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 media, LinkedIn, and the other usual fora through which we issue and consume social commentary these days.
Without wishing to — as one of my writer friends likes to put it — “contribute more banality to a world and internet already bathing in it”, I decided it would be worth contributing my productivity resolution (going to the gym is already up there!) simply because it is perhaps more original and contrarian than the ones that many are currently fixing for themselves.
For the past six months or so, I have been engaging in a slow but deliberate process of gradually becoming less ‘responsive’ — and finding myself both happier and (paradoxically) more productive as a result.
The first small manifestation of this push was removing WhatsApp from the drawer of my home screen of my Android.
I reckoned that — given that I type at about 110 Words Per Minute (WPM) — attempting to awkwardly pick at a virtual keyboard (or worse, dispatch voice notes!) was an unconscionably poor use of my time.
Because (change two spoiler!) I have begun limiting my communication ‘scans’ to hourly, or three hourly, swoops, the average amount of time it takes me to respond to a WhatsApp messages has skyrocketed from an average of about three minutes to an average of about three hours.
And, guess what — the sky hasn’t fallen and I haven’t experienced a decrease in quality of life as a result.
However, although I am very satisfied with the changes that I have instituted in the six months since I embarked upon this project, I am also an ardent believer in the concept of Kaizen (continuous improvement) — and am currently lapping up One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer PhD. I thoroughly recommend it as an accessible and straightforward guide to what — despite its unusual Japanese name — does not need to be an abstruse topic.
With that in mind, here are some of the various small changes I have made to date, their rationale, and what effect they have had upon my professional and private life.
But first, a necessary public service announcement (PSA).
Being Unresponsive is Definitely Not The Flavor of the Day . And, If You Work for Yourself, it May Cost You Clients
As I continue in my move against responsiveness, I must quickly point out the obvious.
We live in a world that positively fetishizes connectivity, productivity, and responsiveness. Running counter to that trend inevitably incurs consequences.
Last year, we saw the first hopeful glimmerings of pushback against much of this — some of it from surprising quarters, such as from startup founders themselves who are increasingly going public about some seemingly perplexing decisions given their vocation, such as banning their own children from owning smartphones.
The dangers and deficits of hyper-responsiveness have unfortunately been less threshed out (if I’m wrong about that, please send me reading material). But I predict that this subject will be the next agenda item up for discussion.
Besides the societal pressure to be ‘responsive’ that we mercilessly and egregiously inflict upon one another, one needn’t look far to find examples of UI copy and functionalities that subtly attempt to shame us into being constantly subservient to our inboxes and notification displays. We are encouraged, explicitly or by suggestion, to bat off replies within mere minutes of their receipt.
If you want a concrete example of this, just consider the metric (the average response time) that Facebook now presents to those that message a page (it’s in the screenshot above).
If I were to guess at what ostensibly good purpose it is supposed to serve, I would say that, perhaps, it is intended to help users set realistic expectations about when they might be most likely to expect a response from a page they have messaged — and to help them determine when it might be prudent to either start badgering them again, pick up the phone to call the business or, you know, be old fashioned about it and just physically walk onto their premises if that is a possibility.
More nefariously, however, I believe that the functionality subtly shames business owners that are not glued to their devices and are instead busy running and optimizing their companies away from the reach of Facebook and customers availing themselves of their omnichannel communication strategy.
In the eyes of many, if not most, customers, messaging a business which draws the bot response “This business typically replies within one day” sets it at an immediate disadvantage versus a competitor who might respond “within a few minutes,” according to the UI.
But there are many more responsiveness-pushers out there than the social media giant.
As a writer-for-hire with a predilection for technology (no, that’s not a sales pitch!) my work invariably brings me into close contact with plenty of startups, particularly those based, where I live, in Israel.
As I am currently engaging in some outbound sales prospecting to fill up my book of business for the coming business quarter, I have been engaging in countless telephone calls, Zoom conferences, and GoToMeetings.
So much, in fact, that I had to block off an entire day recently just to give my voice box a rest.
Like many, I use the excellent Calendly to streamline the process of booking these meetings, allowing my prospects to automatically book a 15 minute slot on my calendar.
However, in order to prevent over-booking my schedule and having to jump chaotically from one call to the next without giving myself proper time to engage in proper due diligence beforehand (namely refreshing on my prospect’s website and value proposition; evaluating their marketing collateral; and preparing to discuss what I could offer them), I recently decided to enforce some of the features presented by Calendly’s “advanced settings” tab.
- I set a minimum scheduling notice of 2 business days (48 hours). That makes it impossible for prospects to book time on my calendar on the same day or even the next one.
- I set event buffers of 30 minutes for before and after each appointment to prevent overrun, and, again, avoid general scheduling chaos.
The response to this has been fascinating to observe.
On one end of the spectrum, companies (probably those I would be a good fit for) have scheduled calls anywhere from 7 to 3 weeks ahead of time.
This I found encouraging and surprising.
