Slacking Off


A Candlestick Phone (image courtesy of WIkipedia)

A Candlestick Phone (image courtesy of WIkipedia)

There’s a great piece today on how Slack is causing disruption in people’s work habits. Slack is a program that has dedicated itself to getting rid of email, yet we now find ourselves mired in Slack team after Slack team. I believe the real issue isn’t with Slack but instead with the way that our brains are wired to handle communication.

Interrupt Driven

People get interrupted all the time. It’s a fact of life if you work in business, not just IT. Even if you have your head down typing away at a keyboard and you’ve closed out all other forms of distraction, a pop up from an email or a ringing or vibrating phone will jar your concentration out of the groove and force your brain to deal with this new intruder into your solitude.

That’s evolution working against you. When we were hunters and gatherers our brain had to learn how to deal with external threats when we were focused on a task like stalking a mammoth or looking for sprouts on the forest floor. Our eyes are even developed to take advantage of this. Your peripheral vision will pick up movement first, followed by color, then finally it can discern the shape of an object. So when your email notifier slides out from the system tray or notification window it triggers your primitive need to address the situation.

In the modern world we don’t hunt mammoths or forage for shoots any longer. Instead, our survival instinct has been replaced by the need to answer communications as fast as possible. At first it was returning phone calls before the end of the day. Then it became answering emails expediently. That changed into sending an immediate email response that you had seen the email and were working on a response. Then came instant messaging for corporate environments and the idea of “presence”, which allows everyone to know what you’re doing and when you’re doing it. Which has led us to ever presence – the idea that we’re never really not available.

Think about the last time you saw someone was marked unavailable in a chat window and you sent the message anyway. Perhaps you thought they would see the message the next time they logged in or returned to their terminal. Or perhaps you guessed that they had set their status as away to avoid distraction. Either way, the first thought you had was that this person wasn’t really gone and was available.

Instant messaging programs like Slack bridge the gap because synchronous communications channels like phone calls and asynchronous channels like email. In the past, we could deal with phone calls because it required the attention of both parties involved. A single channel was opened and it was very apparent that you were holding a conversation, at least until the invention of call waiting. On the other hand, email is asynchronous by nature because we can put all of our thoughts down in a single message over the course of minutes or even hours and send it into the void. Reliable delivery ensures that it will make it to the destination but we don’t know when it will be read. We don’t know when the response will come or in what form. The receiving party may not even read your message!

The Need to Please

Think back to the last time you responded to an email. How often did you start your response with “Sorry for the delay” or some version of that phrase? In today’s society, we’ve become accustomed to instant responses to things. Amy Lewis (@CommsNinja) is famous for having an escalation process for reaching her:

  1. Text message
  2. Twitter DM
  3. Email
  4. Phone Call
  5. Anything else
  6. Voice mail

She prefers instant communication and rapid response. In a lot of cases, this is very crucial. If you need an answer to a question quickly there are ways to reach people for immediate reply. But the desire to have immediate response for all forms of communication is a bit much.

Our brains don’t help us in this matter. When we get an email or a communication from someone, we feel compelled to respond to it. It’s like a checkbox that needs to be checked. And so we will drop everything else to work on a reply even if it means we’re displeasing someone for a short time to please someone immediately.

Many of the time management systems that have been created to deal with massive email flows, such as GTD are centered on the idea of dealing with things as the come in and pigeonholing them until they can be dealt with appropriately. By treating everything the same you disappoint everyone equally until everything can evaluated. There are cutouts for high priority communications, but the methods themselves tell you to keep those exceptions small and rare so as not to disrupt the flow of things.

The key to having coherent and meaningful conversations with other people is the same online as it is in person. Rather than speaking before you think, you should take the time to consider your thoughts and respond with appropriately measured words. It’s easier to do this via email since there is built-in delay but it works just the same in instant message conversations as well. An extra minute of thought won’t make someone angry with you, but not taking that extra minute could make someone very cross with you down the road.


Tom’s Take

I agree with people that say Slack is great for small teams spread everywhere to help categorize thoughts and keep projects on track. It takes away the need for a lot of status update emails and digests of communications. It won’t entirely replace email for communications and it shouldn’t be seen that way. Instead, the important thing to realize about programs like Slack is that they will start pushing your response style more toward quick replies with little information. You will need to make a conscious decision to push back a bit to make measured responses to things with more information and less response for the sake of responding. When you do you’ll find that instant messaging tools augment your communications instead of complicating them.

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One thought on “Slacking Off

  1. Pingback: DoS'ing your mind: Controlling information inflow - 'net work

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