To do your best work, stop fragmenting your attention.
Last year, I was introduced to Slack, the new way to communicate among teams. If you’ve never heard of Slack, in essence, it’s chat rooms that anyone in your company can join. But instead of calling them chat rooms, Slack calls them channels.
I hated it. And not because I disliked the app, it’s actually quite nice. It has a great user interface and makes you want to use it. You can also respond with a like, emoji or GIF when words can’t explain your feelings. Millennials and non-millennials alike seem to be enjoying this quite a bit.
I disliked the introduction of Slack because it represented yet another distraction. Another tool that would give me a slight communication benefit at the expense of focus. I didn’t only dislike Slack. I disliked Slack and every unnecessary meeting, email, instant message or “quick question” interruption at my desk.
To understand why this is such a big problem, at least for me, let’s spend 100 hours in meditation together.
It started with a meditation insight
Lucky for you, I’ve already done this part. So, we can skip the meditating part for this conversation.
Two years into my consulting job, I took 2 weeks off from work to meditate. I joined a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. This is the real deal, 10 days in silent meditation. No reading, writing or talking. No electronic devices permitted. The only exception? An alarm clock, so that I could wake up at 4:00 a.m. to get ready for the first meditation session at 4:30 a.m. During this 2-week vacation, I spent 10 hours each day meditating.
If there is one thing that I took from that time, it was that most of the stress in my life comes from a fragmented mind. Fixing this is something that is within my power. I control my mind, I control what goes into it and what I chose to focus it on.
I went back to work the Monday after the meditation retreat ended. Although nothing drastic changed, I started to notice little things. I noticed, for example, how the “new email” notification on my phone and my laptop affected me. That little notification indicated that I had a new email to read. It asked me to decide between checking the new email now or keep working. Without any information about the email, I had no way to know how important it was. This created a source of conflict and anxiety in me.
It took me 10 days of silent meditation to be able to observe how this small situation caused anxiety. It may seem a minor issue, but this would happen dozens of times throughout the day. The cumulative effect is quite damaging.
You may not have spent 10 days as a hermit meditating, but whether you realize it or not, notifications like these are driving you crazy.
Disable your notifications
The tools are not bad in and of themselves. In fact, thank goodness for email. The problem is really about people and expectations. (Slack, it’s not you, it’s me.)
Let’s go back to my post-meditation retreat realization.
I knew that email notifications were (1) distracting me from the task at hand, and (2) causing me anxiety. I pondered this for a while. As a proud quick-responder, I used to respond to emails within minutes from having received it. I considered it a core part of being a responsive and caring team member. As a consultant, clients were paying hundreds of dollars per hour of my time. Responding immediately to their requests seemed crucial.
After enough deliberation, I concluded that my 5-minute email response expectation wasn’t helping anyone. If it only took me 5 minutes to think up and type an answer, it definitely was not an enlightening thought. I should carve out longer time to answer the difficult questions that really stretched my thinking.
I turned off my email notifications. This dreaded notification popup was no longer there.
I wish that I could tell you disabling email notifications fixed my problems right away. It didn’t. In fact, it was worse for a while. I was nervous that a new important email would have come in. But over time, this changed, and I found myself focusing for longer stretches of time.
As a side benefit, I started spending less time in my inbox overall, since I could batch my responses. Another benefit, group email chains would be more complete by the time I got to them. Often questions asked would have been answered by a colleague, no longer requiring my response. Double win.
I haven’t turned back on email notifications on my work computer nor on my phone ever since. The last 5 years have been much happier thanks to that.
Batch all communications
I’ve continued to use Slack at work. However, similar to email and IM, disabling all notifications is key to allow time for focus. By batching all my Slack reading time into 2–3 reading blocks during the day, along with emails and IMs, the rest of the day can be freed up to think through the more intricate problems.
Handle the urgent and important
What about urgent and important issues, you may wonder? The truly urgent and important items should be a rarity. If many things are urgent, then nothing truly is.
Given that urgent issues are rare, they merit being handled using a different process. Urgent communications should not go to the same Inbox as everything else. For urgent issues, people should have a different mechanism to reach the right person. For time-sensitive, critical customer issues, our customers have a 24/7 support line that will get the right engineer on the issue within minutes. As such, truly urgent issues don’t rely on a single point of failure, me, remaining slave to my phone or computer. It is crucial to find such a reliable mechanism for any important type of urgent issue.
Give your best to each situation
Reducing notifications and other distractions to a minimum is crucial in order to be present and do good, mentally challenging, work. A fragmented mind will lose to a focused mind in just about everything. If you’re a knowledge worker, your work requires you to be truly present and contribute your best thinking.
Disabling notifications and blocking out discrete, time-bound chunks of time on your calendar for all communications helps you regain your sanity. It allows you to regain long, uninterrupted blocks of time to do deeper thinking and planning. It allows you to bring your better self to all settings. When in a meeting, you don’t need to peek at your Inbox or Slack. You are physically at the meeting because you thought that it was an important meeting to attend, so make sure that your mind is also present. When talking to a colleague, that’s all that you should be doing. When reading and responding to your email or Slack messages, do just that, and give others the very best thinking that your mind can muster in your email responses. No half-assed responses.
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