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Stop Checking Email So Often (2015) (nytimes.com)
222 points by colinprince on Jan 26, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 169 comments

I don't mean to hijack the focus from email specifically, but i find slack suffers from the same, if not worse, issue. Without exception, the most productive days i have had since my team adopted slack are the days when i forget to open it in the mornings, and achieve hours of uninterrupted work.

All of these conversations, be it open-office/email/slack/etc are a rehashing of something we all know: fewer distractions leads to increased productivity. The trick is to balance that with collaboration and help channels, so the product and collective productivity of a team is improved, not just an individual's.

I work remotely from the rest of my team, and only started a few months ago. Often, I have quick questions or clarifications that I can't ask about in person, and need to ask over Slack. Sometimes I don't get responses for hours (meetings, busy, etc), which blocks me on my tasks for the rest of the day. I would be immensely less productive without reasonable latency back-and-forth.

I get needing time without distractions - but when your work is used / others are dependent on it, how do you tradeoff that support?

So I think it is necessary to differentiate between "deep work" jobs (See Cal Newport's blog/books...) and "interrupt driven" jobs. Engineering design generally is a "deep work" job. Long periods of uninterrupted concentration are key to productivity.

Other jobs, like receptionist and office managers, for instance, are interrupt-driven. Receptionists add value by responding quickly and handling a continuous stream requests.

Now let's talk about engineering managers. Being an engineering manager is IMHO, an interrupt-driven job. The job of an engineering manager is to tell you where to find answers to your questions, or on a good day, actually answer the question. The friction comes when an engineering manager does not understand that the interrupt-driven nature of his/her job is not reciprocal. A good manager will handle interrupts quickly, but only very judiciously use the power to interrupt.

Another source of confusion is dev/ops. Anything operational will tend to be interrupt driven. An engineering manager that has been running a high-functioning dev/ops team that is a team of crack fire-fighters might be a very disruptive force in a design engineering team if that manager expects a constant volley of chat messages among the team.

It's perhaps more accurate to say there are 'deep work' tasks, and there are 'interrupt driven' tasks, and any job is a combination of both, in various ratios. Often you can't even tell ahead of time whether a given job is going to be mostly one or the other.

Maybe what we need is a system where instant messages are allowed, but it imposes a cost of some kind to the person initiating it, so that it won't be used frivolously. Like the proof-of-work antispam captchas, except it should take ~30 seconds and be just once per conversation (defined as ending when 5 minutes go by without message; first replies are free).

We could also add a social cost by displaying how often each user has used this feature in the past 24 hours, next to their username.

This is a great point. It's really important to recognize the nature of different tasks and to build different habits around them.

As a startup founder, by far my two biggest tasks are customer acquisition and development. The former is interrupt-driven while the latter is emphatically deep work.

Right now, I try to address this by blocking off 4 hours a day for deep work and the rest of the time is available for sales and general operations. It's working okay but the big problem is that I have an added stress of worrying what important customer messages I might be missing during my deep work time.

How about just a phone call (or two, to break through “do not disturb”), or tapping on their shoulder to get their attention? That's what we do when we really need someone right now rather than when they come back up for air in the next hour or two.

That, plus simply being mindful of the meaning of “deep work” and people working in roles that need that kind of concentration.

I don't need an app for this.

If you set Slack to do-not-disturb, people sending a direct message to you will be warned that you won't be notified and might not see it -- but will be given an option to "punch through" the do-not-disturb setting for important, interruption-worthy messages. That seems to largely achieve what you describe.

> It's perhaps more accurate to say there are 'deep work' tasks, and there are 'interrupt driven' tasks, and any job is a combination of both, in various ratios. Often you can't even tell ahead of time whether a given job is going to be mostly one or the other.

A reasonable model.

> Maybe what we need is...

I think Cal Newport belongs to the "intermittent hermit" school of thought...

I think you've hit on something. I like my days to be deep work driven as that's where I feel productivity and satisfaction. But, as my role has expanded I actually need to be interrupt driven. When you're stuck in a cross over period, trying to do deep work while holding the team back due to delays in responses, it gets frustrating.

Thank you for helping me understand this dynamic.

This doesn't seem to be the answer for a scrum team. Often you have questions for other engineers, on your team. A product owner is also not interrupt driven and is hopefully digesting stories or talking to stakeholders.

If engineering/qa/architecture is the question, xp may help.

Everyone, please stop starting your statements with "so."

If your bosses aren't planning to lay everyone off in a month, there has got to be something slightly-lower priority to be working on. Unless you're on the critical path, spending half a day blocked on your primary task and focusing on a secondary priority is no big deal (or, at least, shouldn't be). If you are on the critical path, scoop up that phone and start dialing.

Since you're new there, you might not have the assignments and/or enough responsibility to know what else needs to be done. But that should happen soon, and there is no reason not to proactively talk to your boss about secondary goals to focus on when you're blocked waiting on communication.

