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I’m often amused by the way people still behave as a result of a small vibrating/whining piece of plastic and metal in their pocket or on their desk. They’d be forgiven if it was the early nineties when mobile phones were new and we weren’t familiar with they way they worked, or had voice mail etc.

The Rodent In the Bag

We’ve all seen this scene countless times before, and probably quite recently too:

It’s a peaceful train journey, the quiet is broken abruptly by silly digital tune then someone fumbling around in a panic as if trying to catch a lose ferret in their bag and finally answering the phone to say something like this,

“Hello… Hel- Dave… I’m on a train… Dave? Can you he.. Dave? I ‘ m   o n   a   t r a i n. Hello? He-? Ah dave, yeah, I’m on a train, where are you? Hello? Dave? Where? Sorry you’re breaking up. I said ‘y o u ‘ r e   b r e a k i n g  u p’. Dave?”

Said person sighing now,

“I’ll call you back? Dave? I’ll call you back okay? I ‘ l l   c a l l   y o u   b a c k… okay? Right okay… what? Dave? wh- I can’t hear you? Dave? Ah okay, B- Bye. catch you later then…”

Vibrating rodent put back in bag. End of scene. Roll credits.

Sorry, but I’d rather give my attention to someone I don’t know who is trying to sell me something

And how about during meetings? How many times has someone stopped in mid sentence, derailed the conversation only to answer the phone to someone they don’t know and say something like,

“Hello… Yes this is Dave Blackberry… yes… okay I… yes but I… sorry can I call you back? yes… I’m not sure right now… yes.. sorry can I… Sorry do you mind if I call you back, it’s just I’m in a meeting right now…” etc.

I’m sure you’re already familiar with the effect of interruption on concentration. How often does this still happen?

Obviously many people feel obliged to give some kind of human response to the person trying to call them, that for some reason voice mail isn’t good enough.

Redefining the phone

Here’s how I use, or rather don’t use the (mobile) phone:

  • I don’t often answer my phone.
  • I don’t even look at it when it’s vibrating – and that’s assuming I have switched on the vibrating mode (ring tones are always off).
  • I check it later, when I’m ready. Maybe I’ll call the person back then, that is if I know who it is. Or perhaps I’ll send them an SMS, email or IM.
  • Actually it doesn’t ring much now-a-days anyway.
  • Sometimes I don’t have an answer phone either (I say often because I move about a lot so I’m not always on the same contract/phone), I hope people will email me anyway.
  • If it really is that one time when it’s an emergency, the caller will try me again, and will try and reach me on other channels too.

I can’t believe how many people still unconsciously respond to these vibrating and whining pieces of plastic; at the beck and call of fancy their little phones.

When some one calls you, they are not going to be offended if you don’t answer – it’s not like they are sitting next to you chatting with you and you are ignoring them, it’s a phone and they are probably many miles away. Before mobile phones, if you didn’t answer the phone then you were probably out no big deal, leave a message and get called back. But wait – sometimes you can’t answer the mobile phone anyway, maybe you’re in a meeting, at a hospital, on a train, doing a poo etc.

Welcome back to the world of asynchronous communication

One of the great new freedoms I discovered when I first took to the road was of not having to answer the phone. I couldn’t answer the phone – my phone didn’t work (back then you needed a fancy expensive phone for it to work in Japan aswell as Europe). I went to the trouble of setting up call forwarding to skype, but the timezone difference ment that during the day I had no calls – blissful uninterrupted concentration. And after a couple of weeks I gave up trying to answer the skype calls anyway, it only rang in the evenings (Japan time) when I was less inclined to answer and my business kept on running fine without me taking calls.

I estimate about 80-90% of the business communications I rely on now work well enough asynchronously – i.e. I don’t need an immediate response. Moreover, seeing communication as asynchronous allows me to make a whole load of efficiency improvements in how I work e.g. doing communication in batches together when I choose, rather unplanned interruptions peppered throughout my day.

Lessons Learned

It has taken me some time to hone my asynchronous communication skills – I had to learn on the job. But thankfully now-a-days there’s plenty of good writing on this subject. But here’s my 2 cents – top tips from the hobo CEO:

  1. Lose the impulse to answer/look at your phone. It might take a few weeks training, but try this: do not pick up or look at your phone until 2 minutes (about the time of a bathroom break) after it’s stopped ringing. If you’re waiting for an important call then you can suspend this rule temporarily, but don’t allow a window of more than 1 hour for the “important” call.
  2. Always have your phone on silent, and if completed tip #1 then you can have it on vibration mode if you want.
  3. Never answer/look at your phone if you are already talking to someone else. Wait until the conversation is over or has a natural break, then take a minute to check your phone and take action if absolutely necessary.
  4. If you need to concentrate on something like designing or coding, then work in 30min blocks taking short breaks in between – only use your phone in the breaks.
  5. Never answer the phone if it’s an unknown number (unless your expected “important” call might be from a blocked number). Let them leave a message.
  6. Decide on your hours of business, NEVER answer the phone outside those hours (friends & family at your discretion).
  7. Have a no phone customer support policy, if you can reply well to customer support emails in 24 hours or less, then your customers will most likely be happy.
  8. Leave your phone at home sometimes.
  9. When you sleep make sure your phone won’t wake you up.

And some tips beyond the phone:

  1. Write pre-emptive messages, write them in a way to reduce unnecessary back and forth, e.g. “if you can’t do X then please do Y instead, failing that Z”
  2. If you have a lot of client communication, use a PA or hire someone for customer support. With a little training you could probably cut out most of that work.
  3. Switch email clients/notifications off – check email when you are ready to do a batch of communication
  4. Don’t check email out of habit or boredom, your inbox is not there to tell you what to do next.

I know I’m not the first person to write on this topic, but until the “Rodent in the bag” scene ends its seemingly endless repeat performances, I’m confident it’s a worthwhile endeavour!

One Response to “Redefining the phone”

  1. makingitanywhere

    “your inbox is not there to tell you what to do next”

    I’m going to set an alert to flash this on my screen every hour. A perma-open Gmail tab is my most disruptive habit.

    Reply

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