I recently attended a meeting and after about ten minutes I was brought up short.  Everyone was paying attention; not one laptop was open nor was anyone reading an email or text under the table.  People were taking notes “old school way”— on paper. The meeting ended on time after 25 minutes, meeting the objective and with the promise of meeting minutes.  I was shocked by the efficiency and effectiveness, and as a result I lingered after the meeting to discuss my observations with my sponsor.

Why is the more typical behavior to be tethered to multiple devices while juggling several projects or tasks? It is more than just a new corporate culture; rather our need for connectedness is based not just on how we see each other, but on how we see ourselves.  Our behavior is grounded in a combination of interlocking facts, self-knowledge and illusion. The keystone illusion that drives this need for hyper-connectedness is the illusion of control. The Illusion of control that we embrace allows us to believe we can script our progress through our career and that we can understand and predict the future like some sort of omnipotent being. In order to build that illusion of control we need build on three basic separate and distinct illusions. Each of these illusions is self-reinforcing.

Returning to my “old school” example, my sponsor indicated that recently meetings at her company were a mirror of many other organizations, lots of hardware and lots of miscommunication. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a senior management session where the CIO was asked the same question twice in less than five minutes.  The CIO levied a $50 fine for an open laptop that is not being used for the projector or the use of a cell during one of his meetings.  Extreme?  Even without the fine, the behavior change filtered through the organization. My sponsor indicated that the meetings had become shorter, as a result, and more effective and happened less frequently.

Passing aside what, without measurement, might be just the party line, why is this an important discussion?  Because once upon a time answering email during a meeting would have been viewed as rude. None of this would make any difference if there weren’t consequences. The whole hyper-connectedness, which has permeated even our most private spaces, causes us to spread our attention, our greatest asset, too thinly. Fractional attention makes you think that we’re progressing; it makes us think that we are important; it makes us think that we can multitask. In reality, fractional attention means that we actually get less done. The three illusions that are required to support the illusion of control are the illusion of progress, the illusion of multitasking and the illusion of importance.  Each of this can be issues in their own right, but together they shape how we behave.

First, the illusion of progress
Focusing on activities such as starting many tasks, participating in many projects or simply texting and answering emails while pretending to listen at a meeting gives an illusion of making progress. The thought is that we can switch in between these activities when we get downtime so that we can perfectly fill our day and be highly effective and efficient.  In reality, we are masking issues by confusing being busy with effective progress.

Second, the illusion of multitasking
In past essays I have dealt with this topic. We don’t multitask; we fast switch. Additionally, lean theory tells us that trying to split our attention between multiple tasks increases the possibility of doing none of them well.  In the work place, true multitasking is rare.  The data shows that generally humans are not really very good at true multitasking in the workplace. Linda Stone noted in the Huffington Post that people tend to stop breathing while they answer email. She even named the malady email apnea. If you need more examples just reflect on the data concerning cell phone usage and driving. Or if data doesn’t work for you, then try writing code while answering emails. Computers, on the other hand, are really good at multitasking and no matter the number of processors we have on our desktop we have not crossed that chasm to become full cyborgs yet . . . or perhaps that will be the outcome of hyper-connectedness.

Last, the illusion of importance
Hyper-connectivity has both positive and negative traits.  It allows us to connect with people and teammates across the globe, a positive except losing a few hours of sleep here or there. Advocates argue that this promotes greater collaboration and facilitates the sharing of ideas.

But it has a darker side in that it can lead us down deep rabbit holes through the implied urgency that each new message creates.  It can also make small issues appear larger and more influential than they really are which again demands our attention.

In a recent talk at Ted, Sherry Turkle stated that hyper-connectivity, with the problems it creates, has become more pervasive than just in a few meetings.

People text or do email during corporate board meetings. They text and shop and go on Facebook during presentations People talk to me about the important new skill of making eye contact while you’re texting.  People explain to me that it’s hard, but that it can be done. Parents text and do email at breakfast and at dinner while their children complain about not having their parents’ full attention. But then these same children deny each other their full attention.

Our electronic tools have been presented to us with the promise of delivering an ability to more closely integrate networks so that tasks, issues, changes, gossip and noise never fall through the cracks.   Content is always available. How many of you sleep with your smart phones next to the bed (or closer) just in case something you need to know happens during the night. Frankly, few of us are that important. However, instant and indiscriminate communication provides an illusion of importance, which reinforces the need to share information as well as to seek it. The act of constant foraging for data makes it difficult to focus on the speaker in a meeting or even responding to an important text message.