Excerpt: Six tips for organizing your time spent on the telephone

This is an excerpt from my book Unclutter Your Life in One Week, pages 129-131. For even more phone tips, check out “Nine tips for efficiently processing voicemail.”

I go out of my way not to use the phone, especially at work, and I have found this to be a very effective way to stay on task. If someone calls and leaves a voice mail, I’ll send a text message or e-mail in return summarizing what was said in the voice mail and give my response. There is no record of communication with the phone. You don’t have anything to reference later and you can’t run a search on words used during the conversation. Decisions or instructions can be quickly forgotten. Phones are good for relaying sensitive information to people who aren’t physically close to you (like when a coworker in another division leaves for a new job) but bad for transmitting facts and data points.

Since most of us spend time at work dealing with facts and data, the phone should be taking a backseat to other forms of communication. That being said, it’s impossible to avoid the phone in the workplace. And there are times when picking up the phone is the best way to handle a situation. The following are suggestions for how to use the phone in an organized way during those times when you need to rely on it:

  • Create talking points. Before you make a call, jot down notes about what you need to cover in your discussion. This is especially important before conference calls. Like with meetings, you should never make a call without knowing how you want the conversation to end. If you can’t construct a purpose statement before dialing, don’t dial.
  • Set a timer. Whenever you call someone, you’re interrupting whatever it was the person was doing before you called. Be respectful of this and make the call as brief as possible. When someone calls you, be up front about how much time you have to be on the phone. Most phone calls should begin as follows: You: “Hello, this is NAME.” Caller: “Hello, this is NAME. How are you?” You: “I’m great. I’ve got X minutes to talk, what can I help you with?” If the person on the other end of the line needs to talk to you for more than the number of minutes you said, then he or she can schedule a block of time to talk with you in the future. You: “Hey, can we talk this afternoon at three? I don’t have any afternoon appointments scheduled.”
  • Use a headset if you’re on the phone for more than half an hour a day. From an ergonomic perspective, your neck shouldn’t be cramped for extended periods of time. Plus, your hands will be free to do mindless tasks while you’re on your call — filing papers, putting paper clips away in your drawer, etc. If you’re going to be making a lot of noise, though, be sure to hit the mute button so that you don’t disrupt the other people on the call.
  • Don’t call people and ask whether they received your e-mail. If you are worried someone didn’t receive your initial e-mail, just resend it with a note and the whole content of your previous message. Ask for a confirmation of receipt if you’re afraid the e-mails aren’t arriving. Not everyone checks their e-mail on your schedule, so don’t disrupt them further by calling.
  • Use the do-not-disturb button. Just because you’re sitting at your desk doesn’t mean that you have to answer the phone. If you need to concentrate intently on work, hit the do-not-disturb button and let all calls go to voicemail for that period of time. You shouldn’t leave the button on all the time, because this practice will reflect poorly on you in the workplace. However, doing it from time to time can significantly improve your productivity.
  • Designate a time to return calls. I like to return phone calls from twelve thirty to one in the afternoon, after lunch, when my energy level is low. I get a boost from the people I’m talking to, and it’s a time when most everyone across the U.S. is at work (twelve thirty PM East Coast time is nine thirty AM on the West Coast).

23 Comments for “Excerpt: Six tips for organizing your time spent on the telephone”

  1. posted by deb on

    I really dislike having to use a phone and avoid it whenever possible. Here’s my favorite reasons why: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/phone

    Problem is, most family members call me rude and insensitive when I return their voice mail with email. They just don’t get it.

  2. posted by deb on

    edit: Here *are* my favorite reasons why

    (wish there was an edit button)

  3. posted by Jen on

    As someone who sometimes has to man our company’s switchboard, one thing I absolutely hate is when someone calls and says “Someone called me from this number.” You have to go through the whole sequence of questioning – are you dealing with anyone from our company? Did the person leave you a voice message? Then, if that doesn’t work, we will page the entire building asking if anyone is trying to contact so and so. I’ll admit I get curious when I see a number I don’t recognize on my phone, but if there’s no voice mail and the number doesn’t show up again, then it was probably a wrong number or not important.

  4. posted by Marjory Thrash on

    I teach online college classes, and phones are definitely an issue! I have received some incredibly rude messages from my students when:
    – I didn’t respond to their text message or phone message instantly.
    – I preferred to respond to their inquiry with an email instead of talking to them on the phone.
    – I answered the phone at 1:30 in the morning and said, “You are calling outside my posted office hours; please send an email with your question. I promise to respond to it no later than 8:00 a.m. tomorrow morning.” That student filed a complaint that I wasn’t responsive to his questions.

