Three weeks off Slack [INSERT YOUR IM APP HERE] — and I never wanna go back.

Image borrowed from: https://blog.rescuetime.com/slack-focus-guide/

There’s a common trend of shutting down your Facebook or other social apps — and this has come back to the top of the discussion board with the recent move by Whatsapp to share data with Facebook, the social shut down of Donald Trump’s accounts, among other reasons in the continuous battle for our privacy and sanity. I receive a message from friends every other day that they’re leaving some social app or other.

However, there are equally intrusive, high-volume alert apps, that affect our lives as adversely as social apps that we don’t have the same luxury of just departing from. I’m talking about the beloved corporate “productivity” apps — and particularly instant messaging apps, read: Slack, Basecamp, Teams et al.

We work around the alert fatigue created by these apps by committing to specific “windows” where we check Slack, or shut down or snooze notifications from time to time, but this doesn’t stop the deluge of messages from coming in — we’re just postponing them until later, and even when we think we’re disconnecting — we just can’t disconnect.

And like my favorite quote from the Social Dilemma:

There are only two industries that call their customers “users”, illegal drugs and software. — Edward Tufte

Our modern apps were created to be psychologically addictive, like drugs.

Detoxing

But here I am, leaving a corporate setting for the first time in….well, EVER.

And I can honestly say the best thing that has happened to me is NOT HAVING TO CHECK ANY INSTANT MESSAGING APPS. I didn’t realize how liberating this simple change would be for me. (This doesn’t mean I have stopped checking personal IM apps — but I get to decide if, when and how I utilize them.)

This disconnection has affected me positively in multiple ways and I find myself thinking…I don’t want to go back. In a period of transition and change, going into yet another COVID-19 induced lockdown, and other personal and life challenges, this has been a welcome change of pace.

Some of the ways this has improved my well-being:

  1. REDUCED STRESS. First and foremost, I can feel a significant reduction in stress. Even when I was “off-hours” or on weekends — the first thing I’d do in the morning or before going to bed was make sure there weren’t any urgent messages festering in Slack. (This is especially complex in today’s global remote setting — where people respond in completely different times zones, on non-working days or hours, and the onus is on YOU to be a team player.) And it was a constant source of stress for me. I recall days when I suddenly remembered a thread I forgot to respond to, and quickly responding on my mobile at 2AM that I’ll follow up the next day during working hours. It was completely stressful and out of hand how constant the expectation for response is. There are emails I respond to four days later — and while not ideal, it’s simply not the end of the world. You open with an apology for the delay, and move on. There isn’t nearly as much slack with IM apps.
  2. FREEDOM. I have significantly MORE free time. Once upon a time at the end of the day you would take an hour or so to just go over your inbox and respond to any emails you received during the day. Enter corporate instant messaging. Slack took this model and fragmented it across multiple channels, threads, and DMs. So instead of having to check ONE inbox and single-threadedly respond to open items. With Slack you have a multi-hellscape of tens of channels (if not more) you need to check, alerts for being tagged in certain threads that you suddenly need to read up on and understand the context of, and then ultimately DM requests (which are more like emails). And this is just your one corporate Slack. Now imagine being in a role (like DevRel) that requires you to be active in multiple Slack communities. You get the idea. (One of my colleagues once told me my Slack was scary when I was sharing screen in a meeting. It was a horror show of a dystopian life I was miserable in). Now imagine you have many business applications that have a similar alerting model — it became unmanageable and a second job after my job. With no Slack — I’ve actually discovered (three years in delay) that there’s Jeopardy! on Netflix! Best part of my day.
  3. ARTICULATION. I’ve found that the need to rapidly respond to an unending barrage of immediate messages had the side effect of making my communication sloppy. When once upon a time I would take the time to craft an intelligent, well-substantiated response with supporting data, perhaps even with a reference document — you suddenly provide half-assed answers to many times unclear questions — to postpone the work that is constant, intrusive and requires immediate attention. I can understand why there is often miscommunication, or why comments are many times misconstrued — because the answers need to remain within a certain reasonable character-limit that isn’t necessarily conducive to all discussions. Haste makes waste the age-old adage, or one that my son recently reminded me of ‘the words of the wise are spoken peacefully’, that he learned in kindergarten. I learned to apply this. To think before speaking, than to just fire off responses in a frenzy. Instead, I now take the time to think my responses through, research, and provide well-crafted and useful responses.

Detoxing When you Can’t Disconnect

Ok, so I know what you’re thinking — that’s all great when you can actually disconnect — GOOD FOR YOU GENIUS… but how does this help me when I can’t really disconnect?!

Things you can do, or changes you can help lead.

  1. Talk to HR and see if you can find a time to create a silent “day” or bulk of time for your time zone that everyone respects. France attempted to back this by law, and while I’m not sure this is practically applicable — you can help foster a culture that really only requires off-time communication when absolutely mission-critical and urgent.
  2. Take your off-time seriously. I found myself at near burnout because of the need to constantly be connected. If it’s not urgent — delay it until you’re back in office. Even simply NOT ANSWERING enforces the respect for your private time.
  3. Educate people on “naked pings”. I learned this terminology from one of my favorite talks in recent times (No, really, don’t chuck everything in Slack: communications for distributed teams by Florian Haas — and a more recent version updated for our COVID-19 Zoom reality). A naked ping is one without context that requires immediate attention, like a shoulder tap. (E.g. “hi”, “got a second”). Watch this talk for some really great tips on managing communication and collaboration in a distributed setting.
  4. Exit channels you don’t really need to be in. It’s hard at first, particularly when you’re “invited” (i.e. added against your will) to a channel because someone thought to tag you in single thread. Once you’ve responded — feel free to exit. If they need you again, they’ll be sure to add you again.
  5. If you’re in multiple workspaces and don’t need notifications for all your groups — make sure to disable notifications or define the specific notifications that are relevant for each workspace. I’ve found changing the alert tones also helps me to follow which workspace is pinging and ponging — and, of course, some are less urgent than others.

Some of these may be obvious suggestions — but I’ve found that they helped me immensely when I simply couldn’t manage the omni-channel, omni-app alert fatigue.

Ultimately only we can really be the ones to properly care for our own well-being, and we have a tendency to put our own needs second to our employer’s or other people’s.

Please don’t do this. Burnout is a terrible thing that we need to avoid at all costs — and it’s one alert closer than we all imagine.

A little zany somewhat brainy, and a tireless crusader for social justice.