As I am involved in several startups, I often get invited to join their Slack channels. For those of you that don’t know the tool, it basically provides real-time group chat functionality combined with record keeping functionality. Several times I have tried to use the tool, but I never managed to make it stick. Reflecting on why that is, I realized that the key point was the tool assumes that it’s OK to distract me multiple times per hour with pings by others on the same channels that I’m signed up for.
The standard argument is that it’s just a small ping that barely takes any energy nor time so it’s all peachy. This is not just the case with Slack. Also email, meeting invites, unscheduled phone calls and colleagues roaming the halls looking to interrupt you are part of the same phenomenon. We seem to live in a culture where it is perfectly acceptable to interrupt each other on a continuous basis as we assume that the cost of interruption is negligible.
The consequence of this way of working is that it is extremely easy to create a culture of busyness. Everyone is running around from meeting to meeting. Every free slot in your agenda is booked by yet another colleague. People try to call you on a continuous basis, leave voicemails and then start sending SMS when you don’t respond in an hour or two. This reaches a point where middle level managers in several of the companies that I work with routinely have every hour of their day triple booked, constantly need to choose which meeting to join and walk around with constant FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).
The problem with all this is summarized by a statement that a manager from long ago mentioned frequently to me: activity is not the same as progress. A culture of busyness can easily hide a complete lack of progress. Ever wonder why a 10 person startup can compete with business unit at a large company consisting of hundreds of people? Or, as is the case in one of the companies in my network, why in a software development department consisting on hundreds of people less than 10% of employees have a compiler installed on their computer? What, in heaven’s name, is the other 90% doing?
The good news is that the awareness of this problem is starting emerge more broadly in industry, such as the recent book by the founders of Basecamp with the appealing title “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work”. Working 60+ hours per week, answering emails the moment they come in at any hour of the day, spending time at the office in meetings and doing your real work when you get home, constantly being interrupted from numerous different angles, etc. This is not the way to stay competitive as a company.
Instead accept that interruption will break concentration during deep work and that, according to some researchers, it takes 25 minutes to get to the same state as before the interruption took place. Once you realize that and you understand that all the emails, meetings, phone calls and colleagues dropping in are not why the company offers you a paycheck, you need to take steps to minimize interruptions
There are three levels to achieve this, i.e. personal, team and company culture. At the personal level, disable each and every notification that your computer and phone give you. All information should be consumed pull-based and not push-based. Of course, if you can’t stop yourself from constantly checking anyway, you need to address that too.
At the team level, it’s a matter of setting expectations with colleagues. When they know that you only read and answer email for one hour at 13:00 every day, they will understand that you won’t be responding to anything that comes in before that. Providing visual cues that you’re doing deep work and can’t afford to be interrupted is a second mechanism. When everyone had a personal office, it was easy to close the door and put a post-it on the outside of it stating that you’re busy. Now, in cubicle land, it’s a bit more tricky but it can be done too.
Finally, many companies have a culture where a high degree of responsiveness is expected from everyone. Especially across departments, a lack of responsiveness is viewed as hostile and unfriendly behavior. This culture obviously needs to be addressed and expectations need to be changed
Concluding, if you want 2019 to be a good year where you get solid work done that you’re proud of, start by cutting out the interruptions and breaking out of the busyness culture. Create big slots of time for deep work, preferably blocks of 3-4 hours, and protect these. Use these blocks appropriately and watch your productivity go through the roof. The world does everything it can to keep us from doing great work, but when we take charge of our own lives, we can grab victory from the jaws of defeat. Make 2019 a great year with great work!