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Most of us deal with the little things first. We check texts and emails; we try to respond to the urgent requests others send us; we set about tidying up, clearing the decks, in the vain hope of creating some physical, mental and digital space in which we can one day address the really important and creative projects that matter to us.

Mark McGuinness explains why this doesn’t work.

The trouble with this approach is that you end up spending the best part of the day on other people’s priorities, running their errands, and giving them what they need. By the time you finally settle down to your own work, it could be mid-afternoon, when your energy has dipped and it’s hard to focus on anything properly. “Oh well, maybe tomorrow will be better,” you tell yourself.

But when tomorrow comes round there’s another pile of emails, phone messages, and to-do list items. If you carry on like this you will spend most of your time on reactive work, responding to incoming demands and answering questions framed by other people. It’s a never-ending hamster wheel. And it will never lead to remarkable work, in Seth Godin‘s sense, “worthy of being remarked on.” We don’t find it remarkable when our expectations are met – only when they are exceeded, or when we are surprised by something completely unexpected.

So what does McGuinness do instead?

The single most important change I’ve made in my own working habits has been to start doing things the other way round – i.e. begin the day with creative work on my own top priorities, with the phone and email switched off. And I never schedule meetings in the morning, if there’s any way of avoiding it. This means that whatever else happens, I get my most important work done – and looking back, all of my biggest successes have been the result of making this simple change.

It wasn’t easy, and still isn’t, particularly when I get phone messages beginning “I sent you an email two hours ago…!”

By definition, taking this approach goes against the grain of others’ expectations, and the pressures they put on you. It can take an act of willpower to switch off the world, even for an hour, during the working day. For some strange reason, it feels “unprofessional” to be knuckling down to work in this way.

The thing is, if you want to create something truly remarkable, it won’t be built in a day. A great novel, a stunning design, a game-changing software application, a revolutionary company – this kind of thing takes time, thought, craft, and persistence. And on any given day, it will never appear as “urgent” as those four emails (in the last half-hour) from Client X or Colleague Y, asking for things you’ve already given them or which they probably don’t really need.

So if you’re going to prioritize this kind of work – your real work – you may have to go through a wall of anxiety in order to get it done. And you’ll probably have to put up with complaints and reproaches from people who have no idea what you’re trying to achieve, and can’t understand what could be more important than their needs.

Yes, it feels uncomfortable, and sometimes people get upset, but it’s much better to disappoint a few people over small things, than to sacrifice the big things for an empty inbox. Otherwise you’re sacrificing real productivity for the illusion of professionalism.

McGuinness finishes with some practical tips:

1. Creative work first, reactive work second.
Either start the day on your creative work, or make sure you block out time for it later in the day – preferably at a time when you typically feel energized and productive.

2. Tune out distractions.
You know the drill – email off, phone off, work from home if you can, stick your headphones on if you can’t.

3. Make exceptions for VIPs.
Don’t be reckless. If you’re working with a client to a deadline, or your boss needs something urgently, treat them like VIPs and give them special access – e.g. leave the phone on and answer if they ring (everyone else gets the voicemail).

4. Be really efficient at reactive work.
You can’t ignore everybody all the time. The better your productivity systems, the more promptly you’ll be able to respond to their requests – and the more time you’ll have free for your own work.

I don’t do this, but I think it’s worth trying.

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Fascinating figures recently out from Ofcom. For the first time ever, despite the fact that mobile phone sales are still surging, the time we spend talking on the mobile has actually dropped. So this isn’t just the decline of the landline conversation, which has been happening for a long time. It’s the decline of conversation full-stop, even though it is cheaper and easier than ever before.

Tiffany Jenkins gives the facts:

Have you noticed how little we talk on the telephone, compared to how much we used to? That’s talk; not text. Speak; not message. I rarely pick up the land-line, or my mobile, to dial those with whom I work.

Admittedly, I occasionally call a select group of friends and family, but even these have been filtered down to leave only a few on the line.

More often than not we e-mail each other instead of speaking to one another, or we text and instant message, contacting people through social networking sites. The answerphone is redundant, quiet in the corner. The landline retained only for its internet connection.

These observations are not confined to personal experience. Figures released by Ofcom, earlier this year, showed that the volume of landline calls have gone down dramatically. Last year, they fell by 10 percent. Today, it is surprising when it rings, and when – if ever it does, you are more likely find a salesperson at the end of the line than someone you actually know.

Fixed-line voice calls have been in decline for some time, but what is significant is that there has also been a drop in mobile voice calls.

The figures published by Ofcom show they are on the wane – the overall time spent talking on mobile phones dropped by over 1 per cent in 2011, for the first time ever. My mobile constantly bleeps and buzzes at the sound of new activity, but I hear the ring tone less and less.

People are still communicating, they just don’t do it directly. Instead we are switching to texts, e-mails and online communication of various sorts.

The average UK consumer now sends 50 texts per week which has more than doubled in four years.

What does it all mean? Jenkins reflects:

Developments in technology allow us to get in touch whenever, quickly, cheaply, and apparently efficiently, but separated at a distance. It isn’t face to face, nor on an open line. Walking into a once noisy office recently, where I used to work, I found that everyone was silently typing away. They were interacting with each other – and others – but though the internet. Text based communications and the computer are acting as a chaperone [...].

This connection at a distance concerns me. Why does it feel too intimate to call someone without an arrangement? What is so scary about an open line? And why do we need to be constantly in touch, but with technology coming between us, putting us at arms – or rather text – length?

And she writes about Sherry Turkle, professor of social sciences at Massachusetes Institute of Technology, who makes some pertinent points in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (which I haven’t yet read).

Her central point is that we are turning to technology to fill an emotional void and desire for intimacy, but that it in fact creates a new solitude. “Connectivity offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship”, she says.

That we seek intimacy in technology, and not with each other, suggests that we are too fearful of real-life connections, relying on technology as a shield. We are turning away from one another, typing away in isolation, and developing virtual connections, because it feels safer than speaking in person. But we cannot make friends, or sustain relationships without commitment, without exposing our true selves.

Social media will not be truly “social” if it is a crutch that we use in place of communicating with each other in real-time. It strikes me that we should pick up the telephone and speak to one another. Go on, take a risk and give someone a call. It is good to talk.

Do you talk less than you used to? Here is a tip/experiment: Instead of checking your email or Facebook or internet news at the end of the day, try calling someone just for a ten minute catch-up. Try it for a week. See if it has made a difference…

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