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Don’t Be a Tech Slave

Felicia and Gregg Alexander are plugged in. The Los Angeles-based couple is all about technology; he owns a software company and she’s an executive with Sony. But there came a time in their five year marriage when something had to give.

“We have a very strict rule in our house: the BlackBerry is not allowed upstairs—period,” Felicia says. And no cell phones or laptops, for that matter, either. “When I first got the BlackBerry, it was like an appendage—an extension of myself. My husband got a little perturbed, and we had to have a little BlackBerry intervention,” she says.

Theirs is a common story that Dave Parker understands. Dave, who works in Seattle, has spent some 20 years in technology, holding executive positions in IT services, software distribution and hardware development companies as well as developing Asian joint ventures.

Dave does unplug, but turning off the cell phone, laptop and hand-held wireless devices remains a challenge. “Running a new startup with three additional board members and venture commitments to three or four other companies means most of the regular business activities are in different time zones and on different projects,” he says.

Both Dave and Felicia admit being connected can be addictive. “Early in my career, I was in the wireless industry, so it was fun to be plugged in all the time,” says Dave, who now is co-founder and CEO of 9Spaces Inc., helping Western companies launch in China by providing the country’s largest high-end job board for bilingual candidates. He is also a board member with two firms, as well as entrepreneur-in-residence for a venture firm.

Felicia loves gadgets and technology in general. As director of marketing and sales for Sony’s invitation-only VIP program, Cierge, she says she feels “lucky that I have all these tools available to me and I can choose how to make technology work for me.”

But they agree there’s a downside. “I definitely know some people who go out to dinner or lunch with us and the BlackBerry is sitting on the table and it’s hard to have a conversation,” she says. “You expect that during a weekday lunch, but if it’s on the weekend, the BlackBerry is like an uninvited guest.”

And that’s the problem, says Julie Morgenstern, best-selling author and time-management and organization expert. “Many people have become so addicted to being plugged in they can’t go 15 minutes without checking their e-mail,” she says. “And if they’re away from communication too long—i.e. an hour or several—they can’t be fully present in whatever they’re doing, from being in a business meeting to enjoying an evening out with friends.

“Developing your tolerance for being unplugged for several hours at a time allows you to truly engage with people on issues at a higher-quality and more in-depth level,” she says. “Ultimately, you get more done in less time, with better results, and that saves time in the long run as well.”

Felicia Alexander and Dave Parker try to keep their evenings free for their families. Felicia and Gregg have a 1-year-old, Gavin. Dave and his wife, Kathryn, have three boys, Brandon, 15; Carson, 13; and Drew, 6; and soon, a daughter, Lauren, they’re adopting in China.

Both Felicia and Dave keep vacations free of interference. The Alexanders like to travel where cell phones and other hand-held wireless devices don’t work. They don’t go cold turkey on the electronics though; she downloads a library of books to her Sony Reader Digital Book and packs her Sony Walkman Video MP3 Player with music and her son’s photos.

For the Parkers, “vacation time is a time for family and a time to recharge,” so the electronic devices are turned off. Dave is a Boy Scout leader, and last summer they went to a Boy Scout camp on Flathead Lake in Montana. “There was coverage, but it was best to unplug,” Dave says.

Unplugging, even for an hour a day, has several benefits, Julie Morgenstern says. “One: It can put you in control of your time. When we are constantly connected, we lose valuable time to think and focus on what really matters, as opposed to what’s screaming the loudest. Two: Unplugging also gives you the opportunity to concentrate and focus on people and issues in a significant way,” she says.

For Felicia, unplugging coincided with changes in her own values and motherhood. “Early in my career, I really defined myself by my job,” she says. “I love my work, and being able to give clients access to such an amazing brand and such amazing products. But there are other important dimensions to who I am. I want to be a wife, a mother, and I want to be able to do other things, too.” Since making a concerted effort not to be plugged in all the time, Felicia says her conversations away from work no longer are centered on the subject of work.

The benefit Dave sees in unplugging is “reconnecting,” he says. “I asked my wife how I was doing on this topic before saying yes to the interview. I could still do better, and I’ll always have that as a goal. But it’s important to show your spouse, kids and friends that they mean more to you when they’re with you than the phone or BlackBerry.”

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