When Alex asked to write about productivity, I was both thrilled and terrified. So many things to say, where should I start? I need to write something clever and useful but do I even have something to say on the topic? In my eyes, I’m the least productive person in the world. I’m the Queen of procrastination so how can I be the one to talk about productivity?
I figure I can write about something that makes me less productive instead and how I try to avoid it: the noise. All this noise! The constant buzzing, roaring, ringing that happens around me all the time. Spoiler alert, the key to reducing the noise isn’t silence, it’s getting my Fear of Missing Out under control (and shutting up the tools that feed this beast).
Email Junkies Anonymous: the first step is to acknowledge you have a problem
Two or three years ago, I was a total email addict. I synchronized my personal and professional emails everywhere, on every platform, on every device. As a result, my phone would be constantly buzzing. I was a nightmare to those around me. Vacation, coffee time, family events: you name it, I was ringing, buzzing, vibrating my way through it. If I got an email, it would buzz on my phone, zing on my laptop (browser extension on!) and it would trigger me. I’d jump on the computer, go straight to my inbox and deal with the email. I would categorize, label and delete. Only then would I feel better. I felt a deep need to get my email under control as it would then allow me an excellent excuse to procrastinate.
I realized that was it. I had a problem. I needed to do something. Some drastic measures were taken to get my life back under control and away from Gmail, Outlook...
Before you think “well, I have a solution for you: stop looking at your emails!”, you should know that it takes more than that. That reason is the fear of missing out. It’s a trendy problem now that it’s been repackaged as FoMo. Facebook and other social networks have built empires on our brain’s fear of missing out on something amazing. The short version as to why FoMo messes with your productivity is that, anytime you get a notification it stimulates your dopamine system which is linked to pleasure. I realized that was it. I had a problem. I needed to do something. Some drastic measures were taken to get my life back under control and away from Gmail, Outlook, etc.
Taking back control on emails
According to science, it takes 6 weeks to break a habit. And believe me, those 6 weeks were hard. The first thing I did was remove the extension that synchronized my personal mail so that I would not be disturbed while seeking resources or inspiration. This helped me get less distracted. Then I removed my professional email from my phone and stopped synchronizing my personal emails as well. I’m proud to say that I’m now able to spend a whole Saturday without checking my emails. This might sound silly, but again, ask my friends, big win.
Work days are different. You can’t turn off your email completely if you work in tech. So I adopted a system that works for me. It’s not perfect, but the idea is that I try to synchronize and check my emails when I am sure that I will have at least 15 minutes to focus and read them for real, not just quickly scan them. The rule is simple: I instantly reply if it takes me less than two minutes to do so. I then mark as “to reply” things that will take me more time and come back to those later in the day when I am sure I will have at least 30 minutes to do so.
Keep the noise down: unsubscribing your way to productivity
Getting rid of unwanted subscriptions also helped me reduce the noise. You know how it goes: there’s a new trendy newsletter for designers, you subscribe to it (or worse you are forced to subscribe to it to get a free resource). You read the first one. You open the second one. You mark the third as “to read”. After that you don’t even bother opening them anymore. You simply delete them.
I decided to stop doing that and took the time to unsubscribe from those. This considerably reduced the noise in my mailbox. I used unroll.me to help me identify and remove subscriptions. It can analyze your mailbox content, show you subscriptions to remove. You can also build rollups of news you might want to read later. They won’t appear in your mailbox anymore (no noise, yeahy) and you can go check them later when I have time.
Slack or the false promise of getting things done
To be clear, I have nothing personal against Slack. Replace it by Mattermost, Yammer or any other tool that promises to help instant online communication between team members and the problem remains the same. I should know, I since I’m the one who introduced Slack to my previous workplace. But in the end, the way we used it as a team drove me crazy.
It all started so well. We were 8 in an open space: it was sometimes noisy, people were complaining that it was hard to concentrate. We were also having those long emails where 8 people would reply at the same time, replies inside replies, etc. It was messy. So, I thought that Slack could help. And it did in the beginning. We created one channel per project and had a few extra channels for more general things (kitchen, a channel to post funny things so that the other channels would be dedicated to work, inside communication, etc.).
Don’t get me wrong, the issue was not the tool itself, but how we started to use it. The more we used Slack, the less we communicated. This might sound totally ridiculous, but we were 8 people working in the same open space who were spending their days writing to each other on an online tool instead of actually talking to each other. And this was bad for communication.
After a few weeks of use, all the progress I had accomplished towards my FoMO with emails resurfaced on Slack. The name of the channel is in bold when there are some unread messages in those. And there was a lot of channels with a LOT of unread messages that were all waiting there, providing me with the best procrastination excuse ever (and the little dose of dopamine, remember?)
I wanted to be able to get some work done. So again, I developed a system: I muted a lot of channels to avoid being tempted. This lead to an interesting and ironic situation if you think about it. I was out of the office for a 2 day workshop. When I came back, I asked if I needed to create the goodies for an event. I was told that everything was already decided. I wondered if I had missed a meeting invitation. No. They told me every decision was made on a channel I had muted (because this channel became too noisy for me) a few days ago. Apparently since everybody could read that public channel, it was kind of implied that if you did not give your opinion, you agreed to the decision. In French, we call this “Qui ne dit mot consent”, Silence gives consent. So in the end, fighting FoMo caused me to miss something this time. Isn’t it ironic?
Muting channels means that I sometimes took time to reply. On Slack you can get notifications on specific words or on when someone mentions your name. I was smart enough to disable desktop notifications from start, but the Slack icon would get a red little bubble whenever I was notified. So, I got colleagues who would use this to notify me directly in a channel when I did not reply within 15 minutes. Ping, buzz, here you go girl, good old MSN wizz style. For my sanity, I ended up hiding the app icon so that I would not see any notifications and muted all the sounds.
Again, this is not the tool’s fault. Those colleagues might have done the same thing by email, Skype, Messenger or might have come directly to my desk if I did not reply quick enough. But I can’t help to wonder if Slack and those tools did not more harm than good in terms of giving people the false impression that everybody is available at any time and going to check all the messages as soon as they are posted. Real time communication is useful, but it feels more and more like a productivity trap for me.
Reducing the noise on my phone
The last thing I could do is reduce the noise on my phone. Again, this is not as easy as you might think. Notification is a huge source of user engagement and a lot of apps use and abuse this. Whenever I install an app, I check all the settings to remove any non-essential notifications. Dear Kindle app, I’m deeply sorry but I don’t care about your promotions, especially when they have nothing to do with what I’m reading, so goodbye notifications. Unfortunately, I sometimes need to play this little game again and again every time I get an app update because most of them will automagically subscribe me to the new notifications possibilities they added with the update. Yes, Twitter I’m looking at you sneaky little bird. Side note, I also try to disable anything that is trying to get access to my GPS, my photos, my contacts and my microphone without a good reason but this is more for privacy concerns.
At last, the latest versions of Android let me get better control over me notifications. I can for example mute all notifications except for starred contacts (family for example) and I can also mute all notifications except for the alarm clock. Again, it’s all about balance and re-gaining a little bit of control in this huge daily noise.
To sum it up
I know a little bit how my brain works and I know that I will look for any procrastination excuse. I also know that notifications will provide instant gratification to my brain. I try to avoid falling into endless notification loops by coming up with a few systems. Those are not perfect; I still feel like checking tweetdeck every 20 minutes and it takes me efforts not to. But by removing the noise and by reducing notifications, I regained a little bit of control over my productivity and concentration.
I’m curious about you know, do you also have systems to help you reduce the noise around you?