Are You Present?

You’re sitting at a meeting; but are you really there?

Photo courtesy of Tim Marshall

Photo courtesy of Tim Marshall

I was in a meeting a few years ago, and my boss, who called the meeting, was speaking. My colleague, Jesse was sitting across the table. He had his laptop, and kept tapping away on the keyboard. A few minutes later, he took out his smart phone and tapped and swiped some more. Suddenly he heard his name.

What do you think, Jesse?” My boss was asking.

Not knowing what had been said, Jesse looked flustered and asked, “Could you repeat that?

Multi-tasking is everywhere. We try to be more efficient by juggling tasks at the same time, but what’s the value of it? Maybe the right question is, “How much are we losing by multi-tasking?” In these days of smart, mobile devices, people seem to be engaged more in what’s on the screen in the palms of their hands than what they could learn from engaging others in a normal conversation.

Multi-tasking was a computer term coined many years ago to show that a computer’s microprocessor could do multiple things at the same time. Even at that time, engineers knew that a microprocessor could only execute one instruction (task) at a time. But they do it so fast and could jump between multiple tasks that it gives the illusion of doing many things at the same time. Those are before the days of dual and quad processors that are now so commonplace.

Because we can really do only one thing at a time, every other activity that we “pretend” to be engaged in fades into the background. So much is lost when we occupy ourselves with activities in a half-hearted manner. The result is that we become less productive. Because Jesse wasn’t paying attention during a discussion in which he was supposed to be a contributor, the question and the reasoning behind it had to be repeated. As a result, valuable time was lost and the team was not as productive as it could have been.

Sometimes, the person not paying attention may not be have been asked a direct question. But they leave the meeting without any awareness of the decisions that were made. Focus is lost on what is needful, and the organization pays the price in lost productivity.

Have you ever talked to someone that didn‘t seem to be paying attention to you? How did it feel? It felt as if you were not being listened to; as if you had nothing of value to say. You felt disrespected. That’s exactly what happens when someone is in a meeting and does not pay attention to what’s going on. Here's what they're communicating:

“There’s no worth in what you’re saying.”

“You can’t add any value to me.”

“I don’t really care.”

I know these conclusions seem a bit extreme, but that’s what is being said without any words. That’s what happens when we allow ourselves to be controlled by devices that are meant to be tools in our hands. That’s what we get when a buzz, chime or vibration from these devices make us jump to be at their every beck and call.

A few weeks ago, I was driving home from work one evening when my phone chimed, alerting me that I’ve just received a text. It was from my wife. I picked it up from the cup holder, swapped glances between the screen and the road in front of me.

I need to respond to this immediately, I thought.

As I pressed the Reply button and started fidgeting to find the first letter of the first word in my reply, it hit me. This is dangerous! It would take only a split second of not keeping my eyes on the road for an event with catastrophic consequences to happen.

My mind immediately went to my wife and children. What happens if I don’t make it home while trying to answer this text? Suddenly, I realized that responding to that text message while driving is not worth the huge risks to my life. I dropped the phone and concentrated on the traffic around me.

Sometimes, we need just a few seconds to ponder the potential consequences of an action, for us to realize whether or not it’s worth it. Peter Bregman used a hilarious experience to outline a two-step plan for changing bad habits. Not being present when you need to be is a bad habit that definitely needs broken.

Your life may depend on it.