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Fighting Back Against Technology Addiction

Does your work-life balance feel wildly out of kilter? All kinds of factors could be involved, of course. However, is it possible technology could be the primary culprit in your distress? Then take some time to get unwired if you don’t want to become unglued.

Technology has come to rule most of us to varying degrees, but it has serious consequences in some cases. There are those—including lawyers—who get so wired up and excessive with their technology use that they’re restless when they’re not sitting at a keyboard. And when they are at the computer, they lose all sense of time as hour after hour slips away in ferocious Web browsing. They neglect family and friends. They develop carpal tunnel syndrome, dry eyes or aching backs and necks. They make attempts to control their conduct, but without success.

Certainly we can’t blame technology for everything, but there is no question that it is causing a lot of people major stress. Consider the following.

Users, Beware the Signs

In September USA Today reported on what is thought to be the first residential treatment center for Internet addiction in the United States. The center, called ReStart, is located in Seattle and offers a $14,000 45-day program intended to help people wean themselves from pathological computer use. While the American Psychiatric Association does not recognize Internet addiction as a separate disorder, studies in a growing number of countries have documented Internet addiction and multiple experts believe that it is very real and very harmful. (See www.netaddiction.com—yes, the disorder even has its own Web site.)

In a study performed by CNS Spectrums on behalf of Stanford University, 6 percent of respondents reported that their “relationships suffered as a result of excessive Internet use.” About 9 percent said they “attempted to conceal non-essential Internet use”—and almost 4 percent felt the equivalent of withdrawal when they were offline.

Addiction warning signs vary, but they include being preoccupied with thoughts of the Internet, using it longer than intended for increasing amounts of time, repeatedly making unsuccessful efforts to control use, and jeopardizing relationships, school or work to spend time online.

Does any of this seem familiar to you? Think about lawyers taking calls, sending text messages or obsessively checking their e-mail during client meetings. Admit it, most of us have seen it—and more than a few have done it, too. Really, what does that say to clients about their importance to your law firm? Plus, we know of lawyers who are unable to have a business lunch or dinner without constantly glancing at their cell or smartphone to read their e-mails or texts. While computer use can be compulsive, it seems that the number of lawyers who are addicted to their smartphones is continuing to grow as well. There are some who even sleep with their smartphones on their bedside tables lest they should miss the sound of an incoming message bleeping in the middle of the night.

Mind you, your authors know that in some respects we are emulating the pot calling the kettle black. Few are quite as wired as we are since in handling computer forensics cases and IT support clients, we certainly need to be wired. But we would argue that we approach the situation more rationally than many we know. Here then are some tips from our approach to help the teched-out lawyers of the world get unwired so they don’t come unglued.

Ways to Strike a Balance at Home, on Vacation and Elsewhere

You need to strike a balance between work and real life. Start with putting some restrictions on yourself when it comes to handing out your cell phone number—restrictions that should extend to certain clients, too. For our part, we rarely give out our cell phone numbers to clients. Of course, we sometimes have to call them from our cell phones, but amazingly, they don’t seem to record the number from our incoming call or remember that they have it once the matter is over. This means at home we are rarely disturbed by random or non-emergency client calls.

E-mails are another matter. They keep coming in day and night. But you know what? You typically don’t have to check them from home at 11 o’clock at night—remember, they will still be there in the morning so you can address them then. Also, to set realistic client expectations, you could have your retainer agreement clearly state that client e-mails will be responded to within “x” amount of time, unless the sender receives an “away” message. That message, in turn, should indicate how long you will be out of reach and whom to contact in an emergency. With that provision in place, you are able, with a clear conscience, to carve out some private time.

As a general rule, your nights should belong to you and not be spent on your computer or your smartphone after dinnertime. There are exceptions, of course—for example, when a case is really hot or you’re expecting a particularly important e-mail, or when you’re traveling and have to catch up at night in your hotel room. Overall, though, you should strive to make those exceptions rare.

In other words, make rules. Do the same thing on vacations. Take the laptop with you if you need to, but restrict the number of hours you use it. Enjoy the view of the beach, the mountains or whatever instead.

Even in the office, you can make rules to reduce some of the stress. For example, if there is a project that has to get done, turn off the e-mail notification sound and pop-up window. And if the project is important enough, simply close Outlook so you aren’t even tempted to wander from the task at hand. With respect to the smartphone, the same kind of logic applies. Turn off the beep and the vibrator. (As we sometimes say, “I am aware of the presence of my inbox 7x24—I don’t need any reminders.”)

The ability to make rules will separate you from the addicts despite the massive number of hours you may be chained to your technology. For those who are unable to make, or to follow, such rules, beware: That way lays madness.

Maintain Some Control of Your Friend, Please

There have always been lawyers addicted to work, who can’t seem to take time off and perpetually work late into the night. Technology has just complicated the issue by providing us with another form of that addiction.

Yet still, technology is our friend in many ways. It makes us more efficient and productive. It permits us to collaborate with others who are geographically remote. It can level the playing field for solo and small firm practitioners who are up against larger firms. So let’s give it the praise it is due and acknowledge that we can’t practice law well without it. Nonetheless, let’s also acknowledge that the sheer volume of technology lawyers must deal with can make it as much an adversary as a friend at times. So learn when and how to walk away from it before you come unglued, even if that simply means stretching your legs from the office for a few.

As George Macaulay Trevelyan once wrote, I have two doctors , my left leg and my right .” So take a walk. Ride a bike. Go to the zoo. Enjoy a picnic. Make the experience lowtech. Carry along your cell phone in case there’s an emergency, but with the vibration and beeps turned off. You’ll enjoy yourself more—and those around you will enjoy you more.

About the Authors

Sharon D. Nelson and John W. Simek are President and Vice President, respectively, of Sensei Enterprises, Inc., a computer forensics and legal technology firm based in Fairfax, VA. They are coauthors of The 2009 Solo and Small Firm Legal Technology Guide (ABA, 2009).

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