These three features of modern office life are mortal enemies of productivity according to the authors of three different recently published productivity books -- Indistractable, Deep Work, and Make Time:
Today, I want to discuss #3 – why synchronous online communication is so distracting, and what to do about it.
Communication channels can be categorized as synchronous (immediate response) and asynchronous (delayed response). Synchronous communication channels include in-person meetings, phone calls, and teleconferencing conversations. Many would describe email, Google Hangouts, Slack, and SMS as asynchronous communication channels because they don’t necessarily require an immediate response.
With synchronous communication, the rules are clear. You know when the communication begins and ends. You know when a response is required. And you get a lot of helpful information from tone of voice and potentially body language.
That’s not true of online asynchronous channels. Or, asynchronish communication channels (more on that later).
Here’s what’s broken about online asynchronous communication, and how to fix it.
In a post about why he’s breaking up with Slack, UX Designer Samuel Hulick describes channels with ambiguous response time expectations as “asynchronish.” The trouble is that no one knows what’s expected of them. Are you supposed to respond to Slack messages in real time? What about when you’re trying to do heads-down work? What about outside of working hours?
Even email can be asynchronish if people you work with sometimes expect an immediate response.
Because no one knows when to expect a response, asynchronish communication introduces unpredictable delays into the communication process and creates considerable ambiguity that you don’t find in phone calls and meetings, such as:
- Is my conversation partner distracted or done with this conversation?
- Have we settled on an answer yet? (especially difficult in a group exchange)
- When should I respond or stay silent?
- Am I holding up the decision-making process?
- Do I need to clarify with a follow-up message?
- Did everyone understand my point?
Asynchronish communication also wastes time. While email measurably reduced the time the average worker spent in meetings, “The dream of replacing the quick phone call with an even quicker e-mail message didn’t come to fruition,” Deep Work author Cal Newport wrote in the New Yorker. “Instead, what once could have been resolved in a few minutes on the phone now takes a dozen back-and-forth messages to sort out.” And that doesn’t include the time people waste waiting for a response on asynchronish communication tools.
Worse still, the constant interruptions from asynchronish communication tools make the time you do have less productive. Writer Blake Thorne wrote a list of the benefits of asynchronous communication. Number-one is “The ability to build large stretches of uninterrupted focus time.” But according to RescueTime, the average worker checks their email inbox or messenger service once every six minutes.
No one gets promoted because they answered every message immediately. The kind of work that moves the needle for an organization requires long stretches of uninterrupted time to complete. Cal Newport calls this “deep work.” Getting to this level of productivity requires Focus Time. Here’s how to get more of it.
The art of the delayed response
As much as possible, remove asynchronish communication from your work life. The best way to do this is to take advantage of fluid expectations around response times. Set communication norms and boundaries that work for -- instead of against -- your productivity.
To reclaim your time at work, the aforementioned authors all advise workers to delay responding to incoming messages. This serves a few purposes:
- It breaks the expectation of an instant response.
- It gives you time to respond more thoughtfully, and ideally reduce the total number of messages.
- It reduces the total amount of time in a given day you’re spending on messaging.
Here are a few more tips to ban asynchronish messages.
- Set aside some time once or twice per day to respond to all incoming messages.
- Move multi-stakeholder, complex planning and strategy discussions to synchronous channels.
- Replace constant Slack chatter with short, frequent meetings (think Scrum standups).
- Set professor-style office hours for synchronous chats.
Asyncronish communication is communication that is sometimes synchronous and sometimes not, depending on the situation. If you’re not sure how long you can wait before responding, and you’re not sure how long it’s going to take someone to get back to you, you’re dealing with asynchronish communication.
Besides being confusing and frustrating, asynchronish communication wastes time and creates unnecessary interruptions that break up your valuable Focus Time. The solution is to ban asynchronish communication from your work life as much as possible by delaying your responses to incoming messages, checking for new messages less often, and moving some communication to synchronous channels.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any solutions for open-office floor plans.
To open up even more Focus Time, try Clockwise.
Read next: The best time management books.