One would think that with the Internet and all the information available there, the amount of data we can now receive on our cell phones and other advances in general technology, planning a vacation would be easier than ever. Those who know how to harness technology properly, they can make all their trip reservations online, map the shortest driving route, identify attractions along that route and find the cheapest gas in each town along the way. Yes, technology has improved how we go about some of the important events in our lives.

But has that same technology also overwhelmed us? Some of the very same companies that brought us new and faster ways to communicate with each other are now beginning to realize that they might be overwhelming us by making it too easy for us to receive cell phone calls, e-mails, text and instant messages. According to an article by Mike Richtel in the New York Times, some of the largest tech companies in the world are working together to help devise ways for us to deal with the flood of information.

Itís estimated that the distraction of e-mail, instant messages and the Internet cost American industries more than $650 million in lost productivity each year. According to RescueTime, a company that analyzes how workers use their computers, the typical information worker uses email more than 50 times a day, and instant messaging more than 77 times a day. Many of us have sat across the table from someone who spends as much time checking and answering messages they receive on their phone as they do engaging in conversation. Itís something of an irony that all the devices and technology that were designed to improve to make workers more efficient and flexible seem to be having the opposite effect when used too frequently.

There is even a physical reaction that many people who use cell phones are reportedly experiencing. It is the sensation of a call coming in, with the phone set on vibrate mode, thatís felt on the hip or thigh (wherever that person typically keeps their phone) when in fact it is not ringing.

According to the article, one of the ideas to come out of the recent studies is for workers to schedule breaks from their e-mail and other communication devices during the day. While the actual process of answering an e-mail may take less than a minute, the disruption can actually begin before it arrives óas we anticipate something coming into our in-box ó and then as we recover and try to re-focus our attention on the previous task. The timeout periods can be difficult for workers to adapt to at first, but the increase in productivity is apparently worth the continued efforts.

For many people, a vacation has served as the perfect escape from technology, especially as it related to work. Even if the locale was not isolated, being out of the office, off the clock and away from the phone was relaxing in itself. But vacations such as those are becoming more and more scarce. Cell phone networks and roaming allow us to stay in contact with the office as we travel. Voicemail and e-mail can be checked remotely in any number of ways. As Bulletin publisher Bob Brincefield pointed out a few weeks ago, more remote locations with fewer planned activities are becoming more and more appealing as a getaway.

Maybe the companies that brought on this deluge of communication will figure out how to stem its tide in the workplace ó as well as on the vacation trail. Like so many corporations, they are trying to make sure their employees remain productive ó and then become even more productive. Perhaps escaping the distractions that come from instant communication and spending more time focusing on the job ó or vacation ó at hand is the answer.

Bill Crist is associate publisher and general manager of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesday. He may be reached by e-mail at bill.crist@brownwoodbulletin.com.