Do you own your smartphone or does it own you?

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The smartphone has become a ubiquitous status symbol of and tool for businesspeople doing business. In offices, on the streets, and in airports, what self-respecting businessperson doesn't have their smartphone -- whether a Blackberry, Windows Mobile device, Palm, or iPhone -- at the ready to make the deal, provide support, change the plan, or just stay up to date on their company's latest developments at a moment's notice. The smartphone's ability to provide businesspeople with instant access to others through email, text messaging, and phone has, in theory, saved time and made the business world run more smoothly by keeping everyone in a company connected all day every day. It can truly be a tool for increased communication, efficiency, and productivity.

The Unintended Consequences of Smartphones

Unfortunately, the smartphone also represents a corporate culture gone mad, in which it seems as if everyone feels they are so needed that they simply can't be out of touch with work lest the company collapses without their constant input and output. The smartphone has, falling prey to the theory of unintended consequences, become a weapon against businesspeople that may actually hurt corporate discipline, focus, and productivity.

It has also created an upheaval in the already fragile fault line between work and life. This state of constant connectedness has blurred (or obliterated) the lines between work and life, creating family conflict and threatening any hope of peace and quiet when away from the office.

Who Owns Whom?

So do you own your smartphone or does it own you? Here are a few ways to tell:

  • Do you take your smartphone with you wherever you go?
  • Is your smartphone the last thing you look at before you go to sleep and the first thing you look at when you wake up?
  • Do you make or take business calls regularly when away from work?
  • Do your family or friends give you exasperated looks when you pull out your smartphone constantly?

If you answered "yes" to these questions, your smartphone likely owns you.

Smartphone Rules to Live By

Despite the obvious tongue-in-cheek tone so far, this unhealthy relationship with your smartphone has real consequences both at work and at home. At work, it can be a constant distraction -- those notification beeps are like the sirens of Greek mythology -- that prevents you from focusing on immediate tasks and responsibilities. At home, the constant ringing and beeping -- or you just compulsively checking your email -- is not only a persistent irritant for family and friends, but it also keeps you from being present in your life away from work.

Thankfully, there are some tangible steps you can take to break the grip that your smartphone has on you. Here are seven simple rules you can follow to help you regain control of your smartphone so it is once again a tool of efficiency and productivity rather than a weapon against your freedom and mental health.

Rule #1: Don't look at your smartphone in the morning until you are ready to respond to it. Peeking at your email or phone messages before you have dressed or had breakfast can only create unnecessary distraction, worry, and stress. If you're married with children, it will also prevent you from being engaged with your family before you leave for work. In fact, if at all possible, don't even look at your emails during the drive to work; again, it would serve no purpose as you can't -- or, at least, you shouldn't -- be thumb typing during your commute, unless you're on a train or bus and you can respond to your phone and email messages.

Rule #2: Don't look at your smartphone during the day unless you are ready to act on it. It's not uncommon for businesspeople to look at their smartphones as they head into a meeting or just before a conference call. The primary consequence of doing this is that you will be distracted from your next task. You will be thinking about what you found on your smartphone instead of focusing on the task ahead.

Rule #3: Turn off all smartphones during meetings. In fact, every company should have a "no-smartphone" rule for all meetings. There are few things more irritating, distracting, and productivity-killing than having people at a meeting looking at and typing into their smartphones. They are clearly not paying attention to the meeting and, therefore, unable to contribute in any meaningful way. It also distracts others at the meeting. It wastes time and prolongs meetings because no one is focusing on the agenda. Quality and productivity suffer too because the lack of full engagement means that effective problem solving and decision making will be nearly impossible.

Rule #4: Don't check your smartphone less than 30 minutes before you go to bed. If there are calls or emails you think you must respond to you, you will get to bed later and you'll get riled up, so you'll have a harder time falling asleep. The reality is that, in most cases, they can wait until morning, so best not to look. At best, commit to not checking your smartphone at all in the evening. At worst, choose a time between 30 and 60 minutes before bedtime when you take a last look at your smartphone.

Rule #5: Don't do your smartphone when you are doing life. In other words, don't look at your smartphone if you are interacting with others, doing something that is supposed to clear your mind of work, such as exercise, meditation, having a meal, watching a movie, or hanging out with family or friends. There is nothing more annoying to family and friends than to be with you when you are making business calls or responding to email -- why are you even with them if you're with them in body only? It's okay to check your smartphone periodically, but ONLY IF you don't interrupt more important life stuff and ONLY IF you are expecting something that you may have to act on quickly.

Rule #6: Don't use your smartphone when it would be rude to do so. You may think that you are important (and you may truly be), but that doesn't give you license to be disrespectful of others. Restaurants, grocery stores, and public transportation are some of the most frequent settings for rude smartphone behavior. As someone who travels regularly, there are few things more annoying than some business type who doesn't realize that he (almost always a man) is using a cell phone not a yell phone and, as a result, shares his phone conversation with the rest of the gate area or airplane. If you absolutely must take a call in a public place, be aware of the loudness of your voice and try to move away from people if at all possible. And a practice that I use is to cover my mouth when speaking on my phone in public. I was hoping to start a trend here, but this attempt at mobile phone etiquette hasn't caught on yet.

Rule #7: There are exceptions to the above rules. The reality is that there are times when you have to be available no matter where you are or whom you are with. You may be on call, there may be a crisis, or a big deal is in the pipeline.

Understand that these rules are not set in stone and can be modified to fit your own particular needs. What is important is that you have rules that guide your smartphone-use behavior and to establish these rules over your smartphone as the default rather than the exception, so deviating from them requires deliberation and conscious choice.

Letting Go

Your dependence on your smartphone is a habit that develops through repeated use. So you can think of separating from your smartphone as breaking an old habit and ingraining a new one; it takes commitment, discipline, and repetition to change. You will find that there are many upsides to regaining control of your smartphone. The people in your life will welcome you back from the smartphone precipice and actually want to be around you. You will be more relaxed, more engaged in life, have more fun, be a whole lot happier and, despite your great fondness for your smartphone, you may just find more interesting and enjoyable things to do with your time.

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