March 18, 2006
Avoiding Mobile Computing Burnout
Whether you're a road warrior or just tote a few mobile gadgets, I think you'll find this article helpful in setting expectations and managing your stress from always being accessible. It was recently published online at eLOC, the e-magazine version of Law Office Computing. A hearty "Thank You" goes to Amanda Flatten, the Editor & Publisher extraordinaire, for graciously permitting me to post the entire published version here at LTG (especially for those of you who download the RSS feed).
Avoiding Mobile Computing Burnout
Use technology to enhance your work, not take over your life.
By Jeff Beard
It’s no secret that lawyers and legal staff have high-pressure jobs. As if we were not multitasking enough, mobile technology makes us even more accessible to client service and other demands. Untamed, it leads to information overload, multiple interruptions throughout the day and more stress.
Are your wireless gadgets just making you more wired? Do you need to go on a technology diet? Clients demand more access to you, and you want to provide good service. Mobile technology offers many tools to help you do just that. The problem is, sometimes they deliver too much of a good thing.
Consider how many devices and technologies are used to stay in touch: wireless e-mail devices; Wi-Fi laptops loaded with e-mail, office suite, time entry and various practice applications; cell phones; hands-free headsets; a lot of cables (laptop power brick, modem, Ethernet, universal serial bus, FireWire, audio, iPod charger, cell phone charger and personal digital assistant charger); home, office and cell phone voice mail accounts; professional and personal e-mail accounts; office, PC and Internet faxes; text messaging; instant messaging; replicated e-mail account on your laptop’s hard drive for offline reading; Virtual Private Networks, Citrix or other remote access software; camera phones, digital cameras and portable scanners; and a prepaid Starbucks card (for a liberal dose of Wi-Fi and caffeine).
That is a lot of technology to manage. It’s not uncommon to hear of professionals checking their e-mail in the middle of the night, while driving, during their children’s sporting events and let’s not even dwell on the restroom scenarios. While some will deny these stories, I have heard them all. The faster you respond, the faster your clients and co-workers expect you to in the future. After all, you reinforce their expectations with a five-minute turnaround from your BlackBerry or cell phone. Congratulations — you have just become a victim of your own success. All isn’t lost, however. There are a number of ways you can avoid mobile computing burnout and reduce information overload.
Set Reasonable ExpectationsJim Calloway, director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Management Assistance Program, recommends setting parameters with clients during the initial interview. “Communicate that you will normally get back to them within 24 hours, not including weekends,” Calloway said. “Share that you process messages on a first-in, first-out basis. Think about how you are going to handle the client relationship and what mobile access means.” The same goes for managing your relationship with your employer or co-workers. Calloway said legal professionals often can set themselves up for failure by committing to do too much, but setting realistic goals and ground rules will help you manage your workload.
Determine Which Mobile Devices Work for YouWhen it comes to traveling, less can be more. Ask yourself what you truly need to be productive and if you really will use what you take along. If you are reasonably tech savvy and comfortable with different gadgets and access methods, it might be worthwhile to have alternative technologies at your command. If you are not a technophile, then try introducing one new gadget at a time. That way, you are increasing the odds you will be comfortable using it on your own.
This might be a gross oversimplification, but generally I find two main types of BlackBerry or Treo users: those who can’t wait to get one, and those who really, really don’t want one, ever. If you are in the former category, make sure it’s for the right reasons and not just to have a status symbol or another tech toy. If you are in the latter category, take heart and use these tips to set reasonable expectations with others regarding your accessibility. You might be able to agree on alternative communication methods or less onerous response times.
Minimize Interruptions and MultitaskingRemember, technology speeds up many tasks, including the pace at which we make mistakes. “It’s important to recognize multitasking invites errors and misunderstandings,” Calloway said. “We have all sent e-mails that we wish we had never sent.”
Brett Burney, legal practice support supervisor at Thompson Hine in Cleveland, advises professionals to avoid the diminished returns of too much multitasking and to focus on the quality of work clients deserve.
