Instant messaging, IM, tools are wide spread among software companies, and are rapidly capturing the entire knowledge work sector. They are convenient means of communication, specially for remote teams who can’t shout at each other from across the office floor. Possibly too convenient.
IM apps do such a great job at reducing communication friction that teams end up with more and more messages. And since they are instant messages, they set an implicit expectation of instant reply.
According to a study by time-tracking app RescueTime, Slack users check the app every 5 minutes.
Is a 5 minutes window enough to get any meaningful, valuable work done? Not for me, that’s for sure.
If the RescueTime numbers seem wild, wait till you hear what Microsoft found out.
In a 2007 field study, Microsoft Research, in collaboration with the CS department of Illinois, set out to measure the impact interruptions and multitasking had on “information workers.” They discovered people replied to instant messaging alerts with a response time of 1.72 seconds on average.
Less than 2 seconds!
The only explanation for such quick turnarounds is that whenever a new attention-grabbing notification popped up, participants immediately dropped whatever they were doing and clicked on it.
Software developers need long, uninterrupted periods of time to write code and solve problems. We need to give our brains time to flush the attention residue from previous tasks and to load the information to manipulate into the working memory. Then, we need to tackle that information from different angles till we make a breakthrough. Five minutes is barely enough to get the process started, let alone reap its benefits.
On top of being a suboptimal use of your brainpower, interrupting a task to address an incoming IM also guarantees it’ll take you longer to finish that task. Possibly way longer.
The Microsoft study found that every interruption was followed by a period of wandering. “Recovery is often confounded with a cycling through and visiting of multiple suspended applications on the way to resuming a task,” the researcher wrote. The participants took, on average, 10 minutes to address the interruption and up to an additional 15 minutes to go back to the original task.
Imagine you have a task that would require 1 hour to complete. You get a Slack ping 5 minutes after starting and immediately address it. You spend 10 minutes on it, then 15 more minutes to get back on task. It’s been half an hour since you started your 1-hour task. You should be 50% done but are only 8.3% through. At this pace, it will take you 5 more hours to finish.
Granted, that was a contrived, worst-case example, but the picture it paints is familiar, isn’t it? There are days when nothing gets done because it’s one interruption after another.
We can’t prevent people from writing us emails or messaging us on Slack. But we can control our reaction time to those inputs.
Here’s a tactic I encourage you to try: Quit Slack while you’re working on a task. Pick a task, quit Slack, then get onto it.
I’m using Slack as a proxy for your primary communication channel. If you use a different product for communications, quit that instead.
I encourage you to actually close your IM client instead of merely ignoring it. Hearing the notification sound or having the alert enter your field of vision is enough to make your brain redirect computing power away from your area of focus.
Of course, you can’t be offline the entire day (or can you?), so pick a task on which you can make a meaningful dent and set a timer for the maximum time you’re comfortable being unresponsive. Reopen Slack either once you achieve your goal or reach your timeout.
Reply to the messages waiting for you–hopefully they won’t be too many–then pick another task to work on and repeat the process.
Quitting and reopening Slack between tasks is tedious, but it’s an insurance against inefficiencies and a safeguard for your mental bandwidth.
Besides, letting Bob from accounting wait a few minutes to get an answer to his question might be just what he needs to visit Google and find it himself.
Let me know how you go.
Background from the cover image by Sincerely Media via Unsplash.