The Herald Bulletin

February 6, 2014

Susan Miller: Being intentional in a connected world

The Herald Bulletin

---- — Looking back, those three little words seemed so innocuous. “You’ve got mail.” How could we know that phrase was the precursor of a communications tsunami?

What a difference a few decades make! No longer are we tethered to our Commodores or Gateways. Most of us carry much more powerful computers in our pocket.

Today, it is not just email we must contend with, but a cacophony of tweets, IM’s, pings and posts. The same technology that has unchained us from our desk chairs has ensnared us in the web of social media.

Oh, grow up and turn it off, you say. Sounds easy enough, but I read a report that explained humans are hard-wired to crave electronic stimuli. Experiments on rats found that the rodents would push a lever in anticipation of a reward as long as occasional rewards arrived.

What’s more, the rats were more compelled to respond when the rewards were spaced erratically at random intervals. We know not every email or tweet will serve up juicy content, but we know that possibility exists.

And since social media is all about us, it is particularly tempting. Push the lever– it’s hard to resist a reward.

All of that stopping to check for the “prize” is disruptive. It is hard to get into work flow with the vibrate setting on a phone buzzing. I’m convinced that us moms are slowly acquiring a sixth sense that alerts us to the most subtle of cell phone vibrations in our handbags.

These beeps and alerts cause strategy to suffer too. Because we can respond in the moment, we feel compelled to so do. But a speedy reply prevents the opportunity to pause, reflect, contemplate and see new connections that might not otherwise be illuminated.

When I think about Robert Frost coming across two paths in the woods, I don’t imagine flashing cursors saying “Like Me” or “Click Here.” I imagine the poet kicking a snow-dusted boot and quietly considering the possibilities of each path. Brevity of response very rarely trumps quality of response.

When it comes to managing electronic distractions, I’m learning to be intentional, asking: Is it necessary to share this? Am I afraid I’m missing out? Might there be an even better distraction by connecting in the real world?

Last Saturday, I felt the magnetic pull of my smartphone as I waited in line at the post office. Intentionally resisting, I noticed the man next to me had five pink envelopes. Now only Valentine’s Day cards are in pink envelopes, so I had to inquire. “Surely, you don’t have five special valentines,” I inquired.

Turns out, he had five sisters who taught their brother right – to remember to send their Valentine’s Day cards early. We had a conversation that was infinitely more entertaining than anything I might have come across on my smartphone. And as Mr. Frost famously said, “that made all the difference.” Happy Valentine’s Day!

Susan Miller’s column appears in The Herald Bulletin on the first Thursday of each month. Write to her at