Whatever your job title—freelancer, project manager, designer, or CEO—you probably spend more time than you’d like on email and chat platforms.
In fact, a recent survey of 50,000 designers and knowledge workers from around the world found that most people can’t go six minutes without checking their inbox.
Even worse, the majority of people never get an hour of focused time a day. That’s without email or Slack.
I don’t know about you, but those are pretty scary statistics. How are we supposed to focus, or simply do our job, if we can’t go 10 minutes without being sucked into email?
Email and Slack aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. So let’s learn how to use these tools efficiently.
Why we’re so addicted to email and Slack
The problem with communication is that it’s become such an integral part of our jobs. We ask questions, share knowledge, and collaborate on email and Slack—so they don’t always seem like distractions.
But what else would you happily forfeit your attention for every six minutes?
It’s easy to point the finger at notifications. But the truth is, our vulnerability to FOMO and social pressure to be “always on” makes us just as likely to distract ourselves.
Just think about this: A recent study found that 84% of people keep their inbox open in the background at all times, with 70% of emails being opened within six seconds of receipt.
Basecamp’s Jason Fried wrote in his now-famous essay, Is group chat making you sweat?: “[The] problem is that a chat window is a black hole for your attention—constantly pulling your gaze, constantly chipping away at your focus. Playing whack-a-mole with unread indicators across dozens of rooms/channels causes manic context-shifting.”
Communication overload is real. And we need to get a handle on it.
5 ways to keep your communication in check
I’m not trying to vilify communication tools here. And the answer definitely isn’t to delete your email accounts, go off the grid, and start sending messages and mockups via carrier pigeon.
Instead, we’re trying to find ways to balance your need for focused time with your need to be responsive and available. It’s no small task. But with a bit of preparation and dedication, it can be done.
1. Commit your first hour (or more) to the most important work
Beating communication overload isn’t just about spending less time on email or Slack. It’s about having time to make progress on the work that matters most to you.
This isn’t just important for your job, but also your well-being. When Harvard’s Teresa Amabile looked into the daily habits of hundreds of knowledge workers, she found that out of all the things that can boost our mood and motivation during the work day, “the single most important is making progress on meaningful work.”
If you know your day is going to be hectic with communication, try to find space to make progress before it begins. As entrepreneur, blogger, and podcast host Ryan Robinson explains:
“Even though I wake up most days with the goal (and plan) of spending the majority of my time growing my blog, more often than not I look up just before lunchtime and realize I’ve been sucked into emails or putting out a fire in Slack. For me, the best option has been simply to accept that communication is going to take up a big chunk of my day and work my schedule around that.”
For Ryan, this has meant spending the last five years getting up at 5am to tackle his most important work before the rest of the world starts demanding his attention.
Whether you call it “eating the frog” like Mark Twain or “tackling your MITs” (Most Important Things) like Zen Habits founder Leo Babauta, starting your day with some heads-down, communication-free time is a great way to get an early win.
2. Set “office hours” to avoid constant context switching
One of the worst things about bouncing between emails or Slack and your core work is just how much that task-switching can mess with your productivity. According to Dr. David Meyer,”Even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40% of someone’s productive time.”
Once the day has started, you can still protect yourself from too much communication by limiting when you’re available on chat and email. I like to call these office hours: set times when everyone knows you’re free for questions or meetings.
Not only do office hours help protect your focus, but they force those seeking your advice to come prepared with questions instead of off-the-cuff inquiries.
3. When you need to chat, practice “bursty” communication
There’s no getting over the need to communicate during the day, especially if you’re on a remote team. But simply leaving your Slack open for long, asynchronous chats is counterproductive.
In a new study published in the Academy of Management Discoveries, researchers discovered that teams who communicate in “bursts”—exchanging messages quickly during periods of high activity—perform significantly better than those who let their conversations linger throughout the day.
As the study’s authors explain, “People often think that constant communication is most effective, but actually, we find that bursts of rapid communication, followed by longer periods of silence, are telltale signs of successful teams.”
Unlike office hours, this method needs to be implemented on a team-wide scale to work. Talk to everyone about expectations around communication. When are you expected to respond? Can you find specific times during the day that are more high-volume than others?
4. Use do-not-disturb mode to give yourself some “maker time”
As investor and Y Combinator founder Paul Graham explained in his essay on “maker” vs. “manager” time, designers, coders, and writers need more than 30-minute or hour-long chunks of focused time to get serious work done. Unfortunately, as we’ve already seen, the modern workplace rarely allows for that.
Even if someone doesn’t realize they’re interrupting your focus, a poorly-timed email, meeting request, or cat gif in Slack can knock you out of your flow. As Basecamp’s Jason Fried explains it:
“If someone was interrupted every 15 minutes while they were trying to sleep, you wouldn’t think they’d be getting a good night’s sleep. So how can getting interrupted all day long lead to a good day’s work?”
To protect yourself, the simplest way is to make yourself completely unavailable to distractions. Pretty much every major operating system—from Apple to Windows to Android—has a do-not-disturb mode that will silence all notifications when activated.
Get to know this mode, and use it a reprieve when you need to get things done. Your notifications will still be there, waiting for you, when you’re ready for them.
5. Actively train your brain back into focused mode
The problem with leaving communication overload unchecked is that it trains your brain to be more easily distracted. Every time you jump into your email or check Slack, you’re killing your ability to focus.
As Catherine Price, author of How to Break up with Your Phone, explains, “The time you spend allowing yourself to get sucked into the cycle of distraction and reward seeking, is undoing some of the hard work that you’ve been doing over the course of your life to maintain the ability to avoid distractions.”
It’s no small task re-building your attention muscle. But it starts with putting some distance between you and your communication tools.
Quit Slack when you’re not using it, and don’t keep your email inbox open throughout the day. Get rid of all your desktop notifications.
Just a bit of space can help you retrain your ability to focus for longer periods of time.
You’ll never get rid of communication. But you don’t have to let it take over your day.
Communication tools are awesome. They help us connect remotely, collaborate on fun projects, and stay abreast of important information. But if left unchecked, they can become major productivity-killers.
Like everything in life, balance is key. Try a few of these recommendations, and you’ll be surprised what you can accomplish in an hour of uninterrupted time.