Improving Productivity and Focus by Removing Distractions

I am a remote worker. This means that I, and the majority of the people I work with also work remotely. This may be from their home, from a shared workspace, from a cafe or even in the middle of a field if they choose to.

When you work remotely you have one obvious disadvantage. The people you work with day-in and day-out are not (usually) physically in your remote work space. Most organisations fill this space by using tools such as Slack or Email.

Virtual team workspaces such as Slack and also Email are too often used these days, with the expectation that you will reply instantly.

They are being used like the the digital equivalent of a team member or your boss coming up to your desk in a physical office space, and having a quick chat with you about their project.

The difference between a real office work space and Slack (or Email) is this: If you were not at your desk, your boss would not keep talking to it, until you returned to it would they?

Well, I guess it depends how irrational your boss is (and I’ve known some pretty ‘eccentric’ ones in my time).

Because of this expectation of quick immediate responses, a lot of people that I know have their emails and Slack constantly open, and react to every single notification. This, in my opinion, is not good for anybodies mental health (and this is exactly how I used to behave until I embraced the methods I have laid out in this article).

Reactive not Proactive

Reacting to constant barrage of notifications is distracting. It removes focus from the task in hand.

Without focus, you cannot efficiently deal with your daily tasks. Things take longer than they should and details get missed, in short, your productivity goes down.

When you are being reactive to all these notifications, you automatically go into ‘firefighting’ mode, where everything needs a solution immediately, and fast. This method of working causes massive and unwarranted levels of anxiety.

Let’s stop a minute, breathe, and realise what the main issue is.

Communication Channels

It is communication channel 101 that you should use the right form of communication channel for the right sort of communication. You wouldn’t send an email about a fire in the office. Email is not an ‘urgent’ form of communication. Nor is instant messaging for that matter (which can pretty much describe Slack).

When things are urgent, a good old classic phone call is the most suitable form of communication.

Even in the business world where Service Level Agreements (SLA) exist that include email support, response times for support requests are well-defined. I do not recall a single SLA’s stating that the support team will respond immediately to any issue. This would quickly become unsustainable.

It occurred to me that this reactive method of using Slack and Emails had to stop. I needed my interaction with them to be on my terms. I would no longer be controlled by my notifications.

Turning off Notifications – My Journey

I have a business phone. It is also my personal phone, which means that I am never really away from work. If I see a notification I have the urge to check immediately what it is, but not all notifications deserve the attention they get.

Step 1: Turn Off Phone Notifications

In step 1 of my Journey I turned off notifications for Slack and Email on my phone. To be honest, I found this pretty simple and painless to do.

I removed the little red dot that indicates how many unread messages there are in each application, I turned off the banners, I turned off the buzzing and I turned off the noise.

Doing this gave me the empowerment I needed to check these applications on my terms. I would check them when I was working and at my desk.

From now on I would only use these applications on my phone if I were not at my usual place of work, and I needed to check-in for some reason, but when I did this, it would be at a convenient time of my choosing.

Step 2: Turn Off Computer Notifications

Step 2 was the hardest part of my journey. I would no longer have my emails and Slack open all day. I informed all staff that I would only be checking Slack once every couple of hours (between other daily tasks), and I wrote an amendment to my email footer stating that I would only be picking up emails twice a day.

I told staff that if they needed an immediate response from me then call my phone number, failing that, send me a text message as I would not be muting be these forms of notifications.

It took me a week longer that I had planned to ‘let go’. This is just because of the habit I had formed  checking slack constantly. Breaking a habit is a hard thing to do.

But, I eased myself into it. I went half a day without checking constantly at first. Then a day, and finally a full week (and I’m still doing it today).

Nobody seemed to realise that I wasn’t there, and the company I worked for didn’t seem to suffer at all. Things were just not as urgent as I had perceived. The problem that was causing so much anxiety for me (as often is the case) was me!

Step 3: Check Your Applications on Your Terms

If you follow the advice of this article, you may want to start turning off the notifications off all applications that do not need instant attention.

For example, if you are a social media user, why not check Facebook and Twitter when it suits you? Schedule time for them if you like.

It will cut down distractions, reduce anxiety and help you focus and become more productive.

Bonus Step: Inbox Zero

When you stop checking your emails as soon as they arrive, you actually start to get them piling up in your inbox! Oh no, more anxiety!

Relax, we have a handle on that. Just use the Inbox Zero approach.

There are a million and one tutorials online about how to achieve Inbox Zero, but I just use the following rules:

  1. Check my email twice a day
  2. Quickly skim the emails in the inbox and perform triage
  3. If the email is junk such as a newsletter I don’t want to read, or a notification of something that you have been copied into – Delete it (unsubscribe first if you need to)
  4. If the email needs action, and the action is small – Do it there and then!
  5. If the email needs reading in detail, but you don’t have the time, or if the email needs action, and it will take significant effort – Schedule time in your diary to do it, and then, if your email client supports it snooze the email until you are available to do that task

Using these techniques will quickly help you take back control of your inbox.

Office Replacement Therapy

When dealing with Slack in the ways described above, how do you deal with regular old physical office things like meetings, water cooler chat, banter, ideas, lunch time conversations and all the other ‘office’ stuff that you might be currently doing in Slack?

Never fear, all of these things are still available for you, just use the right tool for the right job!

Meetings

Implement a daily standup routine that uses the Slack calling feature, and 99% of the things that were said in Slack will now be covered off by this one short meeting.

Water Cooler Chatter / Lunch Time Chat

If you are now a remote worker who used to work in a physical space, did the people who were eating lunch or stood by the water cooler in your physical office space always do it at the same time as you?

I bet they didn’t, so you can just open up Slack, or an instant messenger application and talk to whoever is available at the time.

Ideas and Innovation

Slack is fantastic, you can dump your idea in a relevant channel, and people can feedback when they get the chance.

If you need something more instant, bring it up in a meeting, or schedule a meeting if it is super important.

Banter

Ok, banter might not be instant anymore, but on the plus side, banter can now go on for weeks, and it is now aided by the clever use of animated gifs!

By Matt Watson

Wordpress Developer for Hire. Developer, Father, Husband, Blogger - I do great things on the Web.