On Turning the Computer Off

September 10, 2010

Turn the computer off?  “Impossible”, you say.  And my emotional response is to agree.  I’ve a dear friend in the hospital, and I may get e-mails that need to be relayed. There may be an inquiry about the apartment we’re renting, a prospect who wants my coaching or consulting, a client who needs help in a hurry.  I need to stay tuned to that information stream!

Or, do I?  Will that information wait 30 minutes, or 60, or 90?  Can I work on my time frame?

With the computer on, I tend to respond, and pay attention to what might come, even as I’m addressing the opportunities or challenges that are already here.  My attention, and my creativity, are diverted from the most immediate task at hand.

I’m not alone.  I see this with business colleagues around the globe. Sitting in front of our computers, we may be connected, but too often we’re not focused on the real questions, the deeper issues. We’re probably not  our best creative selves.

Neuroscientists tell us that our brains need quiet time to rearrange and reorganize information we’ve taken in. When we’re permanently connected to an on-line data stream, that time just doesn’t happen.

What’s the prescription?  Spend some time sitting under a tree, or on a rock by a stream, or even in a quiet room with no electronics.  Think, plan, envision, create, imagine.  Write with a pencil, and don’t worry about the font or margins.  In fact, don’t worry at all.  Just be present in the quiet space.  With practice, you can even do it in a room with computers, iPhones, and other electronic devices present.

This was written in 2002.  I’m amazed to find how relevant it is today — even with all the changes that have taken place.

I help design computer systems for business applications, and so you might expect me to extol the virtues of computer systems in this column.  But — quite the contrary — I offer here my observations on the overuse of computers, on the danger of excessive reliance on this technology, and on the need for creative vision.

To many of my clients, and would be clients, I am, of course, a priest of this technology.  Clients bow to me, expecting that my knowledge of computer technology uniquely qualifies me to design a role for computers in their organizations.  I remember one client in Holland begging me for a “great purchasing system” to compliment the scheduling tool I had given his organization.  But when I asked him what problems this system should solve, he was mute.  He could not tell me whether the critical problem was vendor selection, quality control, scheduling full truck loads, lead time, or what.  And yet, without me, he was running the purchasing department, and must have been sensitive to such issues and knowledgeable about which were in control and which were not.

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