I think it's just good management to convey the bigger picture to everyone. Between the steady stream of tickets assigned to me and other existing responsibility I haven't had to ask my boss "what do I work on now?" in... like... 3 or 4 years.

Sorry, meant to imply I was blocked on that specific task, which is often the highest priority one, rather than on all tasks. Unfortunately, the highest priority ones are often the most difficult and trickiest, requiring occasional questions when I run into things other have had experience in. Is the loss in time spent on high priority items worth fewer quick distractions to the rest of the team?

Oh, OK. I get where you're coming from now.

Is the loss in time spent on high priority items worth fewer quick distractions to the rest of the team?

It all depends on the tasks and your particular work environment. It's going to vary from place to place, so I don't have anything specific to tell you other than this kind of prioritization is the kind of conversation you should be comfortable having with your lead. Or at a status meeting or standup, if your process makes that the better place to ask.

I work at an agency where there is a steady stream of tickets. We are very concious of the cost of task switching. In the case where you are blocked on a task and it is left unfinished in favor of a new task of lower priority, when you finally get an answer on the first task you often have to dro the second task abruptly. So you have two unfinished tasks and all the mind balls you were juggling are dropped on the floor.

However we are also an almost entirely engineering team so there is no resource for getting unblocked that isn't bugging another developer who then drops his mind balls.

It is just the reality of it though, we have tickets and tasks to complete and we can work toward being more efficient, making sure we aren't going to get blocked befor getting started on a ticket and such. It's all a balancing act and it's important to be aware of it, but I no longer get my knickers in a knot over it.

Doesn't Slack have a similar system to IRC, where you can specifically send a notification to someone by prefixing with their handle?

I've worked remotely for many years and this was never a problem. Need some company? Just read and follow a few channels. Want to get work done? Ignore client and code. If someone needs me, a notification + sound will pop up. Works fine with IRC, really.

That sounds a bit strange because there's always something else you could be doing while waiting for that answer? Either working on another issue, or trying to improve something without being asked to, or even just learning something that could (or not) be helpful sometime in the future. Worst case scenario: read some HN :-)

But really: doesn't working remotely mean that, when blocked, you can just leave the computer and do some life stuff, then come back a few hours later and continue from there?

Sure, I can always do something else instead, but that context switching is costly for me as well, when a minute-long conversation, though briefly distracting for a colleague, would have been able to keep me working at the task at hand.

How is context switching costly for you, but only briefly distracting for your colleague?

To me it's the difference between a few line exchange that is briefly distracting vs switching to working on a completely different task, getting up to speed on it just in time to have to switch back and refamiliarize myself with where I left off. Order of minutes vs hours.

In my experience the questions tend to cluster towards a small group of individuals; so from their perspective, you're the 5th interruption in line for the day and they've barely been able to start their own work.

That's one reason why I like the idea of taking forced breaks; they give you a scheduled time to handle brief interruptions, and if you're fairly regular people can tune in to your schedule(e.g. if you're always "working" the first 50 mins of an hour and "resting" the last 10 mins, it's easy to know whether you'd be able to quickly answer a question). Of course, the forced breaks are another form of an interruption from flow; it's still a trade-off.

Sorry for the late reply, but "briefly distracting" tells me it's clear you don't understand "the zone".

>>But really: doesn't working remotely mean that, when blocked, you can just leave the computer and do some life stuff, then come back a few hours later and continue from there?

Technically yes. In practice though, this only blurs the boundaries between work and leisure, as you find yourself working in evenings and weekends to make up for those down-times during the week when your team members were unreachable.

Excuse me, but if not getting in touch with your colleagues blocks you for the whole day then you probably have the bigger problems than just not getting your questions answered on time:

1. Maybe documentation is scarce, be it code comments or business requirements specs, user stories, epics, etc.

2. Maybe your tasks are ill defined, and you accepted your assignments without asking enough questions upfront...

3. Maybe you don't get enough workload (if you had many tasks to choose from it would be harder to get blocked on all of them)

4. maybe you lack some technical knowledge or other competencies needed to make the decisions yourself instead of asking others.

That is rubbish. Many reasonably complex projects require a reasonable amount of communication. This list sounds like you have only worked on 1 man toy projects.

Communication, yes. But synchronous, blocking communication?

You have an organizational problem there.

Again, I disagree.

Any reasonably complex codebase I have worked in has at least parts that only a few people understood. Even if n=3, you could still very easily be blocked when trying to find someone in the know...

Right, so an organizational and architectural problem. It's even got a specific term: Bus factor.


You have a problem. Disagreeing with me won't fix it. It's a common problem, but also a fixable one.

You're right that these are problems, but how long does it take to solve them?

1) Do you know of a way to document a significantly-sized application in such a way that it is not massively more efficient to ask a colleague for help than to go source-diving? Say we are talking about a rails app that has been maintained for 5 years and with a reasonably complete test suite.

