Why should you turn your notifications off?

Jotham working at his laptop

When lockdown started, I used to think that the main risk to the productivity of my working day would be interruptions from my kids...

Now, I realise the main risk to a productive week is my own mismanagement of the tasks in front of me.

I’m the Head of Product at Brightec. My role requires me to have a deep understanding of each of the products we build for our clients. Agency life means we are always building multiple projects at the same time, across the team. Each product inevitably has multiple people from multiple organisations involved. On any given day, there are a lot of different people who require my attention across a lot of different areas. Each product has its own targets and its own challenges. Each has its own history and it's own goals for the future. Each has its own Miro boards, Zeplin projects and email threads. And each project has its own slack channel(s).

Slack is an incredible tool and Brightec have a great set up which I’m grateful for. But I think I’ve been misusing it this year. Here are some observations I’ve made of my own working habits since going fully remote. These won’t be for everyone, but I’ve found the switch to less noise extremely beneficial to me and everyone I work with.

People really need your attention, so turn your notifications off

This sounded wrong to me six months ago. People need to ask me questions or require my input, so I should be available to them at all times, right?

Well, yes - my role should enable others to make great things. But I’m not a bot who can answer everything immediately, and I don’t think my colleagues actually expect that of me. I think that’s a complex I’ve adopted this year, it's an unnecessary pressure that I’ve put on myself. Realising that it's not ultimately necessary has been key to feeling happier and more productive with my workload.

I am only human. My best decisions come from having time to focus and consider the best options for our clients, and our team. After months of Slack notifications pulling me in every direction possible, I realised I was mentally exhausted from the context shifts every few minutes. For me, a desktop Slack notification telling me that someone has just said something, is not a good idea at all.

Even though I’ve had audio and text previews turned off for ages, the constant visual noise of another Slack message appearing in the top right corner of my screen is deeply destructive to the task at hand.

When I picked up my current task, I decided it was worth my attention. I don’t need to constantly drop everything and pick up the latest thread, on the off chance it requires my urgent response.

This sounds so obvious when I write it down, but I have decided my tasks are worth focusing on.

It’s in my nature to want to help people; to react to their questions and help them to progress but I’m learning that the vast majority of discussions on Slack can wait. My Slack app is now a place to (intentionally) visit when I need to.

Similarly, my emails are worth opening when I have the headspace to respond to them, not when I’m trying to fill time whilst waiting for the meeting to start. That is not productive, it's the facade of busyness.

I also have no work notifications at all on my phone. I don’t have my work email on my phone and I only use Slack on there if I’m out travelling during the working day (a rare occurrence this year). I’m already working from home, Brightec value the balance and enjoyment of work and life outside (the virtual) office. It is up to me to honour this culture and take steps to ensure the boundaries between work and home aren’t any more blurred than Covid has already made them.

I’m better at work when I’m present at work

But it's not just home life that motivates me to have less notifications. And it's not just the negative impact to work that motivates me to switch them off either. There are actually loads of positive benefits to working without notifications.

Unsurprisingly, my work and my colleagues actually benefit from me being less distracted too. When I’m scheduled onto a project, I am on that project.

Pre-covid, when we were all in the office, I wouldn’t just go up to somebody and start talking to them when I could clearly see they were in deep thought or that they were already speaking to someone else. We’ve all had to adapt to a new work set up in some way.

Now that we can’t see each other, we don’t have that social luxury. We just can’t understand in the same way what someone is doing when they receive our slack messages. I used to think this was a problem with the sender of the message, thinking that we were all sending too many messages - but right now I can’t think of any way around that. We aren’t in the same room, it's important to the success of our projects that we ask questions and have conversations to stay productive and to do good work. I am however starting to understand the role of the receiver in this new way of working.

The project is not on fire, calm down

A Slack message is just as (non)urgent now, as it was in the office. In the office, if something needed immediate attention, it would not have been sent via a Slack message. You would get out of the chair and go to speak to someone in person. Similarly, if something is urgent now, I’ll receive a Slack call so we can talk ‘in person’. A slack message is never an emergency. Yet I realised I was living as if everything that popped up in that top corner, was a problem that needed my immediate attention.

The difference is subtle, but it is my job that requires my attention, not Slack in itself. Slack has never required my constant attention, but I used to give it anyway - to the detriment of my job.

I work with an exceptionally talented team. That means a lot in this context. We are experienced, well researched and mature enough to make our own decisions about pretty much all of a project’s day-to-day events. Problems don’t arise very often in a team this good, but when they do, it's rare that the rest of the team couldn’t handle it themselves. I was often just clicking on a notification to find one of our amazing developers has fixed it already.

Sometimes it does need my attention, but it isn’t urgent. I can simply reply to this when I’m next in Slack.

Important: I am not suggesting that everyone should ignore all their messages. If nobody ever took action, then nothing would ever get done. What I am referring to, is that I had a tendency to assume responsibility for a task that another individual was already expecting to do themselves. Yes, we are all collectively responsible for the output of our team. But inside that, we are individually gifted and suited for specific tasks and specific conversations. You don’t need to be involved in everything.

When I was in the office, I was never in two meetings at once

When you’re in a physical meeting room, it is not only rude to others if you’re on your phone whilst someone else is talking, it's completely distracting you from the meeting and from hearing the thing you needed to be aware of.

Now that we’re all remote, it is so incredibly tempting to have one monitor open with your video call, and another open with your inbox or a Slack window.

Unless that email or slack message is being referenced in the meeting, you do not need to open it until you’re out of the meeting.

Minimise or hide Slack behind your video call window. It's only going to damage the conversation, unless you’re referring to a message on there.

One thing I’ve found really helpful, is to take a note of any actions that come my way on a post-it note, and put the post-it on my wall. This helps it stay out of my head, whilst ensuring its not forgotten. I found that opening a digital reminders app requires me to lose focus of the meeting I’m in and opens the door to get distracted by the other apps that are open on my computer.

Some other practical tips as to how you can remain available to the team, whilst also staying focused on your current task:

Use slack reminders /remind me to look at this in an hour - buys you another hour of focused time.

Use your calendar well. In my role, if the calendar starts the day empty, a meeting will be scheduled in it by the end of the day. Make sure there are a good amount of time blocks set throughout the week where your calendar is busy with an event called ‘Focus’.

Perhaps it was just me, but for a good few months, the intense noise of Slack buzzing off every other minute was a major source of stress and distraction. It's kept us together since we’ve been physically apart, but it needs to be managed well.

It's just a tool, it's not the master.

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