How and why to be less available

May 28, 2015

We live in an age and culture of hyper-accessibility. Email. Twitter. Facebook Messenger. Mac OS Continuity (that thing where phone calls ring on your phone… and your laptop… and your iPad). And notifications for all these things. On all your devices. All the time.

Yet the challenge I’ve been posing to everyone lately — clients, family, friends, mentees — is to be less available. And every single person I’ve encouraged to do so has said it was the right move.

But that isn’t to say it’s an easy shift. It’s tough both logistically and emotionally: logistically, because we still want to care for people well; and emotionally, because (if we’re honest) it feels good to be needed.

Fortunately, there are a lot of good reasons to be less available:

1. It frees you up to be fully present with whomever or whatever is in front of you.

2. When you’re less accessible to everyone, you’re more accessible to the right people. (For example, if you’re less available to any kind of client, you’re more available for clients who are the right fit. Or if you’re less available to your whole group of acquaintances, you’re more available to your inner circle of close friends and family — the people you truly nourish and who nourish you in return.)

3. Intentionally creating a barrier to accessibility means that people who make an effort to call on you are really invested and engaged. In other words, it weeds out prospective clients who aren’t serious or friends of convenience or other people who are solely in the consumer mindset.

4. Self care. Solitude is vital to the emotional health of all people. Extroverts may need less solitude to recharge than their introverted counterparts, but constant connectedness isn’t healthy for anyone.

5. When someone has a question or a problem, it’s easier for them to ask you than to seek their own solution. If you’re always available, you become a human compendium of instructions and answers. Being less available is a way of encouraging and empowering others to learn and discover the way on their own. (It’s like how you may never remember how to get to someone’s house if you always use your GPS to get there. You aren’t actually learning the way; Siri is just dictating instructions to you.)

So how do you do it?

How can you make yourself less available without causing mutiny, disappointing everyone, and making them all feel abandoned? Here are some ideas that have worked well for me.

1. Manage expectations. This is the single most important thing you can do. People aren’t (usually) upset because they didn’t hear from you for a week; they’re upset because they expected a response in a day or two. I have an auto-responder on my email account that tells people exactly what to expect in terms of my availability, email response times, and office hours. It’s possibly (probably) annoying to people who already know what’s going on, but I decided that was a reasonable trade-off for setting expectations with my network at large.

2. Schedule time for engagement — and for disengagement. Less available doesn’t mean unavailable. I don’t check my email on the weekend, but I have regular times I do read and respond to messages. I don’t plan social outings on work days, but I am intentional about scheduling play dates and lunches on my off days. (Looking for techniques on how to schedule engagement? Check out The Intentional Day.)

3. Create your contact flow wisely. It doesn’t have to be easy to get in touch with you. But if it’s difficult, it should be because you made it that way on purpose — not the result of a poorly designed contact flow. Maybe this means hiring someone to handle your email — making your brand easy to reach but making you less accessible. For me, it means I don’t list a phone number on my website, and I point people toward a form instead of an email address for making initial contact. I’ve even had times that I took the contact link out of my main navigation altogether, so people had to read through (or at least scroll through) my services page before reaching out. When I had a contact link right on my homepage, I received substantially more emails from people who weren’t genuinely interested in working together.

4. Be socially selective. You don’t have to be on every social media platform in the history of the internet. Choose the ones that make sense for you and your customers. There will automatically be more time for solitude when you’re not covering as many access points.

5. Trust people to be both gracious and capable. At least a few times every week, someone specifically compliments my email auto-responder or time management — and almost as often, someone answers their own question before I’ve even seen their email. And it’s always a surprise, because I usually feel like I’m letting everyone down. People are much more gracious than I give them credit for, and much more capable too.

What about you?

How are you managing your availability? What are the biggest challenges you’re facing in the age of hyper-accessibility? What’s working (and not working) for you?


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Business by the decade

October 3, 2012

Earlier this week, I met with a group of fellow business people — both business owners and employees of larger companies — and we were discussing what business looks like through the natural phases of life.

Our group leader shared something with us that his mentor shared with him many years ago. It went something like this:

In your 20s and 30s, you’re focused primarily on building and accumulating. But as you approach and enter your 40s and 50s, you find yourself wanting to simplify and clear out. You’re confronted with all this stuff, and you don’t want to be worried about it all anymore. And then, as you get into your late 50s, your 60s, and beyond, all you care about is relationships, because you realize that that’s what truly matters.

As a group composed almost exclusively of people in their 20s and 30s, we were unable to speak to the truth of this. But I think there’s a lot of wisdom here. And it hit me on several levels.

I see myself in this.

Most of the examples given for these phases had to do with physical possessions — houses, cars, art, and so forth — and when looked at solely from that angle, it may be harder to relate. But there are many things we can accumulate — both tangible and intangible. You may not care about driving a German-made automobile or having jewelry that needs its own insurance policy, but what about accumulating degrees, skills, knowledge, and resources? If you were to ask me, I would say that relationships are my first priority, with simplicity — a “small but valuable life” — not far behind. But if I look at how I use my time, does it tell a different story?

This analysis isn’t a value judgment, but it does give some perspective.

The point is not that accumulating and building are bad. The point is that relationships are of greater value, and they persist. Whether you’re accumulating property and furniture or expertise and skills, you will ultimately feel rich or poor based not on your physical or intellectual wealth but on your relational economy. It’s about connection and the impact you had on others.

