Airplane Mode

Friday, I was on a return flight from Utah. The flight attendant was making the usual announcements when something caught my attention. We were being instructed to put our electronics in “airplane” mode. On a phone, airplane mode disables the cellular radio so you can’t send or receive voice calls or text messages. Unless the plane has Wi-Fi, you also lose the ability to send and receive emails. Basically, it is like unplugging your phone.

Earlier that week, I was sitting on the porch of an Airbnb outside of Zion National Park talking to another CEO about unplugging. That’s what we were there to do. Once a year, about a dozen of us go to a National Park to spend a week hiking, fellowshipping, and getting feedback from each other about our current struggles and concerns. We were talking about how pervasive technology is and how seldom we are without the constant distraction and interruption it can bring.

Several things are concerning about the effects of always being at the fingertips of everyone who has our email or phone number. Add to that the internet, games, and other apps that send us notifications about everything from our garage door opening to it being time to stand up, and we have little chance of making it more than a few minutes without being disturbed.

Research shows that distractions have a profound effect on our ability to concentrate. The IQ of people constantly distracted by emails and phone calls falls 10 points, double the impact of smoking marijuana. Constant interruptions have an impact similar to missing a night of sleep. In fact, people who are constantly distracted develop addictive behaviors. Being in a continual state of alertness causes us to be scanning but never really focused. Over time, the adrenaline and cortisol create a physiological hyper-alert state, an addiction, that is only calmed by continually checking in.

Unfortunately, this physiological adaptation is a predominant reason so many people have trouble concentrating. The adrenaline and cortisol that our bodies use to get us through bursts of intensity will, over the long haul, counteract the serotonin and dopamine that make us feel calm and happy as well as interrupting our sleep and heart function. The “phones” in our lives are literally killing our ability to concentrate and possibly physically harming us.

That’s all pretty bad news, but there is good news to go along with it. Like most habits and addictions, both the behaviors and the resulting impacts can be changed.

You might have heard it takes 21 days to change or form a habit. In the 1950s a plastic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz began noticing that his patients took about 21 days to get used to their new face after a nose job. He started thinking about his own adjustment period and noticed it took him about 21 days to form a new habit. He wrote, “These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”

Unfortunately, people sort of forgot about the “minimum” part and started saying, “It takes 21 days to form a new habit.” According to Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London, it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for people to form a new habit. So, while 21 days sounds nice, it will probably take 2 to 8 months for you to truly establish a new behavior pattern.

Today, it is so easy to succumb to the constant distractions of our pervasive technology and the general ideology that we should always be available. Those distractions reduce our ability to concentrate, impact our ability to think, impair our relationships, and harm us physically. Making it a habit to choose “airplane mode” from time to time can radically improve our ability to lead healthy organizations and healthy people.

Try these tactics on for size. Stop taking your phone into meetings and put it away when talking to people. Actually use the airplane mode on your phone for 1 or 2 hours a day while you read or do thought work (turn off your computer email and texts too). Schedule your days and weeks such that you have uninterrupted time for specific tasks (you might find Time Blocking helpful). Take a day or two (or a dozen) off, and really unplug. Trust me, that last one is worth whatever it takes to make it happen.

For this to impact our organizations, we have to lead with our actions. It is imperative that leaders set the tone by not constantly interrupting their team and by leaving them alone during the evenings, weekends, and when they are on vacation. If your organization can’t manage an evening, a weekend, or even several days without hearing from you, you are not leading well. Great leaders have communicated the vision well, delegated both responsibility and authority, and they trust their team to make good decisions in their absence. We all need airplane mode from time-to-time so we can be focused the rest of the time. That’s undistracted leadership, and it’s The Kimray Way.