Cell! Cell! Cell!

Want to really increase your productivity? Try turning off your cell phone.

By Anthony Noel

I like to think I use my time wisely, squeezing every conceivable ounce of efficiency and value from each minute of the day. This is, of course, sheer fantasy. But I like to think it

anyway.

So when I found myself with the gift of a few idle hours recently (it being too cold to play golf and having successfully resisted the online poker craze), I considered what I could do, now and then, with this column that would be a little different - maybe even a little controversial.

I'm pleased to say that my idle musings paid off, and I believe I have outdone myself on both counts (while managing to maintain my modesty).

So with this column I introduce "Tony's Rant," wherein I will occasionally deconstruct and put in its rightful place (that would be the dumpster) some aspect of daily business life that at least some of us have accepted or embraced as nothing short of essential.

I can think of no target more worthy in this, Tony's First Rant, than that most annoying and needlessly ubiquitous piece of techno-trash, The Cell Phone.

Can you think of anything more distracting or impolite than being interrupted in the midst of a face-to-face discussion by a bleating, tinny rendition of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction?"

Well, I can. Two things, actually. (1) Your colleague's announcement, "That's mine." (As if he had to tell you. You would NEVER do The Rolling Stones' great work the disservice of playing it on such a cheap speaker. No, your phone plays Tchaikovsky!), and (2) His feigned regret in further announcing, "I have to take this." What he is really saying is, "A second ago you mattered. Now - not so much."

Let me say something very clearly and without equivocation: When it comes to doing business, cell phones are a convenience, not a necessity. They never were a necessity, never will be.

If you find it impossible to think about your cell phone as anything other than a necessity, maybe you should get one of the four or five jobs in all the world where that is actually the case: White House Chief of Staff, Secretary General of the United Nations, um...okay, two jobs.

If you hold neither, yet view your cell phone as something akin to a life preserver, I can absolutely guarantee that you are annoying people and very possibly driving business away, rather than using your cell phone as the valuable time-management tool it can - and should - be.

"But," you protest, "people expect me to be available any time, anywhere!"

Okay, fine - but whose fault is that?

Society's, for its unqualified embrace of the technology? No.

The business world's, for making round-the-clock availability an expectation rather than an option? Wrong again.

It's your fault, and your's alone, for one simple reason. You don't understand how to use the darned thing.

Oh, you may have mastered many of the myriad buttons on your little squawk box. But lest we forget - and clearly many of us have - our cell phones have buttons not just for dialing and texting and answering and playing games, but also for TURNING THEM OFF.

Judicious use of that particular button is what separates the knowing from the clueless, the thoughtful from the rude, the safe driver from the guy in the Hummer wedged into the viaduct - in short, the intelligent from, quite frankly, the idiots.

I'm not the first to go on an anti-cell phone rant, nor will I be the last. These devices deserve all the scrutiny they get. But in typical fashion we, as a society, have tended to make the object itself the focus of our derision, rather than assigning the blame where it rightly belongs: with the ways we use it.

We all know very well the many complaints about cell phone misuse in day-to-day life. But I would like to hone in on our business cell phone behavior, which I believe is, in general, atrocious.

Consider the example just cited, where you are talking to a colleague or customer and are interrupted by his impromptu, lo-fi Stones concert. Your train of thought is derailed. Your points are not well taken. Indeed, you wonder if they are taken at all, since this call is apparently what your compadre was more interested in taking all along.

Yet an hour or two later, it's your cell phone that rings in the midst of a discussion, and now it's you choosing Tchaikovsky over a co-worker. And everybody - whether they work for you, is a client, a vendor, whatever - is a co-worker. (Or a "stakeholder" or a "customer" or whatever this month's "Dilbert"-speak designation is - but that's another rant.)

"But that's different!" you argue. "I had to take that call!"

Uh-huh.

Consider this: If your phone were off, as it should have been, you would not have even known that call had come. And five or 10 minutes later, when you turned it back on to check your messages, what would you have lost? Nothing, other than five or 10 minutes - and a reputation for being easily distracted or worse, self-important.

There is another option: Leaving your cell phone on and simply not answering it, also resisting the urge to check the screen to see who is calling. This is called discretion, thoughtfulness, focus - self-control.

Too many of us embrace the notion that, just because we have a cell phone, we have to be reachable 24/7 and must snag that thing the minute it rings. But that is not the case, not if we are serious about using our time wisely. Grabbing every call only puts us in service to our cells, instead of the other way around, as it was intended to be.

My cell phone guidelines

For those of you having heart palpitations at the mere thought of turning off your phones, I have developed five simple rules that can put you back in control and reassure the people you work with that they are more important to you than your cell phone. Here they are:

1) EVERY TIME you give out your cell number or encourage someone to call you on it, make them PROMISE to leave a message if you don't answer, making it clear that you return calls religiously.

2) REFUSE to interrupt any in-person conversation to take a call on your cell phone or even to check who is calling.

3) Turn your cell phone OFF prior to entering any pre-arranged meeting or sales call.

4) Check for messages OFTEN. Return calls IMMEDIATELY. And if anyone complains that they cannot reach you on your cell, tactfully yet forcefully remind them that if they had just left you a message, they would have heard from you a long time ago.

5) Leave your cell phone on in your car, but DON'T ANSWER it when it rings. When it alerts you that you have messages, pull over and return the calls, without imperiling yourself and other drivers. And again, if the "missed call" message alerts you that someone has called but not left a message, call them back (at your next stop) and ask WHY.

Remember, cell phones are a convenience, not a necessity. Were these few guidelines followed by everyone, our business lives might again become not just more manageable and courteous but - as an added bonus - actually distinguishable from our private ones.

Sometime this summer, look for my next Rant - on the lunacy of the after-hours beer session.

Anthony Noel is a management consultant and has written the "Management Strategies" column since 1994. E-mail him at anthonynoel@cox.net.

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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