June 25, 2015

A fedora. Credit: davidd / Flickr Creative Commons

The first thing Don Draper does when he gets to his office is give his busty secretary a suggestive wink. The second thing he does is take off his fedora. Finally, depending on the severity of the previous night, he completes his morning routine with a stiff drink.

What can we learn from Don’s habits? First, that scotch and secretaries equal great drama. But there’s a lesson in that fedora as well.

It was once popular for men to wear hats everywhere they went — but when a gentleman stepped inside, he removed his hat and placed it on the nearest rack. It was a required social norm, a sign you were ready for business.

It’s high time we started doing with our digital devices what well-mannered men did with their fedoras. We need a digital hat rack.

The real reason we use our phones, tablets, and laptops in meetings is to escape our reality, much as Don does, because reality is uncomfortable. Meetings can be tense, socially awkward, and very often exceedingly boring. Our technology gives us the perfect way to be there, but not.

Unfortunately by mentally teleporting through our devices, we make things worse. Like alcohol to a drunk, the solution becomes the problem. As numerous studies have documented, we are terrible at multitasking. Under the guise of getting things done, we play ping-pong with our messages sometimes to people in the same room.

Watching others use their devices escalates an arms race of perceived productivity. People look busy even if they are just checking Facebook. The impression that someone else is being productive while you’re not increases our stress levels as we consider our own flooded inboxes.

Most corrosive however, is the fact that less attention means worse outcomes. When people use their devices in meetings, even just for a quick sec, they rejoin the conversation aware that they may have missed something while they were mentally away. They fear revealing that they were not paying attention and they tend to shut down. Thus, otherwise valid concerns and bright ideas are never discussed.

The first step is to admit we have a problem. The machines are winning. We don’t have the will to resist Pinterest when we should be participating or Instagram when we should be interested.

It's time for some new solutions. Every conference room should have a charging station just out of everyone’s reach, in the center table or near the door. When people congregate, they plug-in their devices on their way in just as easily as they would have hung up their hats. The charging station gives them a convenient and functional place to leave their devices.

Surely there are specific exceptions based on the business, but for the most part, the only things attendees really need in a meeting is paper, pen, and perhaps some Post-its. If absolutely necessary, designate a note-taker who utilizes one permitted machine in the room.

Perhaps you’re getting squeamish about saying bye-bye to all your digital pacifiers. That’s okay. Start slow. Start with one work week, just five days to see how it goes.

I should mention I’m no advocate for superfluous meetings. In fact, I find organizations generally have far too many of them. However, if a topic is important enough to require participants be physically present, let’s ensure everyone is really there, both in body and mind.

It’s time to become aware of the cost of our new digital habits and gain control over them, or we will soon discover they have control over us.

The original version of this article appeared on TechCrunch

fedora, Mad Men, Culture, Nir Eyal, Kara Miller

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