Are Email and Chat Ruining Your Productivity?
I will always remember the Zoom call when I glimpsed the seventh level of productivity hell.
It was a few years ago during a presentation review. The host made the rookie error of sharing their entire screen, so I could see everything – all the open windows, the taskbar, the clock, and so on.
I can’t remember the presentation itself. But burnt into my soul is the memory of notifications popping up EVERY 10 SECONDS for an entire 30-minute meeting.
There must have been an argument happening in Slack because never-ending popups appeared in the corner of his screen. Sometimes three arrived at once, and they stacked up on each other. There was also a “ding” sound in case the banner hadn’t interrupted us enough.
Between the Slack messages, emails arrived. A different “bing”, and a different popup. Each one revealed the subject line and a snippet of the contents, which made it ten times more distracting.
The host was playing whack-a-mole with the notifications while trying to explain the presentation. He seemed well-practised at dealing with these notifications. But it had the awkward vibe of a dog owner whose dog jumps on everyone it meets. It was uncomfortable to witness.
This continued for the entire meeting. It was insane.
But what blew my mind was that this was normal life for this guy. And possibly for many people. The normal working day was being interrupted CONSTANTLY by bings and bongs.
How do you focus when something nags you every 10 seconds?
In my experience, deep work only happens when you get lost in a flow state. And that takes a while to drop into. It’s a bit like falling asleep. It certainly can’t happen in the 20 seconds between bings.
It turns out this horror story of a Zoom call is not uncommon. An alarming Microsoft study suggests people change screens every 40 seconds on average while working.
Another major study found employees can’t go longer than six minutes without checking an email or instant messaging. The same study found 70% of emails were opened within SIX SECONDS. Yes, seconds.
How Did We End Up in This Mess?
I was born in the 1980s, so I remember life without constant communication. Family shopping trips were a military operation. We synchronised watches, split into teams, and promised to meet in front of Woolworths at 3pm.
Back then, we operated just fine without always contacting each other. But with the emergence of always-on messaging, we’ve become accustomed to instant answers to our problems. And that we must be always available to answer questions.
Nobody starts their day with the goal of fragmented attention. But we feel we should be contactable. Our family and our colleagues should be able to reach us. We want to be seen as productive and available, so we jump into that Slack conversation, or respond to that email within the hour.
There is a fundamental fear that we will become irrelevant. Or that we’ll get a black mark in the book if we disappear for a while. But trust me, that isn’t going to happen. And no matter how busy or hectic things are, you can step away for a while.
Bill Gates famously spends a week each quarter just reading books in a log cabin. He calls them his “Think Weeks”. Bear in mind this isn’t a new practice, forged during his chilled-out philanthropy years. He did this during the heyday. The Steve-Ballmer-jumping-crazily-on-stage, Windows 95 years.
Attention Is the New Currency
We’ve focused on doom and gloom so far. But there is a silver lining here.
You can separate yourself from the pack by taking control of notifications. It’s a rare thing to maintain focus these days, and if you cultivate it, you will be considerably more productive than everyone else.
If you are a team leader, you can boost your team’s productivity by improving how they handle distractions. It will be like hiring two extra people.
Just think about all those smart people you work with. Most of them are stuck in Slack and glued to incoming emails. And yet they still get loads done! It’s quite amazing really.
But imagine what happens if you unleash their full potential.
Let’s dive into some specifics. I’m going to tackle the biggest distractions you’ll face:
- Instant messaging
Note: if you want to get a handle on your phone addiction, I’ve already written about that here: How to Break Your Phone Addiction.
Turning Off Notifications in Outlook
A freshly-installed email programme is like an obnoxious four-year-old.
“Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!”
The default behaviour does three terrible things:
- It makes a noise when emails arrive. BING!
- It pops up a distracting summary of the email.
- It leaves a judgemental icon in the taskbar, reminding you that an email needs attention.
Awful. Horrible. No wonder we are getting sucked into emails all the time.
Do you know what happens when I get an email?
Perhaps there is the faint sound of birds tweeting. The gentle slither of worms in my lawn. The deafening boom as a dust bunny settles on the floor.
Certainly not a bing or a bong. No icons, no pop-ups. Nothing.
Fortunately, it’s easy to tame Outlook:
- Go to the options and find the mail settings.
- Find the “Message arrival settings”.
- Turn everything off.
Here’s a screenshot of what that looks like – no ticks, no fuss:
If you use another email client, it will have a similar collection of settings if you dig around a bit.
Now that you’ve achieved control over your email, you can decide when YOU want to spend time in your inbox. You can use email batching to process your email twice a day, and no more often.
Imagine how much time this is going to free up to focus.
Turning Off Notifications in Slack and Microsoft Teams
Slack and Microsoft Teams are as obnoxious as email when left in their default settings.
The Slack icon changes whenever somebody posts to any channel you’re in, including the default company-wide channels like “General”.
Just consider that for a moment. You are going to be visually distracted whenever ANY MESSAGE is posted, regardless of whether it’s relevant to you. It’s impossible to focus on your work when you see that blue symbol in the task tray. FOMO kicks in, and you need to know what the conversation is all about.
Teams and Slack also display a pop-up window whenever someone sends you a direct message. This includes the contents of the message, which can be embarrassing if you’re screen-sharing or have someone over your shoulder.
Here’s the trick with tools like Slack or Teams:
TREAT THEM LIKE EMAIL.
That’s right. Put Slack and Teams in a box and forget about them for hours at a time.
Turn off all the notifications and check messages when YOU want to. Don’t be a slave to your dear colleagues who decide at 10:17 they absolutely must solve a problem by 10:19 and send you three Slack messages.
Here’s what I do:
- Turn off all pop-ups and sounds.
- Disable notifications (so they don’t come through to my phone)
- Permanently set my presence to “Away” (more on this below)
- Set a text status that warns people they need to call for urgent things.
Now, this might sound prickly, but my goal is to get important work done. If something is genuinely on fire, I’m sure my phone will ring. I don’t ignore phone calls from family and colleagues. But asides from emergencies, which are rare, everything else can wait four hours.
The reason I set myself as “Away” is to avoid offending people. I process Slack messages like email, which means I might not respond immediately after reading a message. If it requires thought or effort, I create a to-do item to tackle later. I don’t want to frustrate colleagues who see me online and wonder why I’m ignoring them.
To turn off notifications in Slack, open the settings and tell Slack to leave you alone:
Once you’ve turned off the noise, click on your profile and choose “Set yourself as away”. That’s it, all done.
Microsoft Teams has similar settings you can tweak. Click the three-dot symbol to open the settings. On the notifications tab, switch everything off:
Permanently setting your status to “Away” takes more effort in Teams vs Slack. Teams likes to sneakily change it back when it feels like it. To avoid this, choose the “Duration” option and set yourself away for several years.
We’re done! With notifications tamed, incoming messages will no longer break your concentration every twenty seconds.
Now, remember – treat these applications like email. Close the windows, and get some work done.
Resisting the Temptation to Keep Checking
Now that you’ve subdued your notifications, you’ll discover you can get a whole lot more work done. However, it’s not going to be easy at first. You’ll be tempted to check your email and messages, in case you’ve missed something.
This will pass. Fight the FOMO.
The best way to avoid temptation is to fill your calendar with important tasks. I’ve written about time blocking already, and this is the ideal technique to keep you focused.
If you try time blocking and you still get distracted, you might be avoiding dealing with some unpleasant feelings. If that sounds like you, check out this article about finding peace of mind.
With your new-found peace and silence, your productivity will skyrocket. Enjoy!