Effective Notification Management in a Workplace of Distraction
Picture this: You have a big project due at the end of the week that you’ve committed to finishing. With this in mind, you sit down, ready to roll towards completion. Five minutes in, an email notification alerts you. You see it, but decide to ignore it. You refocus your attention back to your project, but in the back of your head, you are thinking about that email notification. A few minutes later, you get a series of new notifications from a Slack discussion. You read the notifications and try to focus back on your project. By now, your mind is thinking about these notifications and your responses to them. You open your email app and Slack to start responding. A few hours pass and it’s time for that meeting you committed to. You’ve made no progress on your project.
Does this sound too familiar? Perhaps you’ve experienced this in your own work on a regular basis.
Manage Your Notifications
Being able to effectively manage your notifications is an important skill in our modern workplace. Especially if your output is knowledge work, working without the distraction of notifications is key to:
- Managing your attention
- Supporting effective results
- Increasing your output
- Decreasing your switching costs (time lost in reorienting yourself)
- Cultivating healthy collaboration and team expectations
Over the years I’ve been practicing this as a project manager, I’ve found this can actually help cultivate more effective results and asynchronous collaboration with teams and clients. I’ll outline some key areas of notification management, below.
Typical Notifications to Manage
And what to do with them.
What does properly managing your notifications entail? For starters, it means turning off the majority of your notifications across all of your devices. Sound radical? It’s not. In fact, I’ve found this to be the largest challenge for most people. To manage your email notifications, simply turn off notifications on all of your devices. Turn off badges as well. Email, like snail mail, needs to be something that you determine to check.
If you have someone who truly needs an immediate response to emails (perhaps you’re a doctor), you can use the VIP functionality available in some email apps. The default Mail app on macOS and iOS supports this. Airmail is a great third-party email app that supports this functionality as well. In a nutshell, using the VIP functionality allows you to whitelist specific people so you still receive their email notifications.
Before turning off your notifications, I recommend you invest time in processing your email inboxes to zero. For this system to work well, you’ll be using your email as a tool to process requests and turn them into action items, if needed, for yourself and your team.
Slack (or other instant messaging tools)
The rise of these communication tools has created digital offices. Organizations that have fully adopted these tools, such as Slack, have likely found them to be immensely beneficial in hosting brainstorming discussions. Unfortunately, they’ve also digitized “water cooler” chat and made it really easy for teams to get distracted from their primary focus.
Using Slack as an example, you should turn off notifications on the devices you produce work on. For example, this could mean your Mac or iPad, but not your phone. Doing this will help cultivate an environment for focused work on the tools you use for production. If you’re on a Mac or iPad, leaving badges enabled can create a healthy balance of staying connected with your team, if you have your dock hidden by default.
When you’re ready to dive into work that you need a large amount of focus for, you should leverage Slack’s ability to snooze notifications. If someone tries to message you when your notifications are snoozed, Slack will alert them that you will receive that message when your snooze ends. If the message is a high priority, Slack will give an option to bypass the snooze and alert you anyways. In most cases, that option won’t be used.
A while back, Slack released a new status feature. This allows each team member to set her or his status with an emoji and a brief line of text. At Crema, we’ve found this to be invaluable for communicating our current level of focus and availability for collaboration. We’ve set up custom, default Slack Status Emoji that have been valuable in cultivating a healthy digital collaboration environment.
Another set of tools that generate many notifications are collaboration and project management tools, such as Asana, Jira and GitHub. How you manage your notifications with these tools comes down to how you use these tools on a daily basis.
If you use the tool regularly, you should turn off its email notifications. In this case, email notifications serve only to duplicate your effort in processing notifications the tool sends out.
On the other hand, if you use the tool irregularly, you should leverage its email notifications by ensuring they are turned on. Many services also provide a “digest” feature that can send an aggregated email daily, weekly, etc. This allows you to stay on top of its notifications on a regular basis, as we’ll cover below.
If you have a mobile app installed for the tool, ensure you turn off push notifications. You’ll be processing the notifications in a very regular and consistent manner, so you don’t need to have them come throughout the day. Slack and other collaborative messaging tools are great for time-sensitive discussions.
In our modern workplace of multiple collaboration apps, the use of phone calls has fallen by the wayside. If you tailor your notification system to what I suggest above, phone calls will become your “high priority” channel of communication. So long as you share your phone number with your team and collaborators, you can expect unscheduled phone calls to become the default means of important communications. Respect this and graciously support any calls that come through.
Now that we’ve gone through and turned off or set up our notifications to be more managed, we’ll cover the key to success in managing our notifications: processing them.
You’ll want to process your notifications regularly and consistently. How often you do is dependent on your team, role, and expectations. For myself, I process my notifications 3 times a day, during the week: first thing in the morning, around lunch, and just before I head out for the day.
You’ll want to be efficient, but effective in processing your notifications. Make it a goal to respond to everyone that needs a response each time you process your notifications. If a response will take more than a couple of minutes, you should respond to the person letting them know you’ll be following up by a specified time. Tracking this email via a task in your personal task management system is a way to ensure you’ll follow through.
Blocking off recurring time on your calendar for processing notifications is key to ensuring you have the time allocated to make this work. Again, you’ll want to tailor how much time relative to your job. As a project manager, I find 30 minutes each time I process my inboxes works well.
Doing this builds trust in your response times, yet allows you to have the focus needed to get your best work done.
Responding to everyone that requires a response each time you process your notifications is a central part of this system. Doing this builds trust in your response times, yet allows you to have the focus needed to get your best work done. In the years I’ve been practicing this system, I haven’t had any major issues as a result of it.
Embrace the System
Contrary to popular belief, turning off and managing your notifications through this system will not elicit negative feedback. If this is a significant culture shift for those you work with, you should let them know you will be doing this. Set the expectations and stick to it.
I recommend giving this system a try for a week, with one notification-heavy tool. By the end of the first week, you may find that no one has noticed you’ve switched to this method of notification management and you’ll want to try it for a second week, a third and so on.
With this system, you’ll likely find that your response rate and communication may actually increase. Every time you process your notifications, you end up treating each notification like a small task that you have to complete or acknowledge, which in turn cultivates a strong white glove approach to how you manage and follow through on your communications.
Give this system a try. You just might find you have more time to complete big projects and have your communications improve in the process.