  5. posted by KateNonymous on

    I don’t like to talk on the phone, particularly for business (I don’t mind it socially at all). However I do sometimes call and send e-mail regarding the same matter. Here’s why:

    1) I have an urgent issue.

    2) Not everyone checks their e-mail regularly. Similarly, not everyone checks their voicemail. There is no way to know which person prefers which method of contact.

    Also, I will say “I’m also sending you an e-mail” in the phone message, and include the phrase “as I mentioned in my voicemail message” in the e-mail. I think it helps clarify that I need to get in touch with that person, and am not trying to nag them about contact.

    But if the issue isn’t urgent, I’ll wait to follow up, regardless of medium.

  6. posted by Lori Paximadis on

    I am so very much Not a Phone Person, for all the reasons stated in the first paragraph.

    I’m currently working with a client who won’t interact any way other than in person or on the phone, and it’s driving me around the bend because there’s no paper trail other than my notes, and he tends to forget what he told me he wanted. What was supposed to be a quick and easy project has turned into a major timesuck.

  7. posted by Maggie on

    I have to say that the “Set Timer” rule, is incredibly rude in my opinion. I can see saying things like that to somebody who you know and likes to talk a lot but when you greet a potential customer with an opening phrase like this I do not think that they will consider you as a respectful business partner and they will take their business elsewhere,….that is at least what I do.

    The other organization points do make sense.

  8. posted by Mletta on

    Having spent a lifetime of work interviewing people over the phone and hiring vendors and arranging special events, etc, I’m fascinated by the folks who hate speaking on the phone.

    Yes, there is a place for email and even texting (very very limited, however, for texting) in our professional lives. But that most people prefer NOT to speak to others?
    Wow. That is very telling and very worrisome.

    Some of the best relationships, professional and otherwise, grew out of phone calls. (I’m extremely comfortable talking to people without seeing them. If you listen carefully, you can get a lot of clues to what is going on in the conversation. Very few people are so skilled with voice, etc. to really hide what they are thinking. You just have to LISTEN, something people are loathe to do these days. Pay attention and learn something.) Some also grew out of email exchanges. But that’s rarer. what’s more commonplace are huge misunderstandings via email, especially when you are dealing with people from different parts of the country and the world as many of us are today. Not to mention generational gaps in language, wording and interpretation.

    I no longer do interviews with folks who say: Email me the questions and I’ll answer back. Nope. Doesn’t work that way. That’s a Q/A, not an interview.

    And frankly, when hiring anyone, whether staffer or vendor, I place a lot on how well they can speak and handle themselves on the phone. If you can’t speak to another human being, I don’t have a lot of faith in your skills for negotiating, communicating, etc. New clients are not landed via emails or texts, but by a lot of in person and phone followup.

    Yes, a lot of people do waste our time with phone calls when another method would be better. But that is not the case in general. These rules should not be one-size-fits-all. Many emails are a complete waste of time. (Again, it’s about being organized and writing coherently.)

    In a world where people often have very little real face time with either their co-workers, or bosses, or clients, you’d think people would want to learn how to work the phones. Especially when so many people today send such poorly worded and written emails.

    the idea that emails are better at communicating the details is simply not always the case. Disorganized people with few, if any, communication and/or writing skills still send too many incomprehensible and incomplete emails that require either in person or phone contact to clear up.

    As for returning calls when it’s convenient for you? Hello, I guess y’all are not in a service or product-based business of any kind. (Are you all in the media, were you are used to dictating the rules?) In a professionally run business, you return calls to meet the needs of customers, clients (internal and external) and yea, it’s a pain but that’s how it goes. You also return your bosses calls ASAP and if you’re a good manager, you also return phone calls on a timely basis for your staffers.

    Efficiency has its place and I’m all for organizing your day, whether you’re talking phone calls or emails. But in the real world of business, you usually do not have that luxury of setting the rules at your convenience. Of course, I work on daily deadlines in a client-driven business so I can’t imagine ignoring calls or emails till it’s convenient for me. Well, I can, but then I can also imagine being quickly unemployed.

    Having also worked in the media at various times, I can really get behind your comment to not ask people if they received your emails. PR firms are notoriously intrusive, sending emails, texts, and phoning to determine if you got a press release or information that you DID NOT solicit (it’s different if I have requested something.) Meanwhile, those same folks simply don’t know the word “urgent” when it comes to returning OUR phone calls for information, etc. LOL

    In my personal life, I respect that others don’t like to talk especially if they spend their days working the phones. But we do make time to chat, cause when you stop wanting to talk to people you allegedly care about and to listen to them, you’re basically saying you’re not interested.