2) Does a fresh-from-uni or perhaps 2-years-out-of-uni junior developer teach themselves how to ask just enough questions up-front that they don't need to ask more to unblock themselves?

4) How does one gain this technical knowledge if you are on a project and need to apply it but don't yet have it yourself?

Well put, thank you.

Re 2: Often tasks are even meant to be exploratory, where those questions can't be asked upon receiving the task, but only once enough investigation has been done and implementation questions are run into. Rather than a quick back and forth that keeps me progressing, I have to context-switch to something else, and spend time re-familiarizing myself with what I had done the day(s) before again.

    Do you know of a way to document a significantly-sized application in such a 
    way that it is not massively more efficient to ask a colleague for help than 
    to go source-diving? Say we are talking about a rails app that has been 
    maintained for 5 years and with a reasonably complete test suite.
Yes. You can draw architectural diagrams. You can create a wiki where people document problems and solutions. You can have broader design reviews where people talk about the ways in which they solved various problems and what considerations they took into account when coming up with those solutions. I agree with the other posters in this thread: if you're truly blocked (i.e. literally unable to work) because someone can't respond to your question, there is something deeply wrong with your codebase, or in the way in which your team communicates. Personally, I would expect anyone who's been on the team for more than few months to be largely self-sufficient when it comes to actually coding. Of course, there will be questions when there are multiple possible approaches to solve a given problem, and I would expect someone to raise a flag and ask about the relevant considerations. But in the absence of a reply, you should be able to pick an approach and push forward with it.

    Does a fresh-from-uni or perhaps 2-years-out-of-uni junior developer teach 
    themselves how to ask just enough questions up-front that they don't need to 
    ask more to unblock themselves?
Honestly, at some point, you have to learn your team's codebase. You say that it's massively more efficient for you to ask questions of colleagues than it is to go source diving. That, to me, indicates that you don't actually know your codebase very well. Again, this is a sign of a problem on the team. Either the source is so tangled that no one can hope to understand all of it, or people are becoming siloed - specializing in particular areas of the codebase in ways that leaves them unable to fix problems in other areas. It's all right to be better at one part of the code than another. For example, I'm better at some of the middle-tier/business-logic code than I am at UI work. But, in a pinch, I can jump in and help with UI if it's necessary.

    How does one gain this technical knowledge if you are on a project and need 
    to apply it but don't yet have it yourself?
I'll be honest. It's rough. You have to learn, and you have to realize that outside of university there aren't going to be TAs and professors to point you in the right direction. You will make mistakes. But that's the only way forward. Keep trying. Keep writing code. If you do something and it doesn't work, have a meeting in which you go over what you did, why it didn't work, and what you could have done better.

1, 4. Yes, documentation is absolutely scarce - given that culture, such back and forth is often required. Some configurations or details of a complex (and often legacy) system are opaque, and used infrequently enough that teamwide training on it isn't appropriate.

2. Yes, often my tasks are exploratory rather than implementation of a particular feature. Often the goal is to explore and then discuss my findings. When I can't just go up to someone's desk in person and ask them when they are free to discuss, Slack is a good resource to set up a meeting.

3. I definitely am not blocked on all, but the context switching hurts my productivity as well - to me, a quick response would have large benefits for me and a minimal distraction for my colleague.

Questions should be on slack.... answers should be on the wiki...

Then check the wiki before you ask a question. Query driven documentation.

I just write together what I need to know and combine into a single email or phone call.

Do you ever find that this approach leads to a subset of your questions being answered? I've found that asking n questions in a row frequently leads to only the nth question being answered (which I presume is often due to content being pushed "below the fold" on mobile devices).

Yes of course, because people are often busy or too lazy to think the answer through.

But that doesn't matter, I can work with the subset.

Sometimes the questions resolve themselves, sometimes I just write another email, it really depends.

You can't pick up the phone?

I wish I could put slack in a "burst-mode" Where it would only show new messages every N minutes. Ideally, I would have the self-discipline to only check it that often. In reality, if I was going to find a way to develop that self-discipline, I would have done so at some point in the past 10 years of searching. Code is much easier than applied psychology.

Suggestions welcome.

It is Cmd+Q for me. Tongue in cheek here, but you have the power. You have permission from me, bitexploder to close Slack and work for focused periods of 1-2 hours. Seriously though, it may be a little uncomfortable. If it seems to cause friction with colleagues just explain it. Ensure you block out time to be responsive, respond, and help others out. Slack should be a "help if I can" avenue not demand of your attention. I call it digest mode. Open once every hour or two when I am thinking hard. Email the same. Some mornings I let everyone know I am heads down and will come up for air and help out with things in the afternoon.

