As I was writing this article, my phone was ringing. I could see from my caller I.D. that it was a client. I didn’t answer it.
It takes a lot of discipline for me to ignore a ringing cell phone. When it comes to phones, I’m very old school. As a child, my family didn’t have an answering machine, and caller I.D. wasn’t available. When the phone rang, I’d immediately spring up and sprint to the phone, racing to beat my parents to find out who was calling.
But with my creative business, I learned early on that I couldn’t be so “Pavlov’s Dog” about every ring of the phone… or ping of a text… or ding of an email… because unstructured communication is a time sucker.
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Instead, I had to become much more disciplined when it came to communicating with others, in order to manage my business time well. Here are five ways that you can be more efficient with your communications for your creative business.
1. Don’t arbitrarily pick up a ringing phone
Once upon a time, this is how everyone communicated — with our voices. And that’s not without a good reason. When it’s a well-planned, deliberate action, the phone call is still is an extremely effective means of communicating.
But how often is it planned and deliberate? I have a client who was a salesperson in another life. He was trained to cold call. So, when he has something on his mind, he just picks up the phone and calls, without much or any consideration about what might be going on at the other end of the line.
More often than not, that conversation is going to be bits and pieces of something that was on his mind at the moment. It might be well-formed, or it might not. He tends to use phone calls like memo pads — an opportunity to leave a verbal post-it note with me. It’s a hit-and-run brain dump.
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And it’s probably the least efficient and effective means to communicate. He’ll forget that he said it. I’ll forget that he told me.
Keep in mind, too, that creatives need mental room and space to create. I can only speak for myself, but having my mental stream interrupted is not a good thing.
When I’m writing, for example, I’m totally in the moment. If I’m interrupted for even a few minutes, the creative flow is totally set off track. I can completely forget what I was about to write — and it may or may not come back to me.
We creatives are also deadline driven. Time is of the essence with our projects. And often, I really don’t have five minutes to spare — that then turn into 15, 20, or 30 minutes.
I once had a client “brain-pick” me for 2 hours, and frankly, I have no one to blame for that but myself. But I did learn from it. Now when that same client calls, I tell her she has 15 minutes to talk; then, I have to move on.
My time (and yours) is precious. We can’t afford to waste a moment on anything that’s non-productive.
I now schedule all my phone calls. I set phone “appointments” with my clients. I know when we are going to speak, and I can better prepare and have information and questions ready before we even get on the phone.
It’s better time management not only for me but also for them, for the same reasons — whether they realize it or not.
When my phone rings, unless it was a scheduled phone meeting, I let the call go to voicemail. I figure, if it’s important, the caller will leave a voicemail. If not, it wasn’t. It’s that simple.
2. Schedule a set time to answer emails and review voicemails
Probably the most distracting time killer we have in our day, outside of social media, is the email letter. Similar to me running to the phone as a child anytime it rang, many business people answer their emails as soon as they get a notification.
The way to handle emails more efficiently is to address them in batches. Author Tim Ferris, who made this method famous in his book “The Four-Hour Work Week,” tends not to answer emails at all, if he can help it. He automates and delegates the process instead.
But for me, that’s not practical. As a creative-service provider, a lot of my production work relies on communication via email. However, that doesn’t change the fact that answering emails as they arrive is just as inefficient as running to the phone every time it rings.
So for me, the answer is to check emails four times a day: 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. It’s amazing how quickly I can get through emails when they are batched together. It feels better, too, from a mental standpoint.
Similarly, rather than allowing voicemail messages to break your flow of thought and creativity, it’s best to review voicemails during natural breaking points during your workday.
Then, after the review, I make a decision as to if and when I’ll return the one call. Often, I won’t call back, but I do get back to the caller, but rarely by phone. Usually, I write an email instead — which brings us to the third way.
3. Communicate via email
It’s a bit of paradox: Checking emails with abandon wastes time. But sending emails often can be a much more efficient way to communicate.
One reason is that chit-chat and small talk found in phone conversations are removed from the equation. It’s much easier and faster to get to the point via writing.
Another is that an email immediately creates a written checklist. An email can be printed out; tasks discussed can be checked off as one goes along.
And an email confirms what was previously said and agreed upon. Words float into the air and disappear. An email is forever.
4. Don’t communicate during your downtime
When you run your own business, if you want to have any hope of having a life with any “balance” to it whatsoever, you better not make business calls and answer emails during your downtime.
By doing so, you are leading your clients to believe that you are available and working, even on the weekends or late at night.
What sends the message that you’re not? By not communicating. Don’t encourage communication by responding to others. Worse yet is initiating communication.
People fail to see that communication is part of “working.” It’s part of the job. Just because we aren’t actively designing, writing, illustrating, etc., doesn’t mean that we aren’t at work when we communicate.
In fact, as a commercial communicator myself, I’m happy to report that nothing we creatively do would mean a thing if communication wasn’t involved.
When you are performing business-related communication, you are working — end of story. Now, that’s not to say that they aren’t times when you don’t want to be doing business development, even if it’s during your off-hours.
The point, again, is doing it with purpose and with full intent. If you decide that Saturdays are going to be your day to relax and watch your son play football, you won’t be fully in the moment if you spend the first half of the game texting your clients.
5. Schedule meetings with yourself.
One of the best time management tools I learned very early in my career was the meeting with one’s self. We all need that time — those meetings with ourselves — to work on and complete projects, schedule our calendars, record our expenses, and learn more about our industry.
Again, get deliberate and schedule a meeting with yourself. When a client asks, “Can you talk at 2 p.m.?” and you know you’ll be working on another client’s hot project that afternoon, all you have to say is, “I’m so sorry — I’ve got a meeting.” No one needs to know with whom you’ll be meeting.
Your time is just as important as your clients
Communicating efficiently takes some self-control initially, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. By doing so, you’ll also communicate that your time is just as important as your clients, and being efficient with it is crucial to running an effective business that can serve all your clients well.
Do you have any tips on your business communication? Let me know in the comments.