Doing Things Online vs Picking Up the Phone

tl;dr If you’re only trying to get a little bit of stuff done calling on the phone versus doing it online are substitutes for each other. If you’re trying to get a lot done they compliment each other.

Economics tl;dr The isoquants for phone calls vs doing things online starts out as being substitutes at low quantities but becomes complimentary as the quantity you are producing increases

I recently had a kid which along with being a magical and life changing experience is a lot of work. Besides the actual taking care of the baby there are lots of tasks that are tangentially related. The tasks come in two types recurring tasks e.g. running out for baby supplies, setting up doctor’s appointments and playdates etc. and there is also a host of involved one-time tasks, setting up a 529 plan, life insurance, creating wills, planning birthday parties etc. Along with moving cross country and changing jobs all this meant I had a lot to do before the end of 2015.

Why the end of 2015? Some of these are naturally time sensitive and as a timeboxing device I decided I wanted to finish all of the one time tasks by the end of 2015. This meant that the absolute number of tasks that I “had” to get done in the last 3 months was much higher than it normally is.

Now like any good Millennial I have a strong aversion to interacting with other human beings. So as many of these as possible I tried to do online. Online can be faster for multi-step tasks involving research and can be done at night after the kid has gone to sleep, as opposed to people who get cranky if you try to call them at 10 PM.

So I was using Legalzoom for the wills instead of going to see a lawyer, booking appointments through ZocDoc instead of calling the doctor and setting up Amazon subscriptions instead of running out to the store. These tasks can be done either online or by calling/in person. In economic terms making phone calls and doing things online are substitute inputs in getting things done.

Now like any good OCD white collar professional I use a ticketing system for my personal errands. At the end of the year when I reviewed the tasks over the last few months many of the sub-tasks contained the words “call” and “phone”. In fact looking at them a larger percentage of my one-time tasks involved some amount of picking up the phone and calling someone than normal. Not just in absolute terms but in percentages also. Most of the tasks involved a combination of both calling and doing things online.

What was happening was that I was using phone calls when there were complicated edge cases that the online systems could not handle and I was using the online systems to handle the simple cases that take a long time to do over the phone or that could be set up to happen automatically.

For example to get life insurance I filled out the application online, but to get my medical records I had to call the subcontractor to my insurance company to properly fill out the form for the subcontractor of my hospital, and after it was approved I set up automatic bill pay online. In this case the phone calls and online were perfect complements, I would not have been able to finish the task of getting life insurance if not for both inputs.

The more general lesson is that if you are trying to do more (or less) you might have to change your mix of inputs instead of just scaling them up.