Our addiction to instant and easy answers can be very problematic. It is the only way. Some of the time when I feel the urge for distractions or chat or email I just sit with one or two apps open (Editor and music) and I sit there until the boredom wins and the task becomes more appealing. Once that hurdle is overcome things are great.

> Our addiction to instant and easy answers can be very problematic.

Bingo. The rub between not wanting to reinvent the wheel and being forced to think through it on your own is a very real tension. However, I really like what you say here. The notion of instant information and instant gratification has made us primarily information consumers. There's a very real benefit, in my opinion, to thinking through the situation without the external information inputs.

Both are good, but my sense (from anecdotal evidence, primarily) is that we're losing the thinking/reasoning our way through things in favor of "collaboration" which we cheapen as "information sharing."

I have spent some long weekends in the woods trying to be very still. Not meditatong really, just being bored and thinking. I think it helps me be okay being stuck for a while. Cal Newport discusses this in his book. Getting comfortable with boredom and short Internet embargos (among other things)

When I am hacking on Go or Python I will often launch pydoc or godoc and not visit the Internet at large for hours. Some times I end up implemeting something un-idiomatic or sub optimal. I think it is alright. You get a feel for when something should go to a Parking Lot that you can clear out in a bit. It may seem counterintuitive but it does not mess up Flow. Just whack a comment or placeholder and move on. I often find my brain was working on it in the background anyhow.

It is a sort of freedom. A rare sort these days.

This solution works less well when there are actual emergencies.

You can, however, configure slack to not notify you unless you are @'d specifically. This + minimizing slack is pretty effective. Most of our office works with this set up (so some people need to be pinged directly to get immediate responses)

People might need to know, but I think that the word spreads fast. For non-urgent stuff, talk in the channel. For urgent things, @ someone, or DM them.

The only thing you need then is the self control to not look at Slack every 30 seconds.

Slack is one of those sneaky things that can subvert culture or quasi-define it if a stronger force does not exert itself. We make it a policy that emergencies happen via telephone. We want people to be able to ignore Slack for a while and not be worried about something important popping up.

It can be hard when that is not an option because then someone has to let Slack occupy some amount of their brain space, just in case.

That would work for others, but my problem isn't external, it is internal. I would just re-open slack.

Why quit the app vs set your status to busy/DND?

I am lazy and I like for it to be 100% out of my mind. No seeing it on cmd+tab, etc. No temptation to stop by Slack as I change apps.

spotlight and a fast machine make it a few keystrokes to come back.

But given those issues, it seems the only reasonable approach is to practice the needed discipline to not do so. It can be difficult and uncomfortable, but possible for most people.

I think we agree in spirit. My argument is more about something like decision fatigue. There is simply a mental cost to even glancing at a distracting thing that you have struggled with. When you are first building a discipline you lack, even the smallest factors like that can overwhelm you, especially if your bucket of decision making power is all used up later in the day.

I have been on this agenda of simplifying my computing over the last couple of years and it has really made a difference. I don't need a special app for TODOs. I don't need yet another status bar agent pestering me to update itself. I don't need an IM client begging for my attention. We are builders and problem solvers, and we are paid to think really hard. Our computers and phones are devices that have a default mode that guides us toward content consumption and a bunch of "least bad" technologies.

If you implement a setup where your email reader is decoupled from the program that fetches emails, this is trivial to do.

Personally, I use mutt + mbsync. I have bound key 0 to call mbsync from mutt. I try to check email only twice per day [1].

I'm in the process of switching to gnus + mbsync. This has the additional advantage of gnus being close to a news reader, which is optimized for an inbox-zero way of reading.

Since my email often carries stressful news, I love having my inbox "paused". I pull emails. They are not pushed to me. Way saner.

[1] http://pmarchive.com/guide_to_personal_productivity.html

Could you maybe write a devtools extension which puts the page into offline mode for n minutes every n+1 minutes?

Could not agree more. Ive disabled Slack notifications on my phone entirely (and much prefer email over Slack; Slack creates an unnecessary sense of urgency).

Unless the shop is burning down, nothing needs my attention immediately. If it does, call my cell. Some things deserve purposeful friction.

I find Slack less distracting than email, simply because I spend far more time thinking about how to phrase my replies over email, while Slack is more conversational. That said, I've started limiting how often I check either, and have found that it helps with my workplace stress levels, as well as productivity.

In the old days, we had intranets, knowledge bases, wikis and we tried manfully but unsuccessfully to somehow get people to document the good shit so others could use it for reference material.

Seems we've now given up on that and the new working model is just to blurt out questions in some push system, bugging everyone in the process, and then hope that someone blurts back an answer.

I wish that I could install a version of Quora on my company's local network which would preserve that Q & A knowledge and make it more searchable.

Tangent: It has been 7 years since their founding. How does Quora make money?

Its surprising no-one's working on that, given Yammer is basically a SaaS Facebook.

