One of the first columns I ever wrote for Inc. was about the intrusion of technology into entrepreneurial marriages. It's still among the complaints I encounter most often when I talk to founders and their spouses. Mostly spouses. Entrepreneurs argue that smartphones and tablets free them up from the office. Spouses counter that the entrepreneurs carry their offices with them, like Bluetooth-enabled hermit crabs.
The most recent version of this lament comes from Kathy Korman Frey whose husband, Josh Frey, is CEO of OnSalePromos.com, a Washington, D.C.-based promotional-products company. Kathy is a self-described "business junkie" with an MBA and her own small business. Nonetheless, she finds it easier than her husband does to put limits on work hours. Her biggest gripe is the omnipresence of Josh's laptop. It's everywhere--at the breakfast bar with the kids, on the couch, in bed. "It's like he's having an affair with the computer," Kathy says. "It has the siren's call.
"When I noticed that Josh's office space had bled into the entire house, I tried to set some rules," Kathy told me. "For example, 'No laptop in the main living areas of the house.' When I'm around someone who's furiously typing away, the mojo of the home is gone. It's very un-Zen."
If there were a 12-step program for relatives of tech addicts, setting rules would probably be step four (after getting the spouse to admit he has a problem, hiding all the chargers at the bottom of the box of holiday decorations in the basement, and threatening to buy a signal jammer). Josh understood why Kathy wanted to establish limits, but he wasn't crazy about it. And Kathy admits she was a half-hearted enforcer. (I did mention that she's also an entrepreneur.) Not surprisingly, over time many of the rules have quietly vanished.
A few have stuck around, though. The couple has successfully prohibited gadgets at the dinner table--both for themselves and their two kids. If a smartphone peeks its head out during date night, they consider it "bad form."
Kathy said the best vacation the couple ever took was at a place in the Virgin Islands with no Internet access. "You have to remove the option," says Kathy. "Otherwise the computer is like Josh's little buddy. He carries it around like it's a Mini-Me."
Kathy has read the studies that explain how the blinking light or ding that accompanies a new email creates a small adrenaline rush. But she thinks the real reason Josh--and, yes, she--have so much trouble disconnecting is fear of missing out on that one crucial communication or piece of information that could mean the difference between success or failure for their businesses. "You don't want to be the bottleneck to your own future," she says.
The point of limiting technology at home is to spend more quality time with your family. If you're freaking out that business-moving events are taking place without your knowledge, that time won't be quality. I like that Kathy and Josh have drawn a few clear lines but are otherwise realistic about how far they can banish technology. The best strategy is to convene a conversation with the entire family about what's desirable versus what's realistic. Try to imagine yourself going smartphone-less for an entire Saturday. Do your palms sweat just thinking about it? If so, don't commit.
Whatever the rules, everyone must be a party to enforcing them; otherwise the arrangement will quickly fall apart. Tough as it is to set limits, the rewards are great in terms of enabling the connectivity that's truly important: the kind you enjoy with loved ones.