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The Terror of the Red Light: Shut Off that Blinking BlackBerry

Blackberry and Smart Phones and our Brains
I saw the red light go off – it blinked rapidly, insistently. The vibration began a few seconds later. I looked down: “You need to call the office immediately. We have to talk.” I called in. You have to make a decision – now. I didn’t have time to think. But I made the decision and made a big mistake. It cost me $10,000.
After that, I got rid of my pager as soon as I could.  That was 15 years ago.
Now, I’m more closely bound to my BlackBerry than I ever was to that primitive pager.  The red blinking light goes off all the time –not just when a call comes in, but also when anyone has a random thought and pushes the email send button. My BlackBerry lights up 100 times a work day, 12 times an hour, every five minutes or so. The red light means danger – there’s a crisis that threatens you and needs your attention now, not later, but right now.
Stop what you are doing, pay attention, act, respond!
If I’m not careful, I’ll stop what I am doing – even stop an important conversation – and read the alert. Sometimes, I’ll react quickly. But at least I react with a bit more caution than I did when I first tangled with the convenience and albatross of immediate communication. My guess is if the light were blue, green or some other, more calming color than fire-engine red, we might not be as inclined to act so quickly.
At a fascinating seminar on neuromarketing, I recently learned about how certain kinds of messages trigger reactions in our primitive or reptilian brains: Get that part of your brain involved and you’ll be primed to decide and act.
As Bob Herbert observed in a column last week, we’re addicted to this kind of constant multitasking.  The biochemical effect of all this stimuli – red blinking lights of BlackBerrys and pings of iPhones alike – may be injecting our brains with a “dopamine squirt” that virtually demands our immediate response, as I read in Born to Check Mail.
For many of us, that red blinking light also steals too much of our day. We have meetings, action items, things to get done. But when the red light flashes or the “ping” alerts us of another email hitting our inbox, the call of the immediate subverts our carefully planned agenda.
It’s as if 100 people came up to us and demanded that we stop doing what we’re doing, no matter what it is, because what they had to say must take priority. All too often, we agree to being interrupted, even before we’re aware of what’s happened.
However, I don’t think the BlackBerry’s creator, Research in Motion or other smartphone competitors will change that red blinking light message indicator any time soon. It adds to the allure, and the urgent and constant need to hold the product in our hands.
Here are a few simple ideas to avoid being disrupted and interrupted by this time-grabbing, attention-stealing and risky decision-triggering trap:

  • Set limits: Ask yourself how many emails must be read the moment they arrive, the moment someone else says they need you no matter what you are doing.If you realize that most emails can be read later, then:
    • Decide not to read emails no matter how many red lights blink until a time of your choosing.
    • Turn off your BlackBerry [or desktop email system, for that matter] completely until a time of your choosing.
    • Tell select people to call you, rather than email you, to alert you of any crises. You’ll know right off the bat that an email is not of great urgency.
  • Stop the red blinking light: If you can – and admittedly, I’m not ready to go this far – turn off  the red blinking light on your BlackBerry so that you’re not alerted every time a new, non-urgent email message arrives in your inbox.
    • By the same token, you could turn off the “ping” sound, so you won’t be alerted every time a new message arrives in your iPhone email application – or the inbox in your Outlook email application.

With so much information coming at us all the time, we need to improve our ability to filter information so we can focus on what’s truly most important, as the entrepreneur and marketing guru Seth Godin recently advised in his post on The Management of Signals.
By the way, discipline and judgment are the same professional skills required to avoid sending out needless or damaging communications – which disrupt someone else’s day as they too fall victim to the blinking red light, too.
An email not sent is one that doesn’t waste my time or yours and need never be explained. And, as I’ve written in 928,000 Emails Down, 72,000 to Go: Avoiding the Email Trap, that is also the best way to avoid email disasters.

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