By this model, we spend upwards of 40 years focused on two versions of the same thing.

Let’s assume that this model is true — your 20s and 30s are about accumulation, and your 40s and 50s are about simplifying. Here’s the thing: Both are focused on the stuff in your life rather than the people. That’s four decades of thinking that stuff is the answer — that you either need more of it or less of it. In reality, neither are true. Neither gaining it nor getting rid of it is the answer. The stuff needs to move out of the center altogether.

Where’s the fourth quadrant?

As I listened to this, a diagram started to form in my mind.

Perhaps it’s the naïveté of my 20s, but shouldn’t we be able to hold these things in tension?

Where we go astray is starting with the stuff, as the model predicts we will. When we start with people instead — how to serve them, how to connect with them, how to create abundance and value for them — it’s easier to see what really needs building and what’s truly of value and worth keeping around.

Where do you see yourself in this?

What do you think of this model? Is this our natural inclination? Where do you see yourself in it? Do you think it’s possible to hold these things in tension?

My first official three-day weekend

January 25, 2010

…and I have to say it was a little rough.

I’m sure those of you who worked today are pretty short on sympathy. Oh, poor Allie *had* to take a day off… I have the world’s smallest violin for you. Yeah. That’s fair.

But the purpose behind this experiment is setting boundaries, right? Taking Monday off is more symbolic than anything else. I got to the point where I was doing some kind of work every day. Taking phone calls at obscene hours. Using an FTP client on my iPhone to fix minor stuff (usually because a client accidentally broke something) while I was driving. Sitting on a ferry in the beautiful Pacific northwest and feeling anxious because oh my gosh I can’t check my email what if someone needs me. This needed major action.

The boundary-setting is bigger than setting boundaries on my time; I have to set boundaries with the kind of work I do and how I allow people to treat me and how I treat my business as whole. But time was the most natural place to start — and I’m already finding that, when you set time boundaries, some of those other boundaries are naturally (by necessity) created for you. I’m excited to see how this progresses in the weeks to come. But for now, I’m pretty gosh darn excited.

Because I went to the dry cleaner!

This seems so beyond small, but I have been trying to get to the dry cleaner for more than four months. It was so out of hand that it was my new years resolution.

You see, the dry cleaner that I like isn’t close to anything else. Not that it’s very far, but it isn’t on the way to anything, adjacent to anything, or otherwise located so that I couldn’t help but stop by. I have to go there on purpose. And I was always too frantic during business hours on weekdays to get there. Either I was making the most of the hour I set aside for requisite errands (a dozen errands in an hour? no problem!) or it was 4:58 and there was no way even I could jet over there before 5.

Today, I didn’t have any excuses and I didn’t have all these things to see! emails to answer! people to meet! because I wasn’t on a minute-by-minute schedule. I could take 15 minutes to drive over, drop off my clothes, and drive home.

And because I’m a total Monica (oh, the dance of the clean clothes!), it totally made my day.

But it almost didn’t happen.

I picked up a couple of new client prospects on Friday. (Actually, I was inundated with new prospects last week (!) — not big corporations or high-paying gigs, but super-creative work for super-nice people [i.e. the best work] — which is extremely exciting and is part of the reason why this three-day weekend was killing me… but I digress.) One of them is on a tight timeline, and the person who referred me told me up front that this potential client was leaving on Monday and would be gone for two weeks. So I emailed right away and asked if we could set something up for Monday.

Yes, Monday. I knew I shouldn’t, but what’s one little meeting over coffee? (This is every addict’s reasoning, BTW.)

Well, he was leaving Monday morning, so he wanted to meet over the weekend. But I had to draw the line somewhere. (Conveniently for me and my inability to create boundaries, I had plans for both Saturday and Sunday, so it would’ve been a glaring red flag to squeeze in a meeting in an already-full calendar.) I suggested that we set something up for the week he returned and suggested dates and times.

He wrote back and said he was going with someone else. That I couldn’t meet the timeline he had in mind.

Now, in well-adjusted-person interpretation, this means, “He is not my right person and has no respect for my time and boundaries.” But in Allie interpretation, it means, “I am insufficient and failing my clients and no one will want to work with someone who (insert healthy boundary here).”

Fortunately, miraculously, I didn’t cave in and set up a Sunday meeting. I held my ground. And my reward was the dry cleaner. The dry cleaner! Man, that was great.

Hey, Friday? I’ll deal with you next.

Taking an honest-to-goodness weekend makes Friday into the day when everything must get done to a point where I can leave it for three days. And frankly, putting that much pressure on poor Friday makes her into a bit of a bitch.

But then I realized that Friday has always been a pain. I wasn’t working into the night (and still not feeling completely at peace about things) because of my four-day work week. It was par for the course with Friday. The usual. Not worse, not better.

So there may have been a little cheating.

I did take a client technical support call (their email was down!), and I answered a couple of emails (mostly personal emails! promise!). But overall, it was a success. Especially considering that this was the first day for another experiment (more on that later), so I was doubly “depriving myself” of things today.

And, bonus! My to-do list (for life things) is at a manageable place for the first time in months. I didn’t even feel busy today, but apparently it was just the amount of time I needed to get everything wrangled. Wait, I get this and the dry cleaner even though I cheated? I can’t wait to see what next Monday brings.