Or maybe they are, but they can't be found. I've noticed this before, but you can't google for something like "SaaS version of Quora" because all you'll get is results - in Quora - about SaaS. Same for "in-house Quora". So maybe someone does offer a Quora-like product for the enterprise, but they're consigned to invisibility.

Askbot exists[1] -- its look-and-feel is more akin to StackOverflow than Quora, but it's pretty widely deployed[2][3]

[1]: https://askbot.com/ [2]: https://ask.fedoraproject.org/ [3]: https://ask.libreoffice.org/

The blurting has no bounds. I recently had someone tell me over slack that the company is contemplating a spin-off, blurting out a few lines describing the strategy, and asked if I could get back to them on possible system implementations / integrations / ideas. There were blurts along the lines of, 'and if we can't find a saas offering to integrate with, we might have to build our own, but maybe we should make it generic because there could be a market for it.....'. I was basically thinking, 'how about you fucking idiots carefully document a well considered, serious proposal, and then ask my advice. Or invite me to a brain-storming session, in person, so we have an actual discussion.'

'Blurt' seems like a good name for a chat system...

I mean, one of these unified communication/Facebook-clone thing-a-majiggers is called Yammer...


yeah but in slack you 'pin' that blurt to the channel and can accumulate useful blurts

Except searchability of pinned stuff is terrible and often the only way to see the entire message requires clicking on it which "scrolls" up that point in history, incurring the CPU, memory, and network load of getting everything in-between. This is horrifying when you're remote working from a country with somewhat dodgy Internet connectivity. IRC takes almost no bandwidth and an IRC client takes minimal system resources, Slack by comparison is a hog.

Documentation in a Wiki is way preferable.

What's your role in the team? How are you using slack?

If you're a team lead, or someone with significant business or technical knowledge, helping other people on slack might increase their productivity, and the productivity of the team. That may be more important than your own productivity, or it may even be your responsibility. In this case, not being available is unfair to your team.

I use the slack app which displays a notification icon in the task bar. When I get personal messages (which usually require immediate attention) the icon shows a red dot (I also get a notification). If people chat in public rooms the icon shows a blue dot (and I don't get a notification). I don't check slack, I just glance at color of the dot. Interrupts are pretty rare, and I'm always available if someone needs me. I'm not, however, a central member of the team, so people don't often come to me for technical or business advice. If I were, however, I wouldn't shut down their line of communication because "screw you, I need to work".

I think Slack feels good if you're the one managing the team. But if you're the one actually slogging away at building the thing, it's incredibly frustrating and makes it impossible to get into flow.

I thoroughly recommend Cal Newport's book "Deep Work" if you want to understand the drivers of this effect, and help make constructive arguments in favour of a less connected workplace.

(replied to the top thread, but it's applicable to everyone in this sub-threaD)

I completely agree. My experience was it started out well, and then the number of channels proliferates within an organization and before you know it you have 15 conversations going on in 15 different channels because creating channels is cheap and then you have direct person to person messages on top of that. It exponentiates pretty quickly. There seems to a real time expectation to Slack . Conversely I check email once an hour maybe.

> Without exception, the most productive days i have had since my team adopted slack are the days when i forget to open it in the mornings, and achieve hours of uninterrupted work.

"Productive" in what sense? In my experience that's a good way to spend hours writing some gnarly logic that will feel very satisfying to write... but not actually be what the user wanted.

You don't need continuous feedback every minute (or even every day). If you know what you're doing and get in a thrall, 'closed door' days can be amazing.

If I knew what I was doing I wouldn't be working for a company at all. I have the programming expertise but I don't have the business expertise. And I find the more granular back-and-forth I can have with someone who does, the better the end result.

It depends on what your role is. I'm a marketing analyst, and 80% of the communication I have is people checking up on their favorite project. I used to be the last cube at the end of a dead-end office, and my new cube is basically right be the door in a hallway-ish office. I'm half as productive because of all the people dropping in to ask me questions.

I think all the communication options we have make people anxious if we aren't communicating. It's like cell phones. People lose their minds if their phone breaks and people can't contact them immediately, but people survived for tens of thousands of years without that ability.

Well for tens of thousands of years people lived in close-knit communities where they could communicate with all their friends every day by talking to them. To recover that while being able to live in a city and choose our friends and gain all the advantages that come with that, we need other means of communication.

My phone's in for repair at the moment, so I'm very conscious of how much difference it makes to my life. Waiting is a lot more boring without it. I've had some good times that I wouldn't have been able to without modern communications (last-minute parties that I'd've missed if I hadn't been so easy to contact). And fundamentally I like talking to my friends (interestingly this is something that has changed as I've got older - when I was 20 or so I was much more content spending days at a time on my own).

I would certainly advise pruning any communication sources that don't bring you joy, KonMari-style. But don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I don't think moving to cities is the issue here. I think the ease in contacting far-flung friends is a bigger issue. People don't seek new friends when they can stay in contact with everyone they've ever met.