  9. posted by RJ on

    There are deaf people, like myself, who view the phone as an instrument of evil.

    I am 44 years old, I read lips and am oral, and I do not know sign language.

    Even with email and texting, we are still left out socially as so many people use phones as a way to cement friendships.

    It’s also hard for us to do business. For example, try finding a plumber (or other business) in the Yellow Pages and using the Relay service to call, especially if urgent. Most plumbers (and other businesses) would hang up thinking the Relay is a joke being played on them.

    One reason my graphic design business did not do well is because people would get frustrated in that they can not just pick up the phone and call me. I am excellent in responding nearly immediately to emails, texts, and faxes.

  10. posted by Sue on


    Wow. I agree that phone skills are important in many professions, but you obviously place it way above other forms of communication. Your long response shows that you may need to hone your written communciation skills, because most people gave up reading less than halfway through.

    You can often get as much from a person’s e-mail as you can from a phone call. If you’re so keen to judge people by how they handle themselves on the phone, you can also judge them by how they handle themselves via e-mail. Are their e-mails concise and to the point? Or are they disorganized, rambling, include too much information, or not enough information. Did they pay attention to details or are there misspelled words and other grammatical errors?

  11. posted by Kay Chase on

    I have always found holding a conversation without facial and body language cues intensely stressful, unless I know the other party extremely well.

    On the other end, in my professional communications, having a written record has served me very well. Not always to my immediate advantage — sometimes the record reveals my own imperfections — but it helps me judge accurately what the next step is.

    I have found myself in a profession where email is vastly the norm, and phone contact is rare (usually with a vendor); even contact with overseas colleagues is usually managed with Skype. I’m as happy about this as a pig in a nice clean pen (my farmer friends tell me pigs actually don’t care that much for mud.)

  12. posted by RJ on

    @ Sue, good points.

    @ Mletta, what would you do if it was a deaf person? Some of your statements could be misunderstood as discrimination against the deaf, especially during a hiring process. I’m curious to hear how you would work around that? Would you be open to email or IM chat if it was a deaf person?

  13. posted by chacha1 on

    I’ve worked for 20 years in a business where the written record is everything (patent law), and where the widespread use of email is cause for joy.

    In my personal life I rarely use the phone, and when I do, about 50% of the time it is text. Because: text does not interrupt someone and require their immediate attention the way a voice call does.

    Also because: so many people will not leave a voice message! Or if they do leave a message, it’s not useful! They don’t say why they called or what information they may need from me, or they don’t answer the question I had for them.

    Not only that, so many people do not respect work hours. I cannot believe how many personal calls I overhear in my office. I tell people that I will not and cannot receive or make personal calls during business hours, and I simply do not answer my cell phone.

    People who really need to reach me can send me a text – or email – and I can reply without disrupting my workday – or theirs. I don’t just assume someone is available to take *my* call at a moment’s notice, either.

    As long as communications are being answered in a timely and constructive way, I don’t see any functional difference between telephone, text, and email. Frankly, I’m amazed that “land-line” phones don’t routinely include text features already.

  14. posted by pkilmain on

    A new feature that my work got as an add-on to a new phone system (changed to VOIP) was the ability to have your incoming voice messages go to your email as a .wav file. It’s really nice. Means you can save the message in a meaningful folder and have a record of the information in it. Very easy to delete the “call me back” messages as well, no series of steps.

  15. posted by Elaine on

    Thank you! It’s comforting to know there are others out there who hate the phone as much as I do. As a “listener,”
    I seem to attract people who think nothing of talking non-stop for an hour or more, barely pausing for breath, inserting those insidious little “…and, uh’s” and then suddenly having to run off when you manage to get a word in edgewise in a vain attempt to share some of your news. I’m sadly in the position of contemplating ending a 10-year friendship with someone for that precise reason. Enough is enough. I agree with everything Erin said about the lack of a paper trail and other impracticalities of phone conversations. Either come see me, or email/Tweet/post on Facebook. I’m tired of flat-ear syndrome.

  16. posted by Katrina on

    I am ok with using a telephone (land or cell) but HATE voicemail. I HATE getting voicemail messages and I HATE leaving voicemail messages because I always wonder if the person HATES voicemails as much as I do. I LOVE texts and email. I use RIBBIT (http://www.ribbit.com/) and Google Voice to have my telephone voicemail messages transcribed into texts and emails so that I can actually read them (then listen to if necessary) and then return calls or perform the whatever action is needed.

  17. posted by Jay on

    If you want a paper trail of a phone conversation, send an email summary of the conversation to the other person. An email along the lines of, “As we discussed, …” or “This email confirms …” reduces confusion.