Learn and Use the Technology You HaveBurney said he sees a lot of frustration stemming from underutilization of mobile gadgets. “One great way to avoid at least some of the tech-burnout today is to educate yourself on the functions of a device, and beyond that, even to learn a few tips and tricks,” he added. For example, instead of manually scrolling through e-mails, Burney said Treo users running GoodLink software simply can press the “T” key to jump to the top of the list to read a newly arrived message. “While it might only save me several seconds, I am happier because I am immediately looking at what I want to see. I realize this means spending more time with a device, either reading the instructions or just playing with it, but it pays off in the long run because I don’t get so frustrated,” he said.
Also, be cautious about adding mobile technology to your arsenal too quickly. Give yourself a chance to absorb it at a comfortable rate. Don’t ask for it if you don’t need it. If you need it, then learn how to use it properly and use it on a regular basis. Great tools are a wasted investment if you can’t use them when you really need them. Don’t wait until you are on deadline or two hours before a flight to pick up a new mobile tool without sufficient training. That is just asking for stress. Instead, plan ahead, test it and ask questions so you will be able to use it well before you leave. For instance, remote access accounts can become disabled if not used regularly. If you have VPN access, but use Web access most of the time, you could forget your VPN personal identification number or password, or the account might need to be reset. This is best summed up as “use it or lose it,” in which case you have unanticipated remote support problems adding to your stress level. Also, it’s not fun for the Information Technology folks who must support your remote technology. In many cases, an ounce of prevention keeps disasters at bay.
If you don’t have time to teach yourself how to properly use mobile technology, find out if your organization or a technology vendor offers any training or user guides. Portable cheat sheets and instruction cards are useful and easily fit into a briefcase or laptop bag.
Recognize That Technology Isn’t PerfectBad things often happen — batteries die, power cords get left behind, hardware fails, software applications have bugs, viruses abound, entire systems become unavailable at times, and yes, we all have made mistakes while using technology. That is life in the digital age. In recognizing this, however, we can generate effective alternate plans to get things done.
For example, if your cell phone or PDA dies, have a backup list of names and telephone numbers on your laptop or on a flash drive. Planning ahead for outages and problems is one of the best mobile lawyering stress relievers. It’s only a matter of time before Murphy’s Law strikes, and while it’s never fun, knowing you still can communicate and work productively under pressure is a nice safety net.
Use the “Off” ButtonMobile devices have to be recharged — and so do you. If you stay connected all the time, you will become drained and less productive. Put all your commitments into perspective and make adjustments. For instance, turn off wireless e-mail devices and cell phones at family events, or even better, consider whether you really need to bring them to these events at all. Admittedly, most of us like to carry cell phones for personal safety and convenience. In that event, it’s OK to send calls to voice mail. For this reason, I prefer phones with external Caller ID displays for triage purposes. Check if your phone offers a shortcut to manually force an incoming call to voice mail rather than having it vibrate or ring several times. For example, I discovered that pressing the side volume down button twice on my LG cell phone does the trick.
If you are in a meeting with a client, there is nothing worse to that client than constant buzzing or ringing interruptions. This gives the client the impression that you are not giving your full attention. Indeed, some firms have added this to their etiquette training. For longtime road warriors, cutting that wireless cord can feel strange at first, but it gets easier with practice.
As professionals, we are quite fortunate to have a wide variety of mobile tools at our disposal. As tools, they serve very useful functions. The trick is to manage them before they manage you by setting realistic expectations and ground rules. There still will be times when you become overloaded or frustrated, but I hope some of these tips better prepare you to anticipate and work through them.
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Jeff Beard is the legal services IT manager with Caterpillar Inc., a Fortune 100 company headquartered in Peoria, Ill. He is a former practicing attorney, and is a frequent national author and presenter on contemporary legal technology and practice management issues. Beard enjoys working with mobile technology, and covers many such devices and issues on his blog, LawTech Guru. This article was submitted in his individual capacity, and all views stated are his own.