Want to Improve Focus and Concentration? Try a Zero Notifications Policy

Not so long ago (ok, maybe a year or so), we heard the call:

“Email is dead, long live Slack”

This nifty communication interface promised to improve focus and concentration, freeing us from the chaos of email, and taming the wild jungle of the inbox. It was perfect for our distributed team. It was perfect for a lot of teams who needed a central place to share, discuss, plan, brainstorm, and above all, to communicate.

Too Much of a Good Thing

But wait… apparently it’s not all beer and skittles. It seems that Slack can produce the same sort of exhaustion it was meant to prevent! In the past few months, we’ve seen articles written about Slack exhaustion, and about breaking up with Slack, and how we’re about to hate Slack as much as we hate email. The proliferation of channels, the constant stream of posts and messages and DMs and activity and work-related content amongst memes and gifs is apparently wearing us out and destroying our productivity.

But this is the sort of overwhelm that Slack was supposed to save us from! Why is this happening? Why has our tool turned against us?

If we’re honest, it’s not the fault of the tool, but of the users. The main criticisms of Slack are based on its tendency to interrupt focus. All these interruptions can cause us to be mentally fatigued without getting real productive work done.

Is Slack the New Email?

Email used to play this role, with endless pings, and conversations, and threads, and chain letters, and your mum’s daily forwards of “People of Walmart”. We could get a new boost of adrenaline as something dropped into our inbox, particularly if we kept refreshing our inbox every 5 minutes to see if anything had happened.

But we’re more sophisticated these days, right? To tame the email forest and improve focus and concentration, we set up filters, if:then rules, and occasionally an “out of office” autoreply. And then, some of us just live by the rule of answering email either immediately or never.

scream-so-many-notifications

On paper, there’s no reason why we can’t deal with Slack channel proliferation in the same way. It’s all under the control of the individual. If you don’t want to know that the entire Apollo-11 guidance computer source code was posted on GitHub, or you aren’t interested in a discussion on the latest Kickstarter tech trend, then you can leave the #random channel. If you prefer to ignore the company’s social media activities, you can leave the #social channel. And so on.

But a lot of us suffer from FOMO and don’t want to let too much pass us by.

I’ll go into some more depth about focus, how it works, why we want it, how we get it, and how Slack and email destroy it in a future post. In this post, I’ll describe how Prospress wants to improve focus and concentration by fighting Slack exhaustion specifically, and notification stress generally.

Notifications, Notifications Everywhere

It’s not just the volume of messages or the 24 hour activity on Slack, it’s the constant interruptions from those notifications. And it’s only getting worse with rich notifications on iOS10 and the iPhone 7.

At Prospress, we realised that Slack notifications produce anxiety on both sides of the message. The sender of the message is worried because:

  1. It may interrupt or distract the recipient while they are in deep focus mode
  2. It may pull someone into Slack at a bad or inconvenient hour.

For the recipient, there are (at least) three negative effects:

  1. The actual interruptions of pings that destroy focus while working
  2. The anxiety or anticipation (even positive anticipation) about possible pings increases the production of stress hormones and puts the nervous system in a state of being ready to “fight fires” rather than focus on writing code or doing other tasks that require concentration
  3. The possibility of being pulled into Slack outside of work hours, which can produce a feeling of obligation to “just answer this one message”, which turns into several hours in front of the computer at a time when the recipient had planned to relax.

This is burning valuable brain energy both for the sender of the message and the recipient: brain energy that could be better spent on other tasks. We take this sort of thing seriously. Although communication is vital in a distributed team, we need to balance that with our desire for focus and deep concentration.

keyboard-slack-notifications

Gauging and Setting Expectations

To get an idea of where our team stood on notifications, we surveyed everyone during one-on-ones with the following question:

In what time frame do you feel you are expected to respond to Slack/GitHub messages:

  1. Immediately
  2. Within 30 minutes
  3. Within an hour
  4. Within 6 hours
  5. Within 12 hours
  6. Within a day
  7. It is totally up to my discretion

We were happy to find that all responses fell somewhere around 5, 6, or 7 (with 7 being the most common answer, although it depended on the circumstance). It seems that nobody on the team actually applies a set timeframe to when they should respond to a notification. And of course, we are a fully distributed team.

There’s nothing wrong with asynchronous communication, most of the time – it’s a byproduct of having people on different continents, across vastly different timezones. This is something we have to learn to not only live with, but use to our advantage.

So, at our last company meetup we decided to implement a zero notifications policy. And by policy, we mean setting specific expectations and being deliberate about organisational culture to prevent Slack exhaustion. As Jason Fried of Basecamp puts it:

“…our perfect-world rule of thumb is “real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time”.

In practical terms for Prospress, this means that all notifications are turned off for desktop and mobile. Since we potentially have work-related pings from GitHub, Trello, Slack, Twitter, Facebook, and email, there’s very little chance of going a full hour without a notification.

At one point I had desktop and mobile notifications enabled so when I was directly pinged on Slack or Trello my desktop would sound that oh-so familiar notification, and my two iPhones and my iPad would also light up and ping. It got my attention, but not in a good way.

The problem with all this pinging is that it activates the nervous system in ways that can be unhelpful and quite frankly, energy depleting. It fractures our attention, ensuring that we never have the free time to get into deep focus or flow.

Individual Responsibility vs Nanny State

Of course, there’s a broader discussion to be had here regarding whether it’s the individual’s responsibility to manage their own notifications, and take steps to improve focus and concentration for themselves.