  18. posted by Mletta on

    RJ Asks:
    @ Mletta, what would you do if it was a deaf person? Some of your statements could be misunderstood as discrimination against the deaf, especially during a hiring process. I’m curious to hear how you would work around that? Would you be open to email or IM chat if it was a deaf person?

    Having never been in a situation where I was interviewing someone who was deaf, I’ve never had to contemplate how I would handle it.

    Discrimination against the deaf when I’m talking about methods used with those who are not deaf or otherwise unable to speak? Hardly.

    Sorry that I didn’t point out that I was referring to people who were able to speak on the phone–I would think that was obvious. IF I was interviewing someone who was deaf, and could not be physically present with them, and someone who knew sign language to interpret for them, I would find a way to accommodate them–an interpreter can speak for them, for example, and if they don’t have one, there are other options. If I was interviewing anyone who had trouble speaking, I would work to find a way that worked for them.

    But that is not the situation I was referring to in my comments.

  19. posted by Mletta on

    Sue writes:
    “Wow. I agree that phone skills are important in many professions, but you obviously place it way above other forms of communication. Your long response shows that you may need to hone your written communciation skills, because most people gave up reading less than halfway through.

    You can often get as much from a person’s e-mail as you can from a phone call. If you’re so keen to judge people by how they handle themselves on the phone, you can also judge them by how they handle themselves via e-mail. Are their e-mails concise and to the point? Or are they disorganized, rambling, include too much information, or not enough information. Did they pay attention to details or are there misspelled words and other grammatical errors?”

    1.A long response, a personal response at that, to a blog posting is NOT the same as a work memo.

    I get that we live in a world where most people don’t read “long” anymore. And frankly, I don’t care if anyone reads my comments here or anyone else based on length. That kind of person isn’t interested, based on length, so be it. Plenty of people don’t read today, either, whether newspapers or books (ebooks or print) and some people who read only read “short” books or articles.

    That’s their business and their right and choice.

    2. Yes, you can learn plenty from a person’s email, but my personal/professional experience is that sometimes people who aren’t great communicators via email are incredibly facile and adept in person and on the phone. I’ll STILL take a person with better interpersonal and phone skills over someone who prefers to email and doesn’t handle it well. My choice.

    By the way, length alone is not a key factor in determining someone’s email skills. As I said, plenty of people do “short” emails. A lot of them are incomplete, confusing and inaccurate. Length alone doesn’t indicate, either in verbal or written output, whether you do it well.

    Some authors write long, long, long sentences and still hold my attention. Others write “short” and say and convey nothing.

    Same with people.

  20. posted by Jen too on

    I have to disagree about the phone being a last resort. I work with a client who sucks with communication, and a lot of what we’re paid to do is to get everyone talking to each other, so that work can actually be coordinated and executed.

    Our first choice is meeting directly with people. Our second is over the phone. And our third is email. Email is still used a lot – but it’s easy to mistake tone and intent in email, and to a lesser degree over the phone. So we try to mostly use email to document meetings and conversations after the fact as well as highlight points of concern, action items and responsible parties.

    I get frustrated with many of my coworkers who default to email – for us, it makes more sense to meet, iron out any issues in person instead of squabbling over email, and then just document it after the fact. Far and away the most efficient use of everyone’s time. Also, it’s much easier to build a relationship in person than over email.

    For what it’s worth, both my firm and our client are mostly engineers.

  21. posted by Cassie on

    I don’t like using the phone at work, unless I think email will go unanswered. I sit in a cubicle and have absolutely no privacy – if I need to discuss with someone that they won’t be financially supported for the next few months, I don’t want to say this in front of other people.

    I wish IM was more popular in our office but unfortunately, it’s not. I think it’s just me and two coworkers, who always have questions to ask me about their work. It’s much easier to answer their questions by IM or even email (though email takes more time), than by phone. I don’t have to stop everything else and listen to them.

    I only rarely call vendors – email is better because I don’t have to worry about busy signals or getting transferred around as they figure out who can help me.

  22. posted by mtin79 on

    Yes as i previously posted here before the books is pretty thin (in content) compared to the price asked for.

    Best Topics are:
    – Search Operators
    – Best Practices for Tagging and Notebooks

    If you are needy or don`t know where to begin in Evernote get it. Otherwise just browse the web for Evernote Topics you are particular interested in or browse their forums and you`ll be fine.

  23. posted by mtin79 on

    please ignore comment above by me. it was meant to go to the “evernote essentials topic” and not this one. sometimes i seem to get lost in my ocean of browser tabs ….


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