Killing The Time Vampires: Dealing With The Phone
So in part one of this series we discovered that the first principle of productivity is to work on the right things in the right order.
The Pareto Principle
As with so many other things, when we look in this area we find that a nineteenth century Italian man has been here first. Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian engineer and economist who discovered among other things that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. This distribution was discovered to apply in many other areas and has become known as the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 Rule.
Without even having to do a huge amount of statistical analysis I would be willing to bet that you can prove this rule, for instance are 20% of your clients responsible for 80% of the profits or perhaps more tellingly are 20% of your clients responsible for 80% of the problems?
Paradoxically the rule does not need to follow exact 80/20 ratio, it can be 90/10 and indeed the numbers don’t even need to add up to 100; but the principle is always there: a disproportionately small number of causes result a large number of effects.
Understanding this principle is one of the most powerful tools in productivity. Focus on the 20% that produces the 80% of the desired outcomes. And it can be leveraged even further: remember too that within that 20% there will be 20% with the same disproportionate level of effect and so on and so forth. Keep this in mind in everything that you do.
Prioritising for time management
Now, we also accept from part one that time management in and of itself starts from an incorrect assumption. It is not about getting all that you have to do done each day, it is about identifying what is truly important and then prioritising that. Once you have done the exercise in part one and arrived at this priority list, the next thing you must do is give yourself time for this.
- So block your time in your calendar in advance.
- Set times for doing your most important tasks.
- Treat these blocks of time in your schedule as important appointments that you cannot break. If you had to be in court at a certain time on a certain day there would be no question but that you had to be there and that time would be spoken for in your diary.
- Do the same for the most important things in your business; plan your week in advance, fill the time in your calendar based on what you know you have to do to get through your list of priorities and then stick to that.
- You’ve made appointments with yourself that you cannot break.
Of course you’ll have to have scope for flexibility here. If the most important thing on your list takes longer than you projected you’ll have to stick with that until its done and reschedule accordingly. If genuine emergencies arise they will have to be dealt with. But don’t cop out here. Make that commitment to and appointment with yourself in the most important use of your time and then hold yourself to it.
Killing the Time Vampires
In order to focus on the best use of your time you have the kill the vampires that suck the time that is the lifeblood of your productivity. And you have to not only kill them but you have to bury them at a cross roads with a mouth full of garlic and a stake though their hearts. Vampires are funny like that and time vampires are no exception.
The worst time vampire by a very long way is the phone. What is it about the phone that we feel compelled to answer it? On balance I hate the phone. It is a useful tool to speak to someone at a mutually satisfactory time or in an emergency. And when I say emergency I’m talking building on fire, being taken away in handcuffs or have just gone into labour type emergency; someone feeling like an update on their case really badly doesn’t quite cut it.
The phone is one of those things that seems to have gotten itself into urgent status by default. When the phone rings, like Pavlov’s dogs, we are conditioned to answer it immediately. But why? The only reason the phone is ringing is because someone somewhere dialled a number because they felt like talking to you. But they didn’t necessarily check with you first. So why should you be on that call.
Steven Covey categorised tasks into four quadrants:
- urgent and important;
- important but not urgent;
- urgent but not important;
- and not urgent and not important.
Essentially the first two quadrants are good, the second two bad. Ultimately you should aim to be working in the second quadrant most of the time: doing important but not urgent tasks.
Unscheduled phone calls are very often in the third quadrant: seemingly urgent but not important. Cut them out.
In my experience in order for this to work you need to make a clear policy. Be honest with people. Have your staff be honest with people. Honesty and integrity should be the bedrock of your personal and business reputation.
Competence and integrity
In fact, there are two things that are in very short and rare supply, and as such they are very valuable. They are competence and integrity. The two are interlinked. Think of the act of promising what you will deliver and delivering what you will promise.
You might think of competence as a basic minimum but, if my personal experience is anything to go by, it should not be assumed and never taken for granted.
Integrity underpins it. In this respect integrity has nothing to do with morality. In fact, to paraphrase Voltaire: if integrity did not exist as a philosophical and moral construct it would have become necessary to invent it as a marketing tactic.
Integrity means committing to delivering on your promises and also taking responsibility for and fixing things when they go wrong; which they will on occasion.
So, in every area of your business the formula is simple: say what you’ll do and then do what you say. And managing how people have access to you is no different to any other area in this respect.
Put a coherent policy in place
Therefore, don’t have people say you’re in a meeting if you’re not. Develop a coherent policy that your staff fully understand and appreciate so that they can explain why you are not available to take calls. If you were in court arguing a client’s case you would not be available to take a call, patients do not expect their dentist to come out from treating a patient to answer the phone, no sane person would expect a surgeon to interrupt an operation to take a call. Why on earth should you be available to interrupt the most important work that you can do to take a call just because you happen to be sitting at your desk?
You and your staff can explain to clients that their work requires your complete undivided attention to get done to the standards that they should expect and that you insist upon. For this reason, you do not allow any member of staff doing important client work to be available for unscheduled interruptions and that includes phone calls. You don’t allow interruptions for other client’s business while you are working on their matter and you afford the same respect and importance to all of your clients’ work.
You can also explain to your clients that the work you do for them is either charged by the hour or priced based on an estimate of how long it is likely to take to get done. Therefore, if you spend time wastefully and inefficiently allowing all interruptions and unscheduled phone calls while working on their matter this is going to involve the work taking a lot longer and consequently costing a lot more. This generally resonates with most reasonable people.
