In my last post I outlined the problem of being always reachable by phone. You’re interrupted at work and (worse) when you’re not working. You want to be responsive, but you’ll serve nobody well when you’re burnt out from not taking any real breaks or unproductive from being disturbed all the time.
You could pay for an office line, but that’s expensive and cumbersome and might end up with the opposite problem – not being reachable enough – if you spend much time out of the office.
So an ideal solution would give you a work phone number that you could hand out to folks, but which rang your cell phone when you wanted it to and went to voicemail when you didn’t.
Google Voice to the rescue
There are plenty of low-cost versions of this plan – using Skype and and a Skype In number, for example, which you could forward to your cell phone when you wanted to. Or here’s a great-looking service called Line2 that does something similar (and more), but it costs $9.95/month. But at the moment my favored option is Google Voice.
The two main reasons for this are:
- it’s free (in the US)
- it offers very flexible forwarding options so you can manage which of your real phones ring when
My setup is basically this: the only number I give out to anyone but close friends is my local Google Voice number. That’s the one on the website and the business cards.
I don’t have to pay a monthly fee for it, and through the the simple online admin panel, you can set it up to ring your cellphone (or any other ‘real’ phone) instantaneously (if you want it to). The settings let you set specific times when it won’t ring through to your cell (such as evenings and weekends).
Or you can do a manual override, and just tell it to ‘hold all your calls’ while you get down to some real work, or head out for an afternoon of air hockey.
The web-based voicemail service is excellent – with email and SMS notifications too.
The benefits are clear – if my cellphone rings out of hours or when I’m not available for calls, I know that it’s not a work call. If it’s imperative that I take a call wherever I am, I can let the GV number ring my cellphone but screen my calls.
So I’m reachable when I want to be, not reachable when I don’t and I’ve reclaimed my personal phone from being an immediate channel to work.
The downside is that unless you’re careful about making outgoing calls through the Google Voice interface on your iPhone (it’s actually a mobile-friendly web page, as Apple won’t approve a GV app), you’ll be revealing your cell number anyway.
I might take the Line2 option for a spin (there’s a free 30-day trial), partly to get round that annoyance, but mainly as I’m already paying Skype for minutes to call the folks at home in England and Ireland. I could use Line2 (and its good international rates) for that too.
I’ll let you know how I get on, but adding a virtual second line one or another is definitely the way to manage your calls efficiently and effectively.
We’ve all been there. We’re in the middle of writing a proposal, or we’re playing with our kids in the park and our cell phone rings. In a Pavlovian response, we reach for it, and check to see who it is. ‘Only work, ‘ we say, and dismiss the call, congratulating ourselves on our discipline.
The problem is we’ve still been interrupted, and there’s a good chance a bit of your brain has already started wondering what the caller wanted even before the follow-up voicemail beep chirrups.
Or maybe you decide you have to take the call. Unless you’re a brain surgeon or bomb disposal expert, the chances are that however important you think the call is (and by extension, how important you think you are), it actually doesn’t require an absolutely immediate response. And even if it does, if you’re in the park with your kids you probably can’t help much anyway.
Self-employed people are often convinced that they have to be always available. Perhaps as a defense mechanism against not having a receptionist or PA, we feel we have to be able to answer the phone at all times.
For most of us, that hubris badly affects our productivity in the office, and upsets our equilibrium when we’re not at work. We tell ourselves how great it is to be able to set your own hours, but if we jump every time the phone rings no matter where we are, what hours are we really setting?
So you’re at your desk checking Twitter and Facebook. Maybe even taking a spin through the RSS feeds or bookmarks on your browser, if you’re old school. It’s all research, right – work-related and useful? You’ve got to keep on top of things.
Except half an hour has just gone by, and that blog post you were planning to write somehow hasn’t got done. This is my life all too often, and know I’m not alone. It’s just much easier to consume other people’s stuff than it is to create your own. Even if all you’d like to create is a tweet.
Too much consumption and not enough creation will leave you bloated and not very happy with yourself. So here are eight tips that might help.
1) Stick to a Schedule
Establishing set blocks of time for particular purposes can help. Declaring 10am on a Tuesday as blog writing time can get you into a useful habit, and establishing a set time and duration for checking your favourite sites or keeping on social media (maybe as a reward for getting some creative stuff done first) will ensure you don’t drift into it when you should be doing something else.
2) Ask yourself why
Before you fire up TweetDeck or the browser, you should know why you’re doing it, and what you’d like to achieve. Is this research on a particular topic, a general work-related survey, or a break to catch up on news about the Bieber? I use my own Facebook page (not the pages for my business stuff) for my real friends, but my Twitter follows are an unmediated mess of friends, work-related topics, pro cyclists and celebrities. TweetDeck’s groups and Twitter’s own lists can keep you organised, but that’s only a benefit if you have a plan each time you nip in.