It's not just an issue for cities. One of my best friends is a high school teacher, and she said that kids told her they felt less lonely after a cell phone ban came in to effect. Before the ban kids would text their friends who weren't there if they didn't know anybody. After the ban they started making new friends at lunch, since they wouldn't choose a convenient spot and stare at their phone the entire time.

It's not like the city is a new construct.

I'm willing to trust people to be able to make their own choices. Some people find it easier to make friends than others; some of us can't always rely on strangers to even tolerate us, for various reasons. I'm a lot happier with communications technology than without it, and I wouldn't rob people of the ability to make a choice even if many of them choose wrong.

And I'm a consultant, give a silo of work to do and needing only occasional updates (couple times a week).

Have you tried playing around with the notification settings, or simply turning notifications off? I find Slack to be distracting in certain channels, or groups that you may join, but there are many ways to manage it to optimize for productivity.

The problem is that it creates a certain expectation of instant response if you are directly contacted.

I think it's the same for slack as it is for email: simply turn off notifications.

I'm finding the Pomodoro timer in Gnome really helpful on this front fwiw. YMMV

I try to use it when convenient such as sharing URLs or files, but we have an open office setup at my job, so it's easier to just talk to one another.

good points. and to expand on that I'd say a good percentage of HN posts/comments are a case of "newbs/young rediscovering/reinventing what us older folks figured out long ago, ad nauseum."

The older I get I have to sigh and skip over more and more of what's on HN.

I ban Slack through my hosts file at work. If someone wants to interrupt me, they have to get off their ass and come do so in person.

Why bother installing it then?

Parent probably means the web version (if there is one - I don't use Slack), judging from the mention of the hosts file. I've had to do things like that, due to my personal lack of self control.

Exactly. I also ban FB, Reddit, and much of the other bullshit at work (and on work laptop). HN is not banned (yet), since SNR is not zero here.

> FB, Reddit, and much of the other bullshit

If they're bullshit, how come you lack the discipline to abstain from checking them?

> HN is not banned (yet), since SNR is not zero here.

I might be misjudging, but you make it sound as if you're pretentious about the content you consume when actually you're placing external constraints trying to prevent yourself from consuming bullshit. In that case, more discipline would be the healthier solution.

I think this is especially important for developers. Our jobs are very intellectually complex, we have to constantly maintain a mental model of the code as we trace a bug back from the place it manifests to where it originated, as well as when formulating a solution to correct the bug that won't break anything else in the program.

When you get popped out of "the zone", you don't just lose the two minutes it takes you to answer your coworker's question, you also are losing the 15-30 minutes of context that you built up about the behavior of the problem.

Donald Knuth phrased it thusly: "Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don't have time for such study."

It's bothered me in the past, now I'm thinking about doing something about it. Like disabling desktop notifications in Outlook for anything that's not flagged Important.

> I think this is especially important for developers. Our jobs are very intellectually complex, we have to constantly maintain a mental model of the code as we trace a bug back from the place it manifests to where it originated, as well as when formulating a solution to correct the bug that won't break anything else in the program.

No one has posted it yet, so here it goes:


I've got it printed out and pinned to my bulletin board.

  > I'm thinking about doing something about it.
  > Like disabling desktop notifications in Outlook [...]
You haven't done that yet?

My method to stop compulsively checking messages yet still be responsive to my clients' support emails was to institute the Pomodoro Method (25 minutes on a task, 5 minutes off, repeat for the whole work day). I close off all communication (Slack, email, Skype, etc) for the 25 on-task minutes and only check them during the 5 minute breaks. If something urgent comes up, I dedicate my next 25-minute task period to dealing with that item.

This has broken me of my involuntary email/Slack/IM checking and instead keeps me focused on the task at hand.

But shouldn't you be using that 5 minutes for relaxing instead of diving back into stress.

Maybe an extended pomodoro session with an extra 3-5 minutes for team communication?

I've been mostly fine with my method because every 4 Pomodoro I take a long 30 minute break. Also, not every 5 minute sessions results in messages I need to read and respond to, so those are essentially breaks.

Getting stuff done is remarkably soothing.

I know that sounds kind of sad, but escaping the distractions and actually doing something is such a difficult task with the constant barrage of communication that I truly value it. It gives respite.

"A change is as good as a rest"

>"My method to stop compulsively checking messages yet still be responsive to my clients' support emails was to institute the Pomodoro Method (25 minutes on a task, 5 minutes off, repeat for the whole work day)."

This actually sounds very compulsive to me. I know everyone is different but for me to have an unwavering 30 minute cycle day in day out would drive me crazy.

Seriously. In this day in age, is email really the big threat? Email feels like bliss to me, compared to the constant bombardment of information via different instant messaging channels. Riot, Signal, Telegram, Wire and WhatsApp ― yes, they're all installed on my phone and they are constantly polling for my attention by blinking that notification led on my Android phone. Yuk.