The importance of scheduling in advance
But not taking unscheduled calls does not mean you are unavailable. On the contrary, you are always available to your important clients but calls simply have to be scheduled in advance.
To really make this effective use a shared calendar in Outlook or in a similar package. Block time in advance setting blocks of clear, inviolable time to carry out the tasks that you have identified as most important based on estimates of how long each task or each element of each task is likely to take. Block time in the calendar each day for returning calls and emails. If that time is available your staff know that they can schedule a call with you during that time to return the call.
This is where things can get interesting. Train your staff to elicit as much information as they can in order to arrange the call:-
- What does the person wish to speak to you about?
- What are the questions that they wish to ask you?
- How long is the call likely to take so that it can be scheduled in the diary appropriately?
This way your staff can create an agenda for the call. You can have this agenda and the file in advance of the call so that you can prepare for and deal with the call comprehensively and deeply satisfactorily from the client’s point of view. This will also emphasis the importance of the time being expended on the matter for the client by you.
But perhaps the most important element in this process is to train your staff in triaging the call in this way to identify if they or someone else in the office may be able to help with or resolve the issue for the client in the first place. They may not need to speak to you at all and may get a much more satisfactory outcome as far as they are concerned in dealing with someone else. This can be a real win win.
But you have to walk this walk as well as not talk the talk on this particular unscheduled call. If you say you’re going to get back to someone you must call them when you promised. No exceptions. And when you make time available in your diary to enable staff to schedule calls you have to honour this commitment. And you have to be true to the message that you have staff give on your behalf. But then again this is all part of the integrity of your personal brand.
The exception to the rule
Exceptions: you have to have exceptions right? Well to a point of course, but you have to think very carefully about those exceptions and set them very clearly in advance so that everyone is aware of exactly how far they extend and you don’t end up having more exceptions than rules.
If you’re doing large transactional work or involved in negotiations you will probably need to have an exception for your counterpart on the other side of the transaction or negotiation at key points in the process, e.g. around closings or settlements. Set these clearly with your team and identify by name the person from whom you will accept a call. This could be a standing arrangement for a particular period of time or for that day or that morning. Tailor this to suit. But make sure everyone is on the same page.
Don’t get annoyed with someone if they don’t put through a call you did want to take or put through a call that you didn’t if you didn’t make it completely clear for them in advance.
Of course if someone is ringing in at a pre-agreed time on a scheduled call make sure that you are available and that the person is put through to you, the person answering the phone should be able to see your calendar and see that this call is scheduled.
You’ll also need an exception to deal with short rallies of telephone tennis. You know the scenario, you call the person’s mobile, it rings out while they root around in their handbag or pull over the car. You then try calling them again, their phone is engaged because they’re calling you back and then a few minutes later one of you gets a call from the other. In this scenario, make sure that the person taking incoming calls at reception knows you’re trying to get through to the other person and puts them through if they’re simply ringing back on a call where you were trying to get them.
Turn off your mobile phone while you are at your desk.
So far we’ve been talking about handling phone calls in an office environment where all calls come through a central switch. I recommend this as it is vital to have a gate keeper to your time. For instance we have DDI capacity on our office phones since we upgraded our phone system a few years ago, but I would simply never use it and don’t even know what my direct dial number is as I see the concept as simply insane.
But even assuming that you do work a system where a receptionist or secretary screens your calls, all of this comes to nothing if there is a second phone in your room that you will answer whenever it rings. And who hasn’t been there when you’re stuck on a call in the office and the mobile rings with a call you just have to take and vice versa. The only way in which to prevent this is to turn off your mobile phone when you are at your desk and unavailable to take calls. This will also deal with an important element of the email vampires I will come to in the next part of the series.
Now, if you do have family and other important people in your life who are used to immediate access to you through mobile calls and texts, make sure that they are aware that your phone will be switched off when you are at your desk and that you won’t get that text that they are stuck on the side of the road with a flat tyre. Make sure they know that if that happens there is a way to get through to you: perhaps by calling your office and telling the person at the desk that it is an emergency.
But remember what I said about emergencies earlier; let them know that if they cry wolf it better be good – you’re at important work and should not be disturbed unless absolutely essential.
While we are on the subject of mobile phones, can I come clean here and state that I simply detest voice mail. And quite apart from personal prejudices I believe it is disastrous as a means of leaving and taking messages. A message unless written down will in my case be almost instantly forgotten, particularly if it is one in a series of messages that must be listened to one after the other, some containing phone numbers to be retained.
This is just nuts. Don’t use voicemail.
I have set the message on my phone which explains to callers that I do not use voicemail and that if they leave a message it will not get attention. On the other hand I explain that if they call my office reception and leave a message for me there it will ALWAYS receive attention. I don’t get complaints and I don’t miss messages that have been languishing in voicemail.
Ok, so that’s it for part two. In part three I’ll be covering the other two main time vampires that you will have to manage in your life if you are to achieve your true productivity potential: email and meetings.
Images: “Turn off your mobile phone signal on a boeing / Pareto principle or eighty-twenty rule represented in wood letterpress printing blocks on a digital tablet screen / LA PUSH, WASHINGTON – AUGUST 6: Vampire Threat sign on display on August 6, 2013 outside LaPush, Washington/ Shutterstock.com“
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