We are all functioning adults who can make decisions for ourselves, and a zero notifications policy isn’t meant to take away from that.

Nor is it meant to distort incentives in any way (for example, as Aetna is paying its employees to sleep more).

Pile of euro notes

We want to be deliberate about setting culture and expectations, because the desire to comply with social norms is a strong driver of behaviour. Our society often rewards workaholism, whether that manifests in 18 hour days, cutting back on sleep, always being “on”, and contactable, or replying immediately to notifications. There is often a sort of badge of honour awarded to people who work too much, but it’s debatable as to whether it really helps anyone in the long term.

The Sabotage of Physiology

It’s not just expectations and norms that drive us to neglect our wellbeing. Notifications inherently offer the possibility of more work/crisis (resulting in a shot of adrenaline), or a cool meme/problem solved/direct message (a shot of dopamine). The random reinforcement and the level of unpredictability regarding the content of these notifications can be addictive.

Our view is that a company can be responsible for creating and reinforcing a certain culture in the workplace.

We don’t intend to impose a lifestyle or act as a nanny-corp by enforcing activities outside working life, like healthy sleep, work, or exercise habits. But, we do believe a company has a responsibility to create a culture which allows for such healthy habits. That is to say, we want to avoid developing a culture of availability. Nobody needs to be on Slack/email/work 18 hours a day, and while we hope everyone will use the resulting free time to be with family or friends, and to sleep and exercise, we don’t enforce that, or even incentivise it.

So we realise that while we are doing something as simple as creating a zero notifications policy, we are also

  1. fighting the socially accepted tendency towards overwork/putting in long hours (not always the same thing, see presenteeism),
  2. trying to address and be conscious of the physiological addiction to dopamine hits,
  3. trying to reduce sympathetic nervous system activation and consequent release of stress hormones,
  4. deliberately establishing a culture that allows for downtime, decluttering the mind, and hopefully achieving flow.

Benefits of Zero Notifications Policy

We implemented zero notifications with a couple of specific benefits in mind. First of all, the personal benefits: with less distractions from the pings, and an explicit company norm stating we do not expect immediate responses on Slack, we hoped this would improve focus and concentration, which would in turn promote flow, which would naturally result in better quality code (which is far more important than responsiveness).

Sounds good already, right? But the company benefits too, as it helps prevent any one person being “required” for anything if we know that person may not be available for 12-36 hours. This allows us to reduce the Bus Factor, and also empowers individual decision making.

Hopefully, this will also allow Slack to scale with our team. At present, it’s quite possible for every person to read every thing that’s posted to Slack, because we’ve only got a handful of people here (6 at the moment). If we had 60, that would be much harder to do and keep up with (but we’d also personally need to let go of that behaviour).

Person standing under a waterfall with a rainbow

But Does it Work?

While the road to hell is paved with good intentions, we didn’t want to head there. The zero-notifications policy has been in place since April 2016, so we asked our team about how it’s working.

Fulltimers Love the Policy

Brent checked in with everyone during one-on-ones. The responses from our full time team is that the policy overall is a good one. James still has notifications for direct pings turned on during work hours (9am to 6pm). Most of us still have notifications on for DMs (but we feel in control of those and could turn them off if needed).

Matt is loving it. During the first week he tried turning off notifications, he was worried that he wouldn’t keep up-to-date, but then realised he was stressing too much. Now, when he hears other people’s phones dinging and pinging in restaurants or in the coworking space, he thinks “You’ve got to turn that off“.

Interns Don’t Love it Quite as Much

We recently welcomed two interns to the team, and found that the zero notifications policy isn’t actually that helpful for their situation. In the first few months it’s more important to get timely feedback and answers to questions rather than improve focus and concentration or enabling flow.

Interestingly, Lauren uses the Slack web app, which doesn’t have any Mac notifications. Instead, it badges the tab in Chrome, which means that paying attention to notifications is on your terms.

Kelly still got notifications for some channels and private messages. Everything else was just left to whenever she notices it. Initially, she felt a little anxious that she wasn’t responding quickly enough to messages because she’d set a precedent early on when notifications were enabled. Her first thought when she saw a message is that it’s been a few hours and she should have responded sooner. Kelly also felt that she’s not really bothered or interrupted by notifications so wasn’t so concerned about having them on.

So while it was a relief for some of us, the policy wasn’t really important to everyone, and might not always make sense during the first few months of on the job.

We’ll check in again after a few months to see if anyone has noticed an increase in productivity or focus.

please-enjoy-slack-responsibly

Personally, I can’t get into deep concentration mode if I am getting notifications, anticipating the prospect of notifications, or even if I have the expectation of an interruption. This might say a lot about how my brain works, which is a topic for another day.

Conclusion

There are so many distractions and demands on our time and attention these days. We have emails, news apps, Slack notifications, YouTube, Facebook, Snapchats, Candy Crush, Netflix, text messages… and that’s before we even get out of bed in the morning.

According to research and backed up by our experience, this fragmentation of our attention is the enemy of creativity, it’s the enemy of getting into that flow state, and essentially it’s the enemy of quality focused productive work. And isn’t that what we all want – to improve focus and concentration so we can do better quality work and to do it quickly. Our goals are effectiveness and productivity. And reducing our distractions is possibly the future of self directed knowledge work – as Cal Newport (author of Deep Work) suggests, we will look back at this era of constant connectivity with the same disdain as modern factory workers look back on Industrial Revolution practices.

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