TADS Insights

Don't Answer That Phone

1 August 2014


If you look around you, you’ll notice that we have become a society of instant everything.  We have, for example, on-demand TV channels and movies, instant microwave dinners, and an ever increasing range of 24/7 services of all kinds.  We have become accustomed to having what we want and to having it now.

Nowhere is this trend more obvious than in the way we have allowed the telephone and their mobile cousins to dominate our lives.  We like to be in touch 24/7 and feel “lost” when we are out of the communications loop for even a short time.  Recently I saw an advertisement from a mobile phone company declaring that 38% of people check and respond to their text messages while in the bathroom.  It seems there is no escape from the need to be in-touch.  But, does life really need to be like this?

The perceived need to be constantly in-touch and highly connected is unhealthy for many of us.  It hooks us up to a world and a pace of living that, in my view, is unnecessary and unhelpful.  If we are not careful, we can allow technology to dictate the pace, and to a large extent, the control of our lives.  Without even thinking, we can surrender the direction of our lives to our impulsive need to respond to that ringing phone or to look at that incoming text message.

Research shows that people who are able to resist impulse urges and delay gratification are much more likely to be more successful and more contented in their lives.  It seems that our ability to resist impulse urges is formed within us early in life and is a behaviour that we learn primarily from our parents when we are very young.  Thankfully, it is also a skill we can improve as we get older.

In one research study, children were put in a room on their own with a tempting selection of candy and chocolate and told they were not to eat anything until they were told to do so by the researchers.  Of course, few children were able to resist, especially knowing that nobody was watching – or so they thought.  The researchers followed these children over several years and discovered those with the greater resistance to temptation performed better at school and were generally more “successful” later in their lives.

The way you respond to a ringing phone will give you an interesting insight into yourself.  How good are you at resisting impulse?  And, more generally, can you delay immediate satisfaction, stay focussed on your immediate (and more important) tasks, and get to the message waiting on your phone later?

Now unless your job is working with emergency services or your specific role is to deal with incoming calls (think help desk or receptionist), try not answering your phone for a while and see what happens.  Allow that ringing phone to go to your voicemail or messaging service.  You can try this in your home as well.

For a start you’ll see a big drop in the number of “crisis” situations cropping up in your life.  When you think about it, very often, the person at the other end of the line has something going on that they want to get you involved with – now.  This matter may or may not be your responsibility.  As one management writer put it, they have a monkey on their shoulder that’s about to make the leap to your shoulder.

You’ll also notice that the pace of your world will begin to slow down for the better.  If you engage with that phone call now, it’s likely you’ll get caught up in the emotion of the moment, things will seem far more urgent than they really are, and you’ll get sucked into dealing with something that perhaps is not your most important priority.  When you listen to your message later, you’ll have time to think, and the space to consider what the best course of action really is.

Now, just to be clear here, I am not saying that you shirk your responsibilities or avoid taking action when action is needed.  There will always be times when immediate action is called for and indeed it is entirely appropriate for the monkey to make the leap.  The trick is to allow yourself the opportunity to decide – for yourself – what needs your attention now and what can wait.

As I have practiced this strategy, I have observed that many things that were “crisis” situations have somehow resolved themselves without my intervention at all.  And sometimes, the result - or the process of resolution – has been better than if I was involved.

So, the next time your phone rings, let it go to your answering service.  I predict you’ll be surprised by what you'll discover.

-- David Keane