About 2 years ago, I felt constantly harassed.  My cell would ring, my landline would ring, email kept ticking in to my various email addresses, and people had just begun to treat Facebook as email as well (this still faintly horrifies me). I was busy and stressed; I was running late to meetings and feeling guilty that I wasn’t engaged in my various endeavours as much as I’d like to be.  Worst of all, I wasn’t forwarding my own goals at all, I had no time for my own artistic practice, and I was mentally worn down, almost to the point of uselessness.

I’ve never really been one for the telephone; as Stephen Fry says, it’s a fantastically rude device that interrupts you no matter what you’re doing.  There may have been a brief period in high school (just before the Internet reached my little village) where you may have found me on the phone for hours at a time, but one can hardly be held accountable for the stupid shit one gets up to in high school.

When I cancelled my cell phone and put the damned thing away for good, people responded with shock.  How can you live without it?! They marveled.  What if there’s an emergency?!

My response is that I rarely feel the lack, but that my stress level since ditching the cell has decreased enormously.  My voice mail was always full of passive-aggressive messages about how I never answered my phone, and rarely held anything that wasn’t a demand that I do something for someone.  People expected that no matter what I was in the middle of, I should halt everything to receive their very important call.  They wanted something from me, and they wanted it now, and their request would not keep.  It was a matter of life or death.

Of course, it never was.  In the three years I had a phone, the biggest emergency that ever reached me via that device was along the lines of  ‘We need more milk.’ But the sense of urgency with which people left messages was enough to make anyone think I live a life of high drama and am in involved in affairs at the federal level.  Don’t worry darlings; if the Prime Minister needs me that badly, he won’t call.  He’ll send Mounties.  And a spare horse.

I kind-of marvel at the tremendous gall of anyone who ribs me for never answering my phone, as if I’ve got nothing better to do than  sit around, waiting with fevered anticipation for their phone call.  Even if I didn’t work or volunteer, if I was a complete lady of leisure, the idea that you assume you ought to be able to interrupt my day, my train of thought, or my conversation with someone else in order to forward your own agenda is a bit astonishing to me.  But, like most people, I work, I volunteer, I have an artistic practice and I have a social life.  In a word, I’m busy.  We’re all busy.  We’ve got work to do.  So why would we jump to answer the phone?

I often joke that men can’t multi-task, but the truth is that none of us really can.  Good work is only accomplished through uninterrupted stretches of focus.  It means that if I want to write a grant, plan an event, or get in some serious thinking about a thorny problem or a bright idea, I need time and space that isn’t interrupted by the beeping, jangling, tweeting and fussing of the various devices and people around me. I suspect that this might be why you find creative, productive types up and working at all hours except the ‘normal’ working ones.  You need to be safe from interruption to do really fine, concentrated work.

The only way for me to get things done is to manage people’s expectations of when they can get a hold of me, and the answer I’ve come up with is never.  You can never get a hold of me via a phone.  It not quite a hard-and-fast rule, but it’s pretty close.  Email is somewhat more reliable, but there too I’m not consistent.  I know it’s inconvenient for other people, and in that respect is perhaps a breach of etiquette, which I really do feel bad about.  But if you like me, or respect the work I do, I hope you’ll understand that this is the only way for me to do it.  If you can’t understand that this is how I work, we probably can’t work together. And that’s okay, because there are probably millions of people ready to jump for their phones at any moment whom you can work with.

And I’m not saying everyone can or should follow my example; for some of you, it’s unthinkable or impossible.  I respect that.  But can you clear an hour a month? An hour a  week?  A full day? Any time where you say to the people of Earth ” I really need to knuckle down and do some good work, please leave me the hell alone.’  Try the middle of the night, if you can’t find another time.  Stay up and make something.  Don’t let other people fritter away your time  with their priorities.

At some point in the future I’ll probably get a cell again; Torontonians get very uncomfortable around anyone without a cell, as though perhaps you’re unstable and might violently explode at any moment (it’s okay guys, really.  I won’t.).  And I won’t deny that it’s convenient to have the option to make a cell call. But when I do return to the land of the constantly-connected, my number will be available on a need-to-know basis, and my conversations will be short and informational in nature.  And I won’t have voice mail.

Right now, as I type this, the phone that connects to my land line is stuffed under the pillows of my bed to muffle the ringer.  I’ve got a long list of things to do today.  And no where on that list is ‘answer the phone.’

This post was inspired by something Pete Forde tweeted the other day, and by reading part of this Lifehacker article this morning.

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