For those of us in the knowledge profession, who, to oversimplify, are paid to produce or analyse ideas and information, a critical success factor is our ability to apply our brain’s maximum potential. Yet, in the bustling modern work environment, a dangerous predator lurks: distraction.

An all-too-common complaint in the workplace is that of ‘drowning in email’. Now, the odds are at this point some of you are thinking: “Email? Nobody uses email these days? We’re all on Slack now, Grandpa! Email is dead!”

If that’s the case, then please hold that thought, just for a moment.

Imagine if you will, that we still live in a world where email is the primary means of digital correspondence in the workplace. You log in to your computer in the morning to find dozens of new emails. You return from lunch and five fresh messages now roost in your inbox, just waiting to peck away at your chances of checking off the afternoon’s to-do list. You’re sick and tired of spending your days climbing Mount Inbox, only to find that just as you near the summit, another peak looms before you. And on that peak, some git is airlifting stuff on top.

So here we are in our near-past, email-dominated world, halfway up a mountain we don’t want to climb, while at ground level, vultures circle our professional goals and aspirations. Inbox overload is killing our ability to concentrate on what’s actually important.

Ok, are you still holding that thought about email being dead? Great. Here we go.

Email is dead! Long live Slack!

One day, not so long ago, a little app called Slack popped into existence. Slack, an instant message-based communication app, came to be because its creator, a company called Tiny Speck, needed a team collaboration tool to help with the development of a multiplayer online game. In 2014, they released Slack for public release, and since then the tool has seen great success. Slack, according to its co-founder Stewart Butterfield, was “designed to replace email with group-based instant messaging”. Since then, Slack’s popularity in the modern office environment has snowballed.

Slack resembles a chatroom where you converse with colleagues in rooms called ‘channels’, or via direct (private) messages. You can create a channel for a project, topic, team, or pretty much anything else you like. When someone messages you directly using your @username, you even get a notification in the corner of your screen, and a sound effect too, if you like, so you won’t miss a thing.

With Slack, the emphasis is on immediacy of communication. Read the features page, and you’ll see there’s a heavy emphasis on helping users to be present with their team’s activity as-it-happens. Share files, provide feedback, have discussions and make group decisions, all in one place. And with apps for web browsers and phones as well as a desktop application, you can take Slack wherever you go, so you’re always connected.

One of Slack’s many catchy tag lines is “Reclaim your workday”. According to their website, Slack’s customers “see an average 48.6% reduction in internal email, helping them to enjoy a simpler, more pleasant, and more productive work life”.

Simple as that then! Less email, plus more communication, equals more productivity. It sounds too good to be true, and it is. Because while a transition to a Slack-based workplace might reduce the size of your out-of-control email inbox, that doesn’t mean it will naturally increase your productivity as a result. Far from it. In fact, if anything, I think it runs the risk of reducing productivity.

I believe this is because in the act of ‘solving’ the problem of our ever-growing pile of email, Slack has thrown petrol on the fire of the real problem — the very thing that made email such a productivity-killer in the first place. That problem is attention theft.

Distraction inaction

You’ve probably experienced the following scenario: You are about to embark on a large, complex piece of work. In preparation, you’ve been to the bathroom, made yourself a cup of tea, fired up your ‘concentration’ music, and put your phone on silent. But despite taking these measures to condition yourself for some solid, thoughtful work, at some point not too far into the session, your attention is inevitably drawn to your phone.

When that happens, without forming a conscious thought about doing so, you unlock your phone and start scanning the home screen for notifications. You find one, and you probably should — you tell yourself — get rid of it straight away, just so you can get back to work. Because if you don’t — you say — you’ll wonder what it was about, and that’ll hurt your ability to concentrate. And so, you decide to watch the quick Facebook video that your cousin (who you don’t even like) posted of his cat (who you like even less) clawing a sofa to pieces, and then — you say — you’ll get right back to work.

So you watch the video, and yes, sure enough, there is a cat laying waste to a settee. So you give the video a thumbs-up and get back to what you were doing. Trouble is, you’ve forgotten precisely where you were, and it takes you a minute or so to find your place. Ten minutes later, you’ve regained momentum and are off and running again, more-or-less where you were before you stopped.

And that’s if you had your phone on silent. Now imagine it’s not your phone but your work computer that generates the distraction.

Welcome to Slack, which is apparently better than email, because now, rather than the neat pile of messages that wait patiently in your inbox to be addressed at your convenience, if someone wants your attention, they can just send you a direct message, or @reply you in a channel, and ‘ping!’ no more endless emails to filter through!