Color me a contrarian yet again, but I’m instantly impressed by a company that wants to move that slowly with the process of hiring a writer-on-contract. I know that they’re not in a frantic rush to produce content for the sake of producing content (never a good idea) and that they, and I, are going to have time to properly prepare ourselves for the conversation and evaluate whether this might be a good fit moving forward.
On the other of the spectrum, I have received countless permutations of the following.
I won’t say which country the senders are typically based in but, if you live in the same country as I do, you can probably guess the answer:
- “There’s a bug in your Calendly. It wouldn’t let me book a call in an hour.”
- “We couldn’t speak today so I’m not interested. We would need somebody who is ultra-responsive for this role.”
- “ I called three times this morning. You didn’t call back.”
- “Hi, did you get my email from ten minutes ago? Can you call now?”
My intention here is not to alienate people, companies, or a predominant working culture — but rather to point out that companies’ approaches to responsiveness and scheduling actually vary rather enormously.
For anybody, like me, that places high value on the concepts of flow state and focus time, this is great news as it means that, despite responsiveness feeling like the flavor of the day, there are plenty of companies that are likely to be ‘good fits’ for us to work with.
My second point is that — for those in the trenches of designing sales funnels — a client’s expectations surrounding responsiveness can be a worthwhile criterion to enforce in your lead qualification process.
I have had my fair share of clients that call repeatedly on the weekends despite firm requests not to (pro tip: buy a second SIM card and have a business-only line!;); clients that call to communicate every little detail involved in a project including simply to say “we liked the draft you sent”; and clients that bombard me with dozens of emails, walking me through the exact same onboarding process that they use for their in-house staff members.
None of these clients were a good fit for me or would be now.
Another writer might get a kick out of being always ‘in the game’ and ‘connected’.
And for another writer again, they might be a ‘necessary evil’ while they try to find better work.
In other words, rather than framing lack of responsiveness as a deficiency, I think it’s time we accepted and embraced the fact that companies and individuals can have wildly varying working styles, which I think makes for a functioning and vibrant marketplace in the provision of at-will labor.
But, until you’re clear on your own feelings about responsiveness and know which boundaries you’re comfortable enforcing, such sales and prospecting encounters might be a difficult tango to dance.
But Why Be Less Responsive? And What Is Low Responsiveness?
You might be wondering why I see value in being less responsive and what I mean when I talk about ‘unresponsiveness’.
So let me address both of these points in turn.
1: Why Be Less Responsive
As a writer (with an added measure of sound sensitivity — and here I must point out that this might be a sign of genius) focus rather than time is my most precious commodity which I vigorously try to guard.
Like many writers, I work in fast and furious spurts of creativity.
But this requires getting into a flow state first.
For me, this typically requires:
- The ingestion of large quantities of coffee, ideally extremely potent dark demitasse cups of Turkish coffee — no sugar or milk for me!
- The sound of nature, the sound of me furiously hammering on my keyboard, my beloved white noise machine, Brain.fm, or all of these simultaneously.
Obstacles in this pursuit are:
- Random / unscheduled phone calls;
- Random / unscheduled delivery people showing up to the door;
- WhatsApp messages and notifications pinging me every fifteen seconds;
- Other random interruptions;
- The sound of screaming babies, “Happy Birthday to [Customer’s Name]” sung every five minutes, and other auditory affronts from the restaurant near where I work.
Over the years, I have come to understand that if I can have the features of List A and not List B I can:
- Trash out Medium posts like this, without any spelling or grammar errors, in an hour or two and in one or two drafts;
- Comfortably get through $500 worth of billable work in time for lunch.
But, if I have the features of List B but not List A:
- I make uncharacteristic spelling and grammar errors simply because my focus is divided between trying to work and trying to mentally filter the distraction I ‘m encountering. This always astounds me and is my proof to myself that the phenomenon is real;
- I struggle to get through any billable work.
So for me being less responsive and limiting my email / social media checking to three hour intervals helps me be more productive and actually makes me money.
Do I have undiagnosed ADD? Possibly!
Misphonia? Almost certainly.
But personally, I’d rather check my email less frequently than take amphetamine pills.
2: What I Consider Being ‘Less Responsive’ / Operating At Minimal Acceptable Responsiveness (MAR)
I’m fond of inventing unnecessary acronyms, so let’s call the lowest amount of responsiveness that you can get away with in your line of work, or in your job, your Minimal Acceptable Responsiveness — or MAR (Minimal Viable Responsiveness, or MVR, would be fine too!).
Your MAR will depend upon who your clients are (if you work for yourself, that is), what you do for a living, and other factors that might be entirely outside of your control — such as your boss’s expectations for how quickly you should get back to an internal email, or one to a client.
But what’s a good ballpark, you might be wondering?
Thankfully, somebody’s done the research — and there’s lots more of it, all of which can be easily found online.
Some key findings from that body of research:
- Fifty percent of emails are responded to within two hours;
- Ninety percent of people will respond to an email within one or two business days.
Thus, I have set myself the following rules:
- Scan through Rambox every three hours at most. This covers all communication channels, the most important, of course, being email. I try to only check my Facebook that frequently too (but, I must be honest, am currently doing a horrible job at that);
- Always get back to clients for non-urgent matters within the same business day.
