Urgent Versus Important


by Tim Moran

I work at home. I am a home-office worker.

Until March 1 of this year, I was an independent contractor working in a subterranean room--albeit a nice room; I am now employed by a well-known technology company and am still working from home in that same room. My new employer saw fit to equip me with a wonderful new laptop, on which I am now typing, and a Blackberry.

This fancy smartphone is my first mobile-communications device. Heretofore, I did not own, use, or carry a cell phone. There are many reasons for this, but I will not digress. Suffice it to say that I am now the proud user of a Blackberry Bold, a sleek little thing that allows me to be in constant touch--by phone, email, or text--with all who want or need me. (I should mention that I do not get reception in my subterranean room, so I must use my cable-modem land line for all calls while I am working there. But that's a quibble, I guess.)

In my independent incarnation, I worked in the room and, when I left the room, I was pretty much out of touch. This seemed to work just fine. I was not involved in any work that truly required my attention at a moment's notice--at least not after reasonable working hours. Now, as an employee, I imagine that there could be an occasion when something goes awry and I would be called upon to handle some odd-ball problem, but, for the most part, we're not talking late-night emergency calls from the chairman. I am a writer/editor, not a chargé d'affaires.

All of which should explain why I was so interested in this article I found on Australia's The Age: "When office affairs take over the bedroom, the lounge. . .," by Danielle Teutsch. Now, I realize this is not news; after all, the name "crackberry" has been around for years. But now that I am an employed member of the connected, the concept takes on a new meaning--and I wonder how many of you even think about it anymore.

A recent study by Melissa Gregg, of Sydney University's department of gender and cultural studies, showed that "participants believed checking and sending emails from home did not constitute work. Yet emails were constantly invading evenings and weekends, potentially affecting family relationships." The article notes that Gregg found that "workers were checking email at night in bed and as early as 6 a.m. before children woke so they could focus on 'real work' in office hours."

Any of this sound familiar?

This, however, was the notion that especially caught my attention: "People who worked entirely from home felt enormous pressure to be diligent by answering emails immediately, to prove they were not 'at the coffee shop.'" Or in the shower at noon, or making a sandwich while catching some of the Masters on the kitchen TV, or helping the seven-year-old daughter put fifteen words in "A,B,C order."

In the end, one Barbara Pocock, of the centre for work and life at the University of South Australia, summed it up best: "It fractures people's attention because there's this dipping in and out. I'm curious about what this is doing to productivity. We're interrupting completion of task, where the urgent overrides the important."

The urgent--or, more likely, the appearance of urgency--overrides that important. The next time I take out my shiny new Blackberry at some odd, off hour to check email, I am going to think about that line--and, I hope, shove the thing back in its sturdy black leather case until some reasonable hour in the morning.