Now, all you have to do is be ready to look up from your report, design or article at any time, and react instantly to whatever comes your way, like you’re working at Burger King, trying to write your dissertation between every flip of a burger (yes, I’ve worked at BK, and I’m aware they have machines for that. But you get the idea. ?)

“But look how connected you are!” Slack would say, “See how transparent the workplace is now!” Yes, our fingers are now on the pulse of the entire team. Meanwhile, we’re missing out on realising our true potential, because our brains can’t produce their best output with all the switching around we make them do.

How many times have you looked back at the end of the day and thought “I feel like I didn’t get anything done today’. I bet that was a day where you went scarcely more than 30 minutes without being distracted. And, as ‘handy’ as it may seem, a tool like Slack used without restraint has the potential to make this problem ten times worse.

Attention: a precious commodity

Computer scientist Cal Newport, author and associate professor at Georgetown University asserts the formula:

Work Accomplished =  Time Spent x Intensity of Focus.

In other words, controlling where your attention is directed is a critical component in the quality of what we can produce.

Flitting reactively from one thing to another can prevent us from applying the best of our abilities and, despite having the appearance and possibly even the feeling of being productive (in the moment at least). Later, we struggle to look back and know for sure that we did any of those things particularly well.

Put another way, we work and learn best when, like a lens focusing sunlight on tinder to start a fire, we actively direct our brainpower onto what we want to accomplish, and thereby unleash far more of its potential.

Okay, we get it! You hate Slack!

Actually, no. As a tool to connect a team — particularly teams who aren’t based at the same location — I think Slack has many merits, just so long as we’re careful how we wield its power and don’t get carried away with Slack’s posturing as some sort of messianic ‘Email killer’, professing to solve all a workplace’s communication problems at a stroke.

My aim here is not to campaign for email over Slack. Such a reductive, subjective argument would be a waste of time. Clearly, email can wreak the exact same havoc on our effectiveness as can Slack, or any other app for that matter.

It’s not about the technology itself, but more our attitude towards its use, and whether it genuinely improves our lives. And when considering new tools, it’s important to remember that a ‘communication problem’ isn’t limited to a lack of communication, or the inability to communicate, but can also extend to ineffective, over-communication too.

Talk about it

Are we to ignore our colleagues and barricade ourselves within an impenetrable fortress of solitude? That, of course, is nonsense, and I’d be an idiot to call for the workplace — particularly the agency workplace — to become a place of individualism and disengagement.

Besides, it’s not our place to judge the way others communicate with us. In order to be successful, the modern office must learn to combine both shallow and deep work modes, and nowhere is this truer than in the agency environment.

At Createful, our office is a dynamic hub of creative energy, and rightfully so. But like any team striving to produce quality, there must also be opportunities to focus those fizzing particles into a powerful, directed beam, capable of creating impact.

At the risk of sounding like Grandpa again, email is quite well adapted for that mode of working. It works, for me at least, because of the concept of being able to close the email app when you need to be distraction-free and open it when you’re ready to tackle what’s inside, and once again focus, this time on separating signals from noise.

Slack, of course, is not the enemy. You can put it in ‘do not disturb’ mode, and then check it periodically. But this would be easier said than done in those workplaces (thankfully not my own), where a company-wide buy-in to a Slack-esque communication ethos may give rise to an expectation, possibly even a mandate, that people be ‘always reachable’.

There must be a happy middle-ground, where both between deep and shallow work can flourish. Maybe as teams, we should be talking about how best to use tools such as Slack, not only to find our optimal level of connectedness but also to maximise our ability to produce our very best work. One technique I have found helpful is to aim for periods of ‘disconnectedness’ each day. This isn’t always possible, and it’s important to set an expectation with colleagues first, rather than just going ‘off the radar’. But by forging a habit of making regular space and time for depth, I’ve found that switching into ‘deep mode’ becomes easier when opportunities do arise.

If you’re looking for strategies to improve focus, or just get more out of your day, whether at work or in life in general, I recommend checking out Cal’s book, Deep Work.

Signing off

Disclaimer: I would like to make it clear that I claim no credit for any scattered droplets of wisdom that may be wrung from this article. In one way or another, it is all gleaned from immersion in the work of the likes of Cal Newport, Tim Ferris and David Allen (creator of the Getting Things Done methodology).

Disclaimer (2): Please know that I by no means consider myself to be someone who has the productivity nut cracked, and I’d love to hear any ideas and suggestions you may have on the subject.

You may also like:

  • Drowning in email? Try this triage method, I find it really helpful in keeping my inbox as close to empty as possible
  • The Danger of Pseudo-Depth (Great read: I found the theory of attention residue particularly fascinating).