can find on the topic, and now I’m doing some research of my own to fill in some of the gaps I have discovered.

My smartphone survey runs until the 28th, and it consists of 9 questions.  You don’t need to be a smartphone user to answer the questions — in fact, I’m collecting some data on the opinions of those who don’t have smartphones, and those who plan to get one (I am in the latter category.)

Take a moment and help me answer some important questions — there’s a lot at stake.  You can access the smartphone survey by clicking on this link.

P.S. I’ll be unveiling the results of the survey during my free Smartphone webinar on July 28th at 8pm. Click the icon at right to be placed on the early notification list or click here.

Recent Reseach on Blackberry un-Productivity

istock_000009385044xsmall.jpgI stumbled across some research that backed up what I have been seeing in companies recently.

The paper I found came from researchers at MIT:  Ubiquitous Email: Individual Experiences and Organizational Consequences of Blackberry Use by Melissa Mazmanian, Joanne Yates and Wanda Orlikwski.

It was gratifying to read, as it backed up quite a few things I have been  observing, and wondering why I felt alone!

They studied a small private equity firm and observed that:

“This (the ability to check email via a mobile device) encourages a compulsive checking of email and an inability to disengage from work that is common to all users but framed as a matter of individual choice.  Emerging norms reveal implicit expectations of availability and responsiveness that are in direct contrast to espoused firm values. Thus, members of an entire firm carrying a device that facilitates unobtrusive’ access to email may unwittingly generate shared patterns of use that encourage a self-reinforcing cycle of constant communication.”

In other words, while the members of the firm were steadily moving towards a cycle of 24-7 communication via their Blackberry’s, they were doing so while denying that there was a new expectation being created.   That’s a nice way of saying they were in denial.

The study goes on to show that people had begun to act unconsciously, and so had the organization, to the point where they were betraying their values, seemingly without knowing it.

They also seemed to think they were in control of their blackberry use, when in fact they were checking their devices within an hour of leaving work, every weekend and in every room of their homes.

All users report that carrying a BlackBerry offers the opportunity to monitor information flow while providing the opportunity to control the form of information delivery and receipt. However, in acting upon these opportunities individuals also experience a compulsion to check incoming messages that leads to difficulty in disengaging.

‘Difficulty in disengaging,” huh?  90% of those surveyed described a “compulsion to check” their Blackberry for new email.  They seemed unable to say where this compulsion was coming from, however, as they continued to insist that using their Blackberry was always their choice.  When they mentioned the stress that the device brought to their lives from being “always on,” they again failed to ascribe it to the firm.

The researchers concluded that when the device is introduced in a social network, new norms of communication arise that encourage imitation in how the device is used (i.e. everyone copies the boss) and eventually these norms become coercive.

Even when the employees don’t fully realize that this is what’s happening.

They do feel the effects however:

… users report an unrelenting desire for information and a drive to monitor incoming messages, which they explain as a need to reduce their anxiety of being disconnected. Ironically, such stress is amplified (and possibly created) because constant connection is possible.

Only when the researchers probed were some employees able to see a connection between the negative effects they were feeling and the increasingly coercive expectation they had failed to notice.

What’s important to note is that this particular company had quite an overt commitment to work/life balance, freedom and individual autonomy.  In other words, they appeared to be more “enlightened” than the average company and more willing to consider the humanity of its workers, according to its stated values.

When asked, one of the partners described the issue of a growing expectation as one that had its cause in the the fact that the world was getting “faster.”  He didn’t ascribe any of the responsibility to the company whatsover, and to its decision to give everyone a Blackberry back in 1999.

Loyalty?  Group-think? Denial?

(It seems clear from the research a new employee who refused to use a Blackbery would have a very short stay at the company, but that’s just my opinion.)

The survey for the study was completed back in 2004, and in the end the authors predict that the problem at the firm was only likely to worsen as the volume of messages increased and as smartphones became ubiquitous.  To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a followup study at the same company, but here in 2010 there are lots of corporations that are increasing the amount of smartphone-driven stress in employees’ lives, without anyone being fully aware of where it’s coming from or what can be done about it.

Distracting Ourselves with Digital Devices

blackberry-man-bathroom.pngI wrote a recent article on the Stepcase Lifehack website entitled “A New Productivity for the Smartphone Era”  that describes the ways in which users’ bad habits are ruining the gains that should have come from this new technology.

These habits range from “driving-while-texting” to “interrupting-conversations-to-check-for-random-email.”

What’s remarkable is how automatic these behaviors have become, and how scary the concept of ubiquitous smartphones in the workplace should be to company executives.

