In 2015, I’d had it with the insane volume of communication I receive at work. I completely changed how I interact with messaging tools and every work day got better.
I’ve got 20+ automated systems spamming my inbox with low-value messages. I’m forced to be on distribution lists that send me all kinds of stuff I don’t care about. My calendar system defaults assume I’m always free for yet another meeting.
Worse are the incessant notifications flashing up on my screen. New email! IM! New email! New meeting invite! IM! They derail my train of thought constantly. The context switch back to code is demoralizingly expensive.
My home life is under attack too. Notifications on my smart phone want to keep my brain at work. I’ve heard HR folks refer to it as work/life integration rather than work/life balance. Probably a great culture for the company, but it’s not so great for me.
Research shows strong correlations between full inboxes and stress, interruption and productivity loss, interruption and lack of memory retention, and personal life problems with being always-connected to work. If you’ve experienced messaging overload you don’t need research to be convinced there are negative consequences.
What doesn’t work
I’m a software developer. I’d rather spend my the majority of my day thinking about and writing code. Toward that end, I’ve tried many of the popular book techniques to better manage my inbox, schedule, and instant message sessions. Sadly, all of them failed.
Most organization schemes fail because they:
- are built by and for unrepentant lovers of email.
- think email is work and is productive.
- want me to spend more time investing in email processing.
- demand building fancy inbox rules, message filing systems, and categorization flags.
- don’t defend me from interruption.
- train your coworkers to expect faster response time from you.
Here’s what I did to make messaging work for me.
I am disconnected by default
- I removed all access to all corporate email and messaging from my mobile phone and devices at home.
- I close my email app except for when I deliberately read/respond to email. 15 mins at 10AM and 15 minutes at 4PM.
- I silenced all notifications in my email client and on my system.
- I close my instant messaging app whenever I need to focus without interruption.
I only have 2 inbox rules
- Rule #1 keeps anything from (small) my inner circle in my inbox.
- Rule #2 moves everything else to a separate folder.
I am busy by default
- I start my day with working on software, not reading email.
- I set my default instant messaging status to busy.
- I block off time on my calendar when I’m typically productive writing code; I only show free for meetings between 10AM and 2PM.
- I don’t accept meeting requests unless they are booked a day in advance.
I found better ways to stay connected
- I take a picture of my calendar at the end of each day so I don’t miss the meetings I’ve agreed to attend.
- I try to make sure others know the best ways to communicate with me.
- I put in extra effort to regularly talk with my coworkers so they don’t misinterpret lack of an instant response as rejection.
- I only instant message others when I need something that is urgent and important.
- I send fewer email messages by focusing on concise and complete writing.
- I keep my task board status up to date.
- I send one status mail per week to my immediate team so my work doesn’t become invisible.
I had one case where I missed an early morning meeting that was scheduled the previous evening. When the meeting organizer asked why I didn’t attend, I told him I didn’t see the invite because I don’t read email after work. He stunned me by replying, “I guess I’ll have to schedule meetings more in advance”.
Today, I am better rested and more focused at work. At home, I’m present for my family and myself. My nonsense email volume is down and I get more coding time.