I started programming on a computer in second grade. I started typing my school papers instead of handwriting them in third grade. That means I’ve spent a majority of my life creating digital versions of what many people previously accomplished with some type of paper solution.

I’m proud to be part of the first generation to go digital in just about every way.

I still remember the Motorolla “brick” phone that my parents purchased. And then the bag phone, flip phone, and now the smartphone. I’ve seen digital evolve right before my eyes.

I’ll never forget going to the fabled Radio Shack to buy our first Tandy x086 computer. And returning the next year to get the upgraded model. First came the big, black floppy disks and then came the smaller, hard disks. (Yes, I’m old enough to remember when those terms were introduced.)

The first bank I deposited money into when I arrived at college offered to waive the monthly online banking fee if I agreed to make no more than three in-person deposits with a bank teller in any 30 day period and utilized my brand new debit card at least once a month.

If it can be done digitally, that’s how it will be done.

Today, I am a self-professed context activist and digital explorer. I’d rather have an electronic copy. If you give me a paper copy, it will be scanned and the hard copy will be destroyed. And to think about reading a book or newspaper that isn’t electronic is just beyond me.

I’m vigilant in my fight against the endless files tossed around as email attachments and the relentless file versions that make it impossible to every have complete confidence you have the final, final version heading into any meeting. Instead, I evangelize Google Docs where I can link to supporting documents and make changes even at the last minutes with the knowledge that everyone will begin the meeting with the latest version.

I pride myself on the careful yet robust digital ecosystem I’ve created and evolved over the years. It hangs in the balance of two companies I admire: Google and Apple. If I have a need, my first assumption is to figure out how to solve it digitally.

But going digital is a commitment to a method of distribution, not ideation.

While I love my digital tools and lifestyle, there are some realities that come along with those decisions that I have implicitly and explicitly accepted up to this point. Always having my phone in my pocket means I have access to just about everything and everyone at any moment in time. That’s quite a burden to carry. It also means that I must pay attention when it rings, buzzes, or chimes. (OK. My phone doesn’t actually chime. I’m more creative than that. But you get what I mean.)

FACT: 79% of smartphone users have their phone on or near them for all but two hours of their waking day. (Source)

It’s some type of divine or cosmic humor, I suppose, to also be responsible for tasks that require great amounts of concentration and long periods of thought, reflection, planning, and critical decision-making. Whether I’m writing 10,000 words toward my next book project or creating a new diagram outlining a business process or organizational structure, it requires me to disconnect from my digital ecosystem in order to ensure there is space in my day and time for my best thinking and work to take place.

Again, I’m not a mountain man who wants to go live in the woods, build a self-sustaining home, and life off grass. I’m much more comfortable with the hum of traffic colored with some lights and sirens in the background. I prefer concrete and high rises to wide open spaces. I’m also not anti-technology. (I must admit I do get a kick of buying stamps and mailing a letter in one of those big blue metal things. I consider that a novelty more than the norm.)

But the digital lifestyle is filled with consistent interruptions and subtle distractions that can inhibit my best thinking. The truth is a completely digital world doesn't allow me to get very far away from the pressing demands of others. (Whether or not it is an actual crisis is often subject to the perspective of one party or the other.)

So, I’ve decided that one day, I might just try to create a post-digital lifestyle for myself. I may, in fact, live to see the pendulum move in both directions—toward digital and away from digital. It will likely settle somewhere in the middle.

Clarity, for me, still comes in non-digitally driven means.

It is humorous for those aware of my digital addiction to know that when I get overwhelmed in moments throughout the day, I prefer non-digital tools and tactics.

I will pull out a blank sheet of paper (Leveger, of course) to quantify and qualify the roadblocks I’m facing. When I’m on a conference call or video chat, I use notecards to take notes. And when I really want to get the attention of someone, I send them a written notecard.

Perhaps the greatest burden we carry is the responsibility that comes with the freedom of the digital lifestyle. We can’t allow ourselves to be submerged digitally without remembering that too much of just about anything can become a bad thing.

Some warning signs it may be time rethink smoke signals

Have you every been in a meeting and watched the behavior and habits of those around the table? Some people are physically there, but their minds are elsewhere. They are checking email, polishing their report, and doing anything but “leaning into” the problem trying to be solved.

When interpersonal communication and collaboration becomes as cheap as a 140 character Tweet or a two to three sentence email, then communication loses its value entirely.

This is further complicated by the observations I make regularly about people in professional environments. As someone who is responsible for building teams, I’m disturbed by these troubling characteristics I see far too often:

  1. The avoidance of conflict. If you can’t handle conflict, you can’t lead. Period.
  2. The avoidance of eye contact. If it’s a chore for you to look me in the eye, it will be hard for me to trust you.
  3. The avoidance of the phone. If you can’t discern when a conversation is appropriate via text message and when it is via phone, you’ll have a hard time achieving success at any level.
  4. The lack of interpersonal communication skills. There is an art to conversation, influence, and persuasion that is often absent. No amount of technology will ever replace the human psyche or our guttural response to people and situations.

My parents had to endure the pain of learning to move from dictation to desktop computers. Perhaps I’ll see corporate environments endure the pain of resurrecting the interpersonal skills we took for granted as we moved, head first, into the digital era.

With all my technology and digital arrogance, I have to admit: sometimes I think the smoke signal is, perhaps, the most advanced communication method of all time. We survived as a species, advanced into communities, and traveled great distances well before we became tethered to the next power outlet at Starbucks or the airport.

If we lose the ability to influence others through verbal and non-verbal cues, we will have lost something that can never be replaced by something in our pocket, on our desk, or in our briefcases and messenger bags. In fact, we’ll lose something so critical to business and success that we’ll be crippled forever as a result: the human connection.

What observations have you made about technology in the life of a professional? How do you strike a balance?

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