How to use Slack Without Distracting Your Coworkers

A bazillion people are using Slack1 or another chat room for work. It's very common to see a startup, especially with remote workers, using an online chat room for real time communication during working (and sometimes non working) hours. Why are chatrooms great? Well, they help eliminate the need for sending emails, making phone calls, and most importantly they can be ignored.

However, the realtime communication platforms come with a big disability when used inside of a productive organization: they can actually make you less productive without realizing it. Let me explain.

Imagine that you're deep in thought. It's 9:45am and you're onto something big. You're about to finish something important or crack that puzzle you've been struggling with... DING Where was I? Ok yeah, you were about to... DING Oh, look a notification. My coworker is asking me a question. I should probably answer him so I can get back to... DING OK, I get it! I'll answer them.

The first issue with realtime communication? It is distracting. In slack, when you receive a private message or someone "at-messages" you (@matt: hey), a noise and a notification alert you pulling your focus away from whatever it was that you were doing to it. It's equivalent to someone waking into your office while you're deep in thought and yelling, "HEY MATT, I'VE GOT A QUESTION!" It's hard to get right back into the flow of things after changing your thought process. It's easier than ever to "walk up and tap someone on the shoulder" with Slack and that can be very distracting.

So how do you fix this issue and remain productive? Well, you close Slack. But Matt, Doesn't that defeat the purpose of using online real time communication tools? It does, but the ultimate goal is to be productive. So how do we use Slack effectively? Here are some suggestions:

  1. When you're busy, set yourself to away. This is like shutting your door. It's hard acknowledge a request or notification immediately. Setting yourself to away helps prevent these distractions.
  2. Disable all notifications. This prevents you from reading the notification text and changing your thought. The best way to stay productive is to stay focused. Every time you change your train of thought, you slow yourself down (think about it, trains are slow to get going). Similar to checking your email: if you are always looking for your email (or at slack), then you're not doing something else.
  3. If something is important enough to be interrupted, let them call you. I've found that I only get phone calls if its truly important once I've told me to only call me if it's urgent. This means I can remain undistracted throughout my day.
  4. Schedule office hours. I know this sounds bureaucratic –and well, it is–but if you're a productive person, this will greatly influence your productivity and people will respect your time. If they need something, they can easily schedule something via Google calendar3. There's no point going back and forth attempting to schedule something when technology can do it for you.
  5. Understand that everyone else's time is valuable by showing appreciation for the things others do for you. Everything someone does for you has an opportunity cost.2 Use general rooms when asking questions so not to interrupt someone. Use @mentions sparingly – they are quite distracting. When they have time, they'll check one of the rooms/channels and get back to you. Expect the same of your coworkers.
  6. Don't expect immediate feedback. Unless the other person expects to provide immediate feedback. Sometimes this is necessary when launching a new product so as long as the other person expects to be "on call" and devoting his/her attention to the matter at hand. Otherwise, let them be work. Every time you message them, it has an opportunity cost.
  7. Use private channels sparingly. Most of the time, if you ask someone a question, others will benefit from knowing the answer too. They might even ask you the same question. This will happen more than you think. The more these things are out in the public channels, the more self sufficient people can be.
  8. Get to the point. When you ask something from someone: get to the point. It's easy to go off on tangents; don't do it. Know what you're asking before you hit send so the other person can spend less time understanding the message and get back to what they were doing sooner.

I've borrowed some of these ideas from Tim Ferris, author of the Four Hour Work Week suggests checking your email only twice a day rather than as they come in. The goal is to help you remain focused and productive while also having to work less.

These online communication tools can be incredibly useful for group discussions and looking things up in the past (Slack keeps history of conversations, so you can always catch up if you join in late). It's hard to see when someone is busy over the internet, but if you're able to follow the above tips, I promise you'll find yourself working smarter and being more productive. Most importantly: before asking someone to do something, realize that it means it's preventing them from doing something else. There's no such thing as a small request because it requires that person to stop what they are doing and focus on your request. Everyone is busy.


  1. I don't actually know this, I just assume it.

  2. What I Wish I knew When I was 20 Amazon

  3. There are many other online services that help with scheduling. Calendly is one of them.

Matt

Matt is the cofounder and CTO of Sidestep – a company that lets you pre-order concert merch and skip the line. He's a serial entrepreneur who worked at Apple, Rockadoo and Cofactor software.

San Francisco, CA
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