Stanford Computer Scientist Donald Knuth puts it nicely with regard to email, although it applies equally well to other distractions:
Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.
For most of us the challenge is somehow to be on top of the things that matter and also getting to the bottom of other things that matter.
3) Limit the inputs
Scheduling your social media and browsing time and being sure why you’re doing it make sense, but you still might have way too much material coming at you. By reducing the number of inputs you have, you’ll spend less time with better results. Look at your bookmarks or RSS feeds – how many of them do you regularly get valuable information from?
Stripping these down to bare essentials – and the same with the people you follow on Twitter – can really help. If you can’t bear to delete all the feeds and contacts permanently, annex them to a subfolders or lists so they’re there if you need them later, but try to live with a quarter of your current stack for a couple of weeks. My bet is that you’ll barely remember most of the others.
4) Switch off the distractions
Distracting yourself while you’re supposed to be doing something creative on the computer is so easy it can seem like we’re fighting against ourselves all the time. To give myself some chance, I switch off my email package except for set times of the day, and when I’m serious about writing, I’ll kill the music, quit all the other applications and disable off the wi-fi on my laptop. Minimalist writing programs (the opposite of word processors) such as Omm Writer can also help – they fill the screen and don’t allow you to mess with formatting and other irrevelancies.
When I wrote my book, the first draft of each chapter was written in a separate text file using BBEdit. Keeping the chapters separated stopped me flicking back to earlier passages or doing vanity word counts that would freak me out over the scale of the project. As Ann Lamott advises in her excellent book on writing (and life), Bird by Bird (affiliate link), you should just focus on one tiny eminently do-able piece of work at a time.
5) Separate your devices
It’s amazing that my laptop can let me run photography and web businesses, keep me informed about absolutely everything, play my music, stream TV shows from Ireland and thousands of other things. But sometimes it’s too smart for me. If switching things off isn’t working, maybe you need a completely different machine just for the simple task of writing. There’s a tradition of using older Macs just as writing devices by completely removing anything unnecessary. Or since the mixing up of creating and consuming is the problem, maybe use your iPad strictly for consuming (all those ‘leaning back activities’ – reading, surfing, watching shows) and your regular computer for the creating (all the ‘leaning forward’ stuff).
In terms of functionality, it’s an artificial distinction of course, but what we’re after here is the setting up of good habits. Maybe swapping the roles might work – doing the writing on the iPad (with the external keyboard addition). A few years ago I had a Palm TX PDA with a separate fold-out keyboard that connected via infra-red. It was a terrible machine in lots of ways, but its functionality was so limited and its usability so clunky that when I was sitting in a cafe with it, there wasn’t much else I could do on it except write. And the full-size keyboard let me crank out articles quite comfortably, for later sycning with more able devices.
6) Change the venue
I like my office fine, but at the moment its associations are all with client work: phone calls, frantic emails, lots of putting out fires or dutifully plodding through page building – not so much calm considered creativity. I write first drafts of things more quickly and easily at home. Other people I know take themselves off to their favourite cafe when they’ve got to crank something out. The notion of a writer’s shed down the back garden is a very appealing one – what’s key is establishing a space that is associated with a particular sort of effort. Over time your mind starts to think, ‘if I’m here, it must be to write’. Especially if you actually enjoy creating, then even just the act of heading to the place where this happens can start getting you in the mood.
When I was a kid, my Dad would take me to see my favourite football team Arsenal play. We’d park a fair bit away from Highbury and then get on the Tube for the last few stops. After a few matches, just standing at the platform at Bounds Green station (not very exciting in itself) would get the adrenaline flowing.
7) Outright Bribery
As Aristotle argues, a virtuous man needs no rules, so most of these tips are designed to create good working habits that you’ll actually enjoy sticking to. Being disciplined and forcing yourself to do things will only get you so far, but since I’m not all that virtuous, sometimes there’s no substitute for some discipline, especially if you can make it appeal to your inner child.
Being the father of a five-year-old has made me appreciate the powerful effect of outright bribery. My daughter would walk through a wall to get a sticker on her walking through walls chart, and for some extra candy, she’d build the wall again behind her with her bare hands. Before you declare you’re too grown up for that sort of stuff, try delaying a coffee and pastries run until you’ve completed that task you’ve been meaning to get to. Willpower alone probably won’t get you too far, but willpower plus the reward of tasty treats might work. If food’s not your thing, how about the reward of some time off, a walk around the park . . . something you wouldn’t normally allow yourself during office hours.
8) Keep track of the time spent consuming versus creating
I’ve spent way too long pondering my exact GTD processes, or making notes about blog posts to write at some future date. But sooner or later you actually have to stop arseing around and do stuff. One simple way of keeping this in mind is just to try and spend more time creating than consuming. Half an hour of blog browsing, followed by 45 minutes of writing your own blog post.
I’m not advocating using a stopwatch, but when combined with some of the other tips here, that intention to create more than consume can maybe grow into something profound and helpful.