Back in January, I wrote an excited Medium post about how being slightly less responsive was going to be the motto of my year.
My (Unorthodox) Productivity Resolution For This Year — Be Less ‘Responsive’!
So the new year has rolled around and with it will inevitably follow a slew of ‘My Top Resolutions’ posts on social…
I tried to explain my belief that the fetishization of hyper-responsiveness that is pervading our societies — egged on, in no small measure, by the technology industry — is causing us to be stressed out, on edge, and always on the clock. Even when we’re at leisure.
Four months later, I posted about the power of having “discovered” that flight mode is useful for a lot more than just complying with in-flight electronics regulations.
Why Flight Mode Has Been My Best Productivity-Enhancing Intervention to Date
And I Think That Synchronous Communication Platforms Like WhatsApp And Slack Are Today’s Destroyers of Focus
My breakthrough moment occurred in a meditation shop when I was on a wild goose chase for a hardware meditation timer.
After explaining why I wasn’t happy with the many Android meditation apps available through the Google Play Store (I couldn’t get into the zone knowing that a call or app notification could break my focus at any time!) the shopkeeper hurriedly exclaimed “just go into flight mode!”
Becoming An ✈️Airplane Man
The flight mode habit developed like this.
At first, I limited my forays into flight mode to those times when I knew that I would require a few hours of uninterrupted work. Sitting down to write anything — such as this article — would be a perfect example.
The trouble is that, as a full-time writer, those focus periods are kind of the bread and butter of my workweek. So what started out as an occasional thing soon became a dominant habit.
Indeed, as I spent more and more time in flight mode, inaccessible to the outside world by telephone, I began to relish and enjoy these productivity stints more and more.
Creative flow states are correlated with happiness. Like some creatives, I often have a difficult time focusing. My attention is hopelessly selective — sometimes hyperfocusing on what’s of interest to me but wavering involuntarily away from things that are not (but which would be useful to focus on!)
Getting into ‘the zone,’ for me, is sometimes an uphill battle against distraction — and auditory interruptions are often my biggest nemesis (my home office abuts a busy commercial street; this doesn’t help!)
But when I manage to get into a flow state it’s a naturally ecstatic experience.
Staying there, not only can I get good work done but I come out of the sessions feeling on a natural high — having accomplished something worth doing and gotten a little bit of myself out onto a page. It’s great.
In retrospect, this year was the perfect year to run my experiment. With the world in lockdown there were far fewer social and business fixtures on my calendar than would be the norm. But there were still plenty of phone calls. As I recently discovered.
(Credit to branding aficionado Guy Gordon for coming up with the ‘Airplane Boy’ moniker)
Returning To Phone-full Society
Recently-after having explored the far edges of non-responsiveness-I decided that I was ready to come back to the middle ground. At least just a bit.
This seemed daunting at first.
Flight mode has become muscle memory for me at this point — much in the same way that people lock their phones without thinking twice about it. But, to really know which communication modality suited me best, I knew that I had to try.
And so, one weekday morning, I did something that I hadn’t done in the best part of six months: I allowed my phoned to be reachable through cellular networks.
Some initial observations from this period:
📞 I Receive A Lot Of Phone Calls — We All Do
After I began retreating from the safe sanctuaries of flight mode, I realized why I was drawn to going into it in the first place.
I receive a lot of phone calls. And almost none of them are necessary or have value. In fact, most of them are pretty irritating. For me, they’re impediments to creative focus.
I maintain two phone lines — a personal number and a business line. I sometimes sign up for technology products for freelance clients — which means providing my phone number to an awful lot of companies.
Thus, I receive an almost daily call from a technology sales rep at two in the morning (apparently many salespeople don’t pay attention to what time zone the user is based in!)
Additionally, I live in a country in which people are positively obsessed with the concept of talking on the phone.
Last week I received a succession of four phone calls reminding me about a doctor’s appointment that I was perfectly aware of. I had it in my calendar. The date, time, and location were all visible in my health provider’s website — and in my itinerary.
And yet secretary after secretary insisted on calling me to enquire about my attendance and to remind me of the date and time as if they were planning some grand banquet in a state visit.
Yes, I’m coming — thank you for your repeat concern!
Yes, I have the internet — as I’ve said before.
If I wasn’t, by the way, I could have cancelled it online without speaking to you. But thank you for calling!
Small things, like ordering a replacement bank card, throw up a veritable flurry of phone calls that often needlessly duplicate what’s communicated by email. “Hi, I’m calling from the bank to let you know that your card is on the way.” Thank you — I saw that online! “Hi, your card is here.” Thank you again!