Seriously, remove those apps. For the few apps I keep on my iPhone, THEY ALL have notifications DISABLED. No longer pestered by them, taunting me to log in again and look.

Uninstall them?

Hear hear. Email if it's not important. Call if it's important - but it better be important, and not a "quick question" or "I just emailed you something...".

Never heard of Riot, will try! Thanks!

I've read this before and I'm sure it was posted here. If I don't check my email 5-10 times daily I have 100+ message every few hours. I work in a company of 90,000 people and I'm a lead devops engineer supporting around 70 developers.

Checking my email hourly during business hours and once after 5pm keeps my inbox tidy and my stress level much lower. Last time I missed two days of work I came back to 800 messages and it tooks weeks to catch up. The stress of seeing 100s of messages is what gets to me. Constantly cleaning up my inbox is the only way to avoid that stress.

Now if I was allowed to develop infrastructure as code all day this would be very distracting. I hope for that Nirvana one day. However, since I do a lot of support and people depend on me I need to constantly react and switch gears.

I'm just a dev but my solution was due to my laziness. I use Outlook/exchange with folders for different areas and then add rules to automatically move them to each area. Dev is for my team with sub folders for areas of the world or team purpose. I do the same thing with QA. Everything else, especially build emails go into other folders.

This lets me glance at outlook and know a decent level of importance for new emails. If something lands in the index, i'll create a new filter most of the time.

Getting included on a bunch of email chains and even getting forwarded emails that I sent out piled up my inbox and I hated it. Took too much effort to go through the crap and keep track. I hate being in meetings and having to watch people go into a single inbox and never find anything.

I work for a software company making software, and I still think 25% of the time is wasted watching people fumble around on computers not knowing what they are doing.

You need to reduce the amount of incoming mail. How do people like you actually get any work done?

Alternatively, if someone gets that much email, it sounds like answering those emails is their primary job, and they should discharge some other responsibilities.

I've found that if I let my email sit for a bit, a lot of issues tend to get resolved without my input. I check my mail first thing in the morning and then usually again in the afternoon. I get an order of magnitude fewer emails than you though.

I find it really interesting that modern CPUs are designed for "interrupt coalescing," where they group interruptions into clusters. It’d be great if modern desktop/mobile OSes were designed for that: "Only notify me once every 5/10/30/60 minutes, but then tell me everything."

Would also fit well with the Pomodoro technique - https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique

I have never understood the pomodoro idea. When I'm busy writing code the last thing I want to happen is to be interrupted by an alarm.

That's exactly why I've never tried it. I haven't found many situations where I can clock in at a specific time and clock out a few minutes later. 15 minutes, 25 minutes, however long that clock is set for, what if I haven't even started to grasp the problem? And then I have to reset my mind?

Again, I haven't even tried it, but my technique usually consists of "start working on a problem, stop working when you need a break". Works pretty well, and there's no timer involved.

Pomodoro designed to solve procrastination issues, when you're spending time watching cats on youtube instead of starting to work. If you have no problems starting to work, you don't need pomodoro, just do your work.

There are trade offs to using pomodoro, but I find it's worth it. I get more work done with it than without it even taking into consideration distraction and switching costs.

I might be annoyed to be interrupted when I'm in the zone, but I don't procrastinate or lose focus during work intervals — being interrupted every 25 minutes is better than spending those 25 minutes scrolling through Reddit or HN.

Also, if a session ends and I'm really focused, I just ignore it and carry on working. Pomodoro is a framework, not a straitjacket.


It'd also save battery. I wish there was an easy way to set my phone to connect to the internet every 10-20 minutes. I don't want to have the 3G running the whole time, just let me know within a reasonable period of time if I have any new notifications.

Why stop at desktop OSes?

Why can't my phone batch up my texts, and just ping me 2 or 3 times a day?

This. I wish the mobile OSes provided a setting allowing me to coalesce interruptions around predefined points in time, regular (e.g. every 2 hours) or pre-defined (e.g. 11:00AM, 3:00PM, 18:00PM). This should be an OS-level setting for the user, not an API feature for app developers to support.

Disable sounds and check it out 2-3 times a day? You can set alarm clock if you want.

One of the things that's noticeably approved my life for personal emails is to simply reduce the amount you get. I objectively examine newsletters and other things as to if any value and if actionable do I ever take. I realized dozens of things I was subscribed to weren't adding value.

Removed all but a few. Now I naturally check personal email less because of less new mail coming.

Same with work emails. Those I can't unsubscribe from so I make rules to push them into a subfolder of a folder I always have minimized for 85%. Then 10% into subfolders in another expanded folder I do check. The rest hits my inbox.

As more inbox mail comes in. If it's something even semi consistent in nature. I'll add rule. Otherwise I'll view it and move on.

