Zap that phone

Edgar Degas is one of my favourite artists. At the turn of the century he dined with a friend who had just had a new invention installed – the telephone.

Degas’ friend had arranged for someone to phone him during the meal, and when it rang he rushed to answer it. Flushed with pride, he returned to the meal, looking expectantly at Degas. Having thought for a little while, Degas said, ‘So that’s the telephone. It rings and you run.’ I sometimes think of these words during a busy day when all I seem to do is answer the phone. We have all experienced the situation of the phone ringing when we are rushing out of the house, or a phone call disturbing a special moment. The chances are you probably answered it, making yourself late for your appointment or spoiling a romantic mood. Why should it? It should not be difficult to take charge of your phone and let it work for you, not against you.

It is highly irritating to return someone’s call only to find they are unavailable. In many such cases, you will get their voicemail or answer phone. When this happens, always leave a message and then get on with your important jobs. Don’t go chasing the person again. If it is important they will get back to you. The exception to this is the important call that must be dealt with. In that case, it may be you who will need to do the chasing.

Whatever your job, the following principles apply:

• If you find you are constantly being interrupted by telephone calls, set aside a time when you will deal with nothing else. Let everyone know what this period is. If this is not practical, use an answering machine to screen your calls and clear your messages at regular intervals.

• Buy a caller-display unit and attach it to your phone. These are relatively inexpensive, and allow you to see the number of the person ringing you. You can then decide whether to answer. These units also allow you to see the telephone numbers of people who rang earlier.

• Whenever possible, keep calls short and to the point. If key decisions need to be made it is always best to have a meeting face to face. It is much easier for people to mislead or confuse you when they cannot see you.

Do not underestimate how annoying phone interruptions can be to someone who is trying to talk to you. I once had a patient walk out on me after the fourth telephone interruption during their consultation. The fact that the calls all needed my attention was irrelevant, and they were quite right to be upset. The next time they came to see me I made a point of taking the phone off the hook.

Phones are good masters but bad servants. Return a call only once. If it really is important someone will find a way to speak to you. However, remember that you will have to do the chasing if you want to speak to them. If you are under pressure of time, build phone-free time into your day and try to have time wasting calls screened – this is your time that is being eaten into.

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