As I move towards reaching my own personal MAR, I have developed some eccentricities such as apologizing unnecessarily the increasingly infrequent times when I issue an immediate response. “Hey, I was right in front of my inbox when this came in!” is my usual opener.
I’m sure some correspondents have been confused by this.
But otherwise, as I mentioned, I’ve found it to be both a valuable means of heightening my own productivity and — just as valuably — of unintentionally self-selecting for the type of clients I am going to have the easiest time working with.
MAR Kaizen: Interventions So Far
To conclude this post (because, you know, I really need to actually read my inbox again!) I will list out the other interventions intended to reduce distraction and heighten productivity, all of which are fairly new to me (as in, from the past year):
- I started using flight mode liberally — when not in an airplane that is.
If I don’t have any calls scheduled and am not waiting on any deliveries, I know it is safe to disconnect. It is very unlikely that any urgent news will come by phone in the intervening period. Let’s be real — I’m not in neurosurgery.
I actually picked this tip up from a worker at a yoga store in Tel Aviv when I asked her if they sold any physical meditation timers such as this one.
When she asked why, I explained that I loved ZenTime (now retired from Google Play, but there are countless alternatives) but that I couldn’t properly get into a session with the threat of phone calls and notifications constantly at the back of my mind.
“Just go into flight mode,” she enthused, unaware that she was actually conveying some of the most helpful advice I have ever received.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Despite all the foregoing, I believe that having some means of connectivity is a matter of personal safety.
I would never be without a telephone, for example — or recommend that anybody would, particularly those with serious medical conditions.
I bought an intercom in my home office just to always have some means of quickly communicating with another human even when I am disconnected through all other means of communication.
3. I stopped syncing email to my phone and am trying to stop using it to browse the internet.
As I mentioned, I’m a fast typist. I’m also a desktop fanatic and the proud owner of a custom-built PC with three (soon to be five!) monitors which runs a Linux distribution that I have modified extensively for my own needs.
For me, this is productivity heaven.
My Android is not and to top it all off I believe that most mobile still lag far behind their UIs intended to be accessed from a laptop or desktop.
I’ve simply concluded that it’s more time efficient for me to check my inbox from my desktop — or my laptop when travelling. And to do all web browsing from the same device. At other times, if I don’t need the internet, I simply drop into flight mode.
Incidentally, this process has shown me how ridiculously tightly Google locks down Android devices, preventing users from taking perfectly reasonable actions like uninstalling the Chrome browser, which are installed on a system partition that non-root users cannot modify.
Installing Ubuntu Touch, or rooting my phone, is therefore now on my to-do list.
4. I installed Calendly on my website and insisted on scheduling business calls in advance.
As above, some prospects have been incensed by this decision and demanded or attempted to speak immediately.
I have made peace with their outrage.
5. I added a WhatsApp Autoresponder message to WhatsApp Business and diplomatically (I hope) asked clients to please stop sending me files and random snippets of information over WhatsApp and to collect their thoughts and put them into an email instead.
This, in turn, streamlines my scanning process as I know that business activity will be clustered in my inbox and that WhatsApp is likely to contain mostly social/personal conversations.
True to the kaizen philosophy, this list is not intended as an exhaustive run-through of everything one can do to be less ‘interrupted’.
In fact, the inspiration to post this actually came from small changes that I instituted this very morning (namely: putting Chrome behind an app-blocker on my phone — it’s designed to make it harder for me to check the browser and break the habit of checking Google News, with its depressing daily onslaught of usually negative, unactionable, and personally irrelevant information, while in bed).
Rather, achieving a level of responsiveness and dis-connectivity that works for me and my business is a work in progress.
I encourage anybody reading this to think critically about where the culture of ultra-responsiveness is taking us as a society — and mentally as humans.
About how it is (literally) rewiring our brain and altering our neurochemistry to become relentless seekers of the tiny dopamine hits we get whenever we (unnecessarily) check our inbox for the third time in five minutes or receive another like on Facebook.
I believe that anxiety around being perceived as ‘unresponsive’ — which is entirely justified, as being so has tangible repercussions — is a major driver, possibly the central one, of this collective dis-ease. And that, consequentially, it’s our collective duty to attempt to change this.
As the human:technology interface continues to evolve, I am willing to predict that we will all become progressively more mindful about our relationship to the devices we carry in our pockets, which sit on our bedsides, and occupy space on our workstations.
As we do so, I hope we can move towards a healthier professional culture that encourages periodic disconnection, which understands many humans’ innate need to initiate and maintain flow states to both be happy and to do our best work, which does not demand that email be responded to before the sender has finished their morning coffee, and which does not infer that Facebook Page managers who do not live in front of their computers are unacceptably ‘unresponsive’.
All these measures, large and small, serve to perpetuate our current unsustainable work culture.
Such a rethink, as mentioned, will need to come from our society as a whole.
But I believe that resolving, as individuals, to reshape the culture of hyper-responsiveness can only be a positive first step.
I encourage anyone reading this to consider taking it.