I’ve been blessed this year to work with freelance clients that have been fine with the odd Zoom meeting. Maybe they read my previous posts and have been cloyed into telephonic muteness. Note to self: write annual blog post about hating phone calls to maintain deterrent effect and set clear expectations (I joke).
None of the categories above, it should be pointed out, include phone-based quality satisfaction surveys. It seems to me as if for every useful phone call there’s four that are rubbish.
I’m not a misanthrope — I think. I don’t have phone anxiety — this I know. But what’s the point of developing things like user notification systems and email if people are going to insist on calling anyway?
Being Inaccessible Causes Societal Distress
I soon learned that people, as a whole, are constitutionally incapable of dealing with the fact that some people may prefer to be off the telephony grid for hours of the day at a time.
I’ve received quite a few emails, which I would regard as rude, which begin. “We tried to call. You didn’t answer” — before passing the buck back to you, the customer. You missed our phone outreach at 09:20 while you were showering. Enjoy your just deserts, Mr. Phone-Avoider.
Other conversations have begun with an exasperated “YOU ANSWERED!”.
Or resulted in the interlocutor, until now forced into maintaining unwanted email correspondence presumably while pecking on a keyboard, unleashing a torrent of pent up anger at my hitherto phone avoidance. “YOU MISSED THE CALL! WE TRIED THREE TIMES!”
I quickly learned that, in particular, delivery people are thrown into livid outrage by the concept that you won’t have your phone on when they show up — presumably because it ruins their route.
For short order sales people — I totally get it. For other delivery people it’s a little harder — because they often show up without warning after you’re given a week long time slot and forgot about what you ordered in the first place.
After reluctantly accepting that ordering takeaway but then not answering the phone to assist its arrival was indeed me being eminently unreasonable, I emerged from flight mode to pick up my delivery pizza. And then I went back offline.
Increasingly, when ordering online, you can pick a local delivery point rather than have something delivered to your door. So I started opting for this wherever possible to minimize friction with angry couriers.
People Stopped Calling For Random Chats
Because my phone has been in flight mode as often as it’s been on for the past few months, my average response time has lagged into the hours.
I also compulsively delete old WhatsApp messages so have on occasion had to take a random guess at what the conversation was about responding with a hopefully cheery sounding “sounds good.”
Initially people will tolerate this eccentric behavior, nonsensical rejoinders, and indulge you by exchanging WhatsApp messages like they’re sending courier mail. But eventually, predictably, they will resign themselves to the notion that you’re doing something completely out there and just give up.
While the last year has been pretty socially desolate, going into flight mode doesn’t have to mean forsaking friendships.
It just means making appointments to catch up rather than calling one another randomly. You can relish in your productivity while precisely nobody is trying to reach you any more.
The Good Parts
I have probably missed hundreds of phone calls over the past six months.
There are dozens of voicemails sitting in my inbox that I have no intention of listening to. It could be hundreds. I’d have to log in to find out. How do you even do that?
These callous facts aside, truth be told, my life only benefited from not receiving phone calls over this six month period.
I haven’t missed a single appointment.
I have, on the other hand, found a few email fanatics in the most unexpected of places.
If people ever truly needed to get in touch, you will find that they sent me an email or an SMS (you know if people are sending SMS that things must be really desperate).
All my stuff got delivered — including pizzas delivered by people that must have taken a good guess at the delivery instructions.
To add to the good tidings, I didn’t have to field a single cold call until last week. Not one. I’ve probably missed out on an untold number of quality satisfaction surveys. And there’s a good chance that several dozen secretaries have tried to remind me of upcoming doctor’s appointments which I managed to attend just by checking my Google Calendar.
My productivity has improved.
Although it’s only my third, this will be my profitable year in self-employment by a long shot.
I have plenty of mental bandwidth for working with clients (who are fine to communicate by email or schedule time to call on Zoom). To read. To focus.
Undoubtedly, I have called mental anguish to quite a few delivery drivers and health clinic secretaries during the course of this experiment.
If I could, I would seek their forgiveness. But equally, if it were in any way practical, I might recommend that they give dropping into flight mode a try themselves.
I maintain that a lot of phone calls are annoying interruptions.
That email is a lot less invasive and has the added advantage that it’s amenable to automation through the powers of AI.
The police department should pick up their calls.
We should all have one in our pocket.
But equally, you can go without calls for a lot longer than you think. The sky probably won’t cave in if you try it.