Commentary: Master your phone or it will master you

January 12

As we get back to work in 2014, it makes sense to reflect a bit on how we manage our work lives and our work/life balance.

I may be the worst person to give advice about this as I have always loved my work so much that it seems I seldom totally withdraw from it. Yet, I have given a great deal of thought over the past few years to the perplexing challenge of mastering my smartphone.

When I started working, we had no cellphones, let alone smartphones. When traveling, the routine was comical but simple: hit the bank of pay phones in the airport on arrival and check voice mail messages that had been collected during the flight. I would also check for voice mails each evening before calling it a day, whether traveling or not. In that simple world, no one checked for voice mails during meetings, and we carried no devices that would tell us instantly when a voice mail, e-mail, text or other communication had arrived.

Fast forward to today: We all carry phones more powerful than anything we could have dreamed of back then. Our phones are capable of telling us instantly whenever a communication is received. Our phones can be set to vibrate or make a sound. Even if not set to signal, it’s tempting to check it constantly to see if something is happening.

With a role in a global business, there is, in fact, something happening all the time. For me, that means I have a tool that allows me to be plugged in all the time, and an excuse to be plugged in all the time. A typical day for me includes about 250 e-mails, 20-30 texts and 20-30 social media postings. On average, 80 percent of these communications come in during my waking hours, the balance during the night. I obviously need to have an approach to managing this or it will manage me.

Ironically, just being prompt is not the answer. I have found that the reward for responding faster is that more messages come in.

In addition to the impact of volume, the other challenge with this incessant stream of communications is focus. Focus includes the obvious need to be solely focused on other tasks that need to get done, whether that means debating and solving the most pressing business issues of the day or the more mundane review of reports. It also means focusing on the people you are with – colleagues, partners, family and friends.

Our social rules may be adapting to accept multitasking by those we are with, but being distracted in any interaction with someone else will inevitably result in a poorer relationship with that person than would have been the case with total focus. With colleagues, multitasking will cause them to think I am less interested in their work. With friends and family, multitasking also communicates that they are not interesting or important enough to capture my attention fully.

So, here are my resolutions:

1.Never use my phone in bed. It is one thing to use my phone as an alarm. I’ll do that. But once I’m in bed, I will be off the grid. I will not look at my phone before I turn off the light. I will not look at it in the morning before I get out of bed. My bed is for sleep. The rest of the world has no business in it.

2.I will not use my phone while in conversation with someone or while in a meeting, if my participation is expected in that meeting. I think it should be reasonably clear when a meeting requires my personal participation, and when it doesn’t. If I am at a sizable conference where I am not expected to comment or participate, I suspect I can have at it and multitask. In a smaller meeting (a dozen people or less, for sure), I will leave my phone alone.

3.I will not use my phone while walking. This might be seem like an odd one, but any time I walk through our offices or our hotels, there is an opportunity to connect with others at work. These random collisions, as Tony Hsieh of Zappos calls them, are chances for collaboration and innovation. If my head is down, they will not happen. Even if not at work, I intend to enjoy the walk, the scenery, the exercise, the break it provides.

4.I will not use my smart phone while driving. Duh.

5.Finally, and I suspect this will be the toughest, I am going to use my phone only when I deliberately decide to use it. Some schedule just a few times a day when they deal with electronic communications. Some much more frequently. There are many decent approaches, and every day need not be the same, but all of the good approaches share one thing in common: choose to engage. I will not let the phone tell me when to engage. If I do, I will violate every one of the rules listed above and never truly focus on anything or anyone and the communications will never stop.

Arne Sorenson is the president and chief executive of Bethesda-based Marriott International. This column originally appeared on his LinkedIn blog.

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