In part, I was inspired to write the article after reading the following two articles:  FastCompany’s “Are We Distracted or Are We Just Bored?” and The New York Times’ “Your Brain on Gadgets and Paying a Mental Price.”

In the first article, the author believes that people have become ultra-responsive to  electronic interruptions because they are losing the ability to focus on work that requires quiet, thoughtful focus.  He believes that employee readiness to be “always on” is unhealthy.

I agree, but I would assert that people have enabled this to happen by picking up negative habits that were useful at one point, but have become destructive.   For example, answering the smartphone whenever it pings/beeps/rings/ vibrates might be a good habit when someone is receiving less than 5 emails per day.  However, when that number grows to 147 (as it has for the average knowledge worker) then it becomes a problem.

The New York Times article addresses the seeming reality that humans are poor at multi-tasking, but we are quite good at noticing the exciting stuff of which distractions are made.  It also raises the alarming possibility that our brain-chemistry might be changing in response to the instant distractions provided by electronic devices in our environment.

At the same time as these articles are being published, I don’t notice a rush of people looking for answers, and I can’t help but wander if there’s not some resignation in the air because we are in a recession, and these are the keys to keeping a job… for the moment.

Productivity Needs to be Redefined

I just submitted an article that I hope will be published at the Stepcase Lifehack website in the next week or so.

blackberry-ad.jpgIt talks about the sales pitch that companies have used to sell smartphones:  “Buy this device and you’ll be able to send a receive messages from all sorts of interesting places.”

This is echoed in the Blackberry ad featuring Nina Garcia at left.

The text is quite small, but it reads:

Ask Nina Garcia Why She Loves Her BlackBerry

“I’m a creative person, freedom is everything. I have to be inspired and that can happen anywhere. I’m always on the lookout for new designers and trends. I really use my BlackBerry for everything. At the fashion shows, photo shoots, ___________ (?) and shopping, it doesn’t leave my side. Forget the bag. I have to say, BlackBerry is my favourite accessory.”

So, according to the ad, she is able to use her Blackberry at fashion shows, photo shoots, when she goes shopping, etc.   This is not unusual.  I think most people who have Blackberry’s would say that they love them because it allows them to their messaging in non-traditional places.

The question I ask in the article I wrote is whether or not this is a good enough definition of productivity, by itself.  It’s obvious that millions of people think so, and that a great deal of money is being made by companies who are giving us these new abilities.

At the very same time, many people are demonstrating a slew of un-productive and bizarre practices, enabled by the fact that they have smartphones.  The habit of driving while texting is an obvious example.

The article looks at the fact that professionals and their companies need to be aware that when the definition of productivity is expanded, then smartphones destroy productivity, which is the reason why some companies are banning them from meetings altogether.

I argue that changing habits to suit a new smartphone is a little like allowing the tail to wag the dog.  Instead, the 2Time approach is to upgrade one’s time management system, and while doing so, find the right tools that make sense.

Hopefully the article will be accepted — if not, I’ll post it here.

Smartphone Era Productivity Article

I just completed a new copy of my ezine for Caribbean executives, FirstCuts, and I devoted this particular issue to the problem of smartphone un-productivity.

It signals the start of a new set of questions I’ll be asking — how best to combat the drop in productivity that’s occurring when people apply bad habits to the new smartphone technology.

I hope you find it an interesting read — it sure was a lot of fun to write!

An Update from Jamaica

It’s been a while since I’ve posted due to one significant interruption — civil unrest here in Jamaica.

I won’t rehash the reasons why it’s happening, as the news reports have been doing a fairly good job of that.  But for those who might be wondering, I am fine and so are my friends and family.

It’s been a difficult time, and in Kingston we are still under a state of emergency, with curfews being imposed  in different parts of town, at undeclared times.

(If you are coming to Jamaica on vacation, don’t worry too much, as the hotels are on the other side of the island and have not been affected.)

It all reminds me of why I am interested in time management in the first place — it’s the kind of everyday “up and down” that I had to get used to when I returned to Jamaica that made me realize that the way I was managing my time would have to be upgraded.  (You can read my bio linked to the About page to find some more details on what particular story.)

I also realize that my latest point of focus — “Time Management in the Smartphone Era” — is also heavily influenced by being in Jamaica, simply because our cell phone adoption rate is one of the highest in the world.  I cannot think of a single person here in Jamaica who doesn’t have a cell phone, including the guy who wipes windshields at the traffic light for small change!

The high adoption rate has meant that I am exposed to companies whose entire executive teams are heavy Blackberry users, and are rapidly picking up the unproductive habits that I have mentioned on this site, and will expand on in future posts.

Stay tuned.