Given the profusion of emails every professional grapples with—on average, more than 100 per day—it’s become common wisdom that, at some point, you should stop emailing and just pick up the phone. Author James Altucher jokingly praised the telephone as “an amazing tool/app that makes my work 100x more productive,” noting, “I’m not being sarcastic. It’s the truth.” But despite their merits—notably, being able to confer and resolve issues in real time—I studiously avoid almost all phone calls, and never accept an incoming call from someone unknown. I’m not alone. The number of voicemails left, and retrieved, has been steadily declining, major companies like J.P. Morgan and Coca-Cola are eliminating voicemail for many employees, and Millennials in particular seem to abhor phone calls.
I eschew most calls for two main reasons. The most obvious is productivity, because it takes 23 minutes to recover from a distraction at work—and almost nothing is more disruptive than an unplanned call taking you away from the task you intended to accomplish. Also, the minimum default timeslot for a call is usually 30 minutes, while even the most information-laden emails take 5-10 minutes to compose. By scheduling a call, you’re often drawing out and extending a process that can be completed in one-third the time (for instance, setting a meeting agenda may require a couple of emails back and forth, but each email will probably take less than 5 minutes to write—whereas your colleagues may well fill up an entire half-hour call prattling about those same logistical questions).
The second reason is that it can be hard to make good decisions in the moment if you’re surprised by a request. Should you accept that speaking engagement? What price should you quote? Do you actually want to meet up for coffee? You may need time to reflect—or get your wording straight if you want to decline—and the pressure of being on the line with someone may hinder your efforts.
But avoiding phone calls is easier said than done, in a culture where “Let’s hop on a call” is still a standard default whenever you need to work out details for contracts, events, or anything else. Here are three ways I ruthlessly minimize all but the most essential phone interactions.
Set aside specific blocks for call time. There will always be some phone calls that need to happen—and some may even be enjoyable, like “getting to know you” introductory calls with new colleagues in other cities. But to minimize the disruption to your schedule, create back-to-back scheduling blocks, so you can bundle your calls together—on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, for instance. You can use an online scheduling tool like ScheduleOnce or TimeTrade which allows you to identify your chosen blocks and send it to colleagues so they can book slots directly, minimizing the back-and-forth.
Postpone and delay. Some people may respond poorly if you decline a call altogether. But you can minimize the pain, and perhaps avoid the obligation entirely, if you delay it. Instead of immediately agreeing to a call, make a plea for greater efficiency. “I’d love to talk with you more about the event,” you could write. “Before scheduling a call, to make sure it’s as efficient as possible, maybe we could work out a few logistics over email. It sounds like we need to identify the date, location, and attendees for the meeting. Could you shoot over some initial thoughts, and I promise to respond within 24 hours? Then we can set up a time to talk further about questions or outstanding details.” Odds are, if you’re precise in your information request, you can accomplish almost all the objectives via email, and the call may never be necessary.
Channel requests to your preferred platform. I’ll sometimes receive a quick note on email or Facebook asking for my phone number—and unless I also believe there’s a good reason for a call, I’ve learned not to give it out because I simply don’t like talking on the phone. I don’t want to look impolite to potential clients or colleagues with a legitimate question, but I’ve realized that just because they want to call me, that doesn’t mean I need to respond to their preferences. Instead, I write back, “The fastest and best way to reach me is through email.” That way, they know I’m happy to talk to them—but through my channel of choice, not theirs.
I even use my voicemail box to drive home that message, stating, “Hi, this is Dorie Clark. The best way to reach me is through email,” and then give my address. Does that offend some would-be consulting clients? Perhaps. But in a smartphone-enabled world, it’s not that onerous to send an email, and 95% of initial inquiries come to me through my website, anyway. Not to mention the fact that I’d prefer to work with clients who are also mindful of efficiency, and appreciate a fast electronic response, rather than endless phone tag. Answering voicemails used to be a stressful task for me, and I’ve improved the quality of my work life dramatically by eliminating it.
We’ve spent almost a century with phone calls as a primary driver of productivity in the workplace. But with new tools at our disposal, like email and Slack and text messaging, we may be entering the era where phone calls are more of a hindrance than a help. Now that Millennials have become the largest cohort in the U.S. workforce, their attitudes—including a marked preference for short, written communication rather than telephones—are increasingly mainstream.
Telephones certainly won’t disappear. But, just as radio was eclipsed by television, phones have become a niche product for special circumstances. If you’d like to connect in real time with multiple colleagues, or have an in-depth introductory conversation with a far-flung coworker, setting up a call is still a great option. But unsolicited, impromptu calls are becoming verboten in the workforce—because in a world of too many distractions, wasting someone’s time is a cardinal offense.