You'll know the feeling. You’re deep in the zone, concentrating hard, figuring out a tricky problem, achieving that flow state - when suddenly, ping! Your phone buzzes, beeps and lights up.
Jeff in Accounting has sent everyone a funny picture of a cat.
"Oh, get stuffed!” you curse at your phone (or words to that effect). Put it back to sleep and get back to your work. But as much as you try, you can’t get back to that state of ultimate concentration. The Deep Work state has been broken, and it’ll be a while til you get back to it.
An unfinished sentence hangs frustratingly on your screen, blinking away, waiting…
Having your concentration interrupted by messages from coworkers is all too familiar these days. Email is an antiquated system that seems immune to evolution. Yet it doesn’t show any signs of going away - for better or worse. A rogue notification still has the ability to knock out a crucial train of thought and, if we’re not careful, send us down the rabbit hole of distractions.
Continuous partial attention seems to be the default mode of operation for many an office worker, when in reality it should be bouts of deep concentration with healthy breaks in-between.
Some have tried to mix things up with technological solutions. But is that the right approach? Let's have a look at some of the options.
Eulogy for the Inbox
Email has long needed a solution for notification overload.
I’m still in mourning at the death of Google’s Inbox, an experimental form of Gmail that cleverly bundled promotions and updates away from the main email inbox. This meant I only got notifications for actual human-typed emails meant specifically for me, and could sift through the non-urgent stuff at my leisure.
Inbox was canned in early 2019 without much of an explanation, although the fact it didn’t have space for ads like Gmail does probably contribute.
Sadly, life after Inbox seems like a massive step backwards. I’m now suffering from an overload of useless notifications, and I’m having to train Gmail to understand that emails from my dad about Manchester United’s dire recent footballing performances are more important than emails from Manchester United trying to sell me branded socks. It's a struggle.
The dilemma now lies in my company-cultural outlook - do I switch all notifications off, to improve my concentration and therefore quality of work? Or leave them on so I don’t miss out an ‘urgent’ client request?
Maybe I should switch to Slack instead...
Breaking up with Slack
Slack promised to end the scourge of constant workplace emails with its real-time chat and clever topic structure. But it turns out it wasn’t setting out to change the culture of always-on communication; it just moved it to a different platform.
In his personal breakup letter to Slack, Samuel Hulick laments the fact that his productivity actually took a dive after moving to Slack:
"I thought you were providing some relief from the torrential influx of messages, alerts, and notifications that I was receiving on a daily basis. Me + Slack = Fewer distractions and more productivity, I thought at the time. I have to say, though, that I’ve since found it to be the opposite… With you in my life, I’ve received exponentially more messages than I ever have before. And while it’s been awesome to have such a connection with you, it has been absolutely brutal on my productivity."
He goes on to describe how Slack promotes an ‘always-on’ culture, rather than ‘check-in occasionally and respond’ (asynchronous) form of communicating.
This kind of culture, Samuel says, works in a feedback loop:
"I’m finding that “always on” tendency to be a self-perpetuating feedback loop. The more everyone’s hanging out, the more conversations take place. The more conversations take place, the more everyone’s expected to participate.”
He complains that at least with email, the constant stream of to-do items created by strangers were all in one place. Slack just splits them into different chat rooms and conversations.
With this type of workplace chat, the expectations of having to know things and having to reply to things are unclear. Is it real time? Should I reply now or later?
We like the Twist approach - it's an organisational chat app that's "respectful of your team’s time and attention", structuring deeper conversations that aren't meant to be checked every other minute.
This scenario might be familiar: you get a question from a friend on WhatsApp. You see the notification but don’t open the app, otherwise that’ll show them the two blue ticks indicating you’ve read the message and are therefore obligated to reply. Instead, you keep them one-ticked until you’re ready to reply, pretending you’ve only just seen it at that point.
Yes, it’s petty, but we all do it. Do we want this sort of mentality with work communication, too?
Open Office Dilemmas
Tech isn't the only way I'm having my attention strained. Despite wearing headphones for most of the day, there's usually a reason for someone to give me a little wave and stop for a chat or ask a question.
We’re past the days where having an open office guaranteed creative inspiration round every corner. Despite the claims of nicely-decorated coworking spaces, having a bunch of people in a shared space doing cognitively-demanding work means distractions are rife.
I rent a desk in a coworking space and while I love it here, at least once a week I find myself cursing certain folk who have long, loud phone conversations that the other 25 people nearby don’t need or want to hear, but are forced to listen to.
As much as it pains me to say, having 100% uninterrupted concentration is an unrealistic goal in most environments. We need to be able to talk to each other and respond to what's happening. Plus avoiding people all the time gets a bit lonely.
A better way of communicating
So if we can’t rely on tech solutions, and open offices are always going to be somewhat distracting, are there ways we can reshape our behaviours instead?
I think the most effective way to deal with this issue is batching. This is simply the act of setting specific times of day that you're open to notifications and interruptions, rather than just being always available.
This would involve, for example, shutting off your notifications completely between certain times, and letting your colleagues / clients know that you don't respond to emails between 12 and 3pm (or whatever works for you).
What do you think? Is this a problem destined never to be solved?