It's less about checking email as often. As simply having less email to read subject lines of, this indirectly causing less need to check email as frequently

When my manager stops freaking out when an email goes unanswered for 10 minutes (or I get a new job), then I'll stop checking my email so often.

If you check my comment history, you'll find I say this a lot:

When I last went job hunting, I would say to the interviewers:

1. I will check email 3 times a day. When I come in, around lunch, and before I leave. Is this a problem?

2. Do I need to use any kind of IM on this job?

If lots of email bother you, set your standards higher.

Edit: Reading other comments, I should add: I also point out that physically interrupting me in my cube is OK. Or calling me on my office phone. If it's urgent, come to me or call me. If not, send an email. People treat IM as "urgent" but then don't act as if it is. So I "ban" IM for myself.

> I will check email 3 times a day. When I come in, around lunch, and before I leave. Is this a problem?

Was going to say exactly that. Works for me too. I'm amazed more people don't do it.

I use a mail client set up so I'm not aware of any incoming email until I look for it....

Your manager isn't a god. (S)he's just your boss.

Tell them that you check email once an hour (or whatever interval you prefer) and respond to everything in batches. You find that allows you to better focus on your core work and that you're overall more productive that way. If (s)he asks you to change your routine just say no.

Try it. It's very empowering.

Some of my team have fought this battle and lost. If you don't respond, you get a tap on the shoulder which is even more distracting. Unfortunately, the number of people who find this annoying are in the minority, so it is what it is. If it's the worst thing I have to deal with at work, I'll live.

I'd prefer the manager getting up and tapping me on the shoulder even if that is more distracting. Then at whatever review you might have (or not) say that constant interruptions have a negative affect on the work you do. Your manager sounds like a bad one.

I don't want to heap the blame entirely on him. Other people I work with also hold the opinion that emails should be responded to as soon as possible, so he has support. It's all relative, and they certainly pay me well enough for the trouble.

Yes, its generally much faster to have a quick conversation rather than reply to an email.

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Distraction factor also counts. My comment was probably a little arrogant though. The reason I said I'd prefer that was so that the manager would have to expend effort to get an answer immediately, to offset my own distraction. "If I have to be distracted then I'm taking you down with me" kind of thing.

just offer him 2 options, either he chooses Responsiveness or Productivity. Cant have both.

He's chosen responsiveness

Worse yet, he expects both.

Generalized to communications - my phone serves as a notification hub for me and it's on vibrate almost exclusively. Mostly, it's not even in the same room as me.

Unless for specific intent, I don't ever have communication tools fired up on laptop with exception of SMS' and phone call notifications through Continuity.

When I tell people about this, I usually get "stop being selfish" / "get off your high-horse" looks. I don't really care.

Email is a social activity. It's not the greatest social activity, but it is more social than programming. I find myself drawn to it partly for this reason.

I don't know exactly what to do with that observation. But I know that the reason I check my email more than once a day is threefold: (1) to feel connected to other people, (2) to feel on top of things (the same urge that drives me to read the news), and (3) to stay out of trouble with work, in case there is some emergency on the website.

If I had a job where all I had to do was check email, and answer them from what was already in my head, that might actually be fulfilling. Or if all I had to do was work on one programming project per week, that would also be great. But email and programming don't mix well.

I have no problems not checking my email. Email has become the dumping ground for emphemera. Clingy bullshit from companies you have bought stuff from, people who whine, automated emails from so many different places despite adding new filters every week.

Want my attention? A handwritten note is actually the best way nowadays. Because I only check my work email once or twice per day, and I only check my personal email every two days or so.

I use a different mail for online accounts, shopping, whatever. I'm expecting that mail to be full of spam, so I don't even check it (except for reseting passwords).

For the external sources, there is of course not much you can do (except a filter for "unsubscribe" to catch most spam/newsletter emails), but for work email and chat, having a strong established culture on what is expected can go a very long way.

When I was managing a support arm for a university, I was happy to make myself available as often as necessary for my employees, but this had the predictable problem of getting phone calls at 11 pm or later about something as trivial as "the main printer in the Library is jammed". My predecessor had over-reacted out of fear of inconveniences like this and the result was that important problems, like entire dorm outages or critical systems going down weren't reported after business hours. I ended up establishing a simple and illustrative set of guidelines on appropriate communication methods and assessing the severity of an issue; maybe it's just because no one had taken the time to do it before, but as soon as the guidelines were distributed, almost instantly the level of communication fell in line with expectations - our evening student workers hit about the exact right level of communication for off-hour issues, and our business hour workers knew the exact right way to process new issues that arose.

In my currently workplace, we have a brevity rule in place when it comes to communications be it in our chat or email. Spamming messages is discouraged and comes with some reprimand if it's a repeated offense, from the beginning, it is hammered into people's minds what other resources are available for reference before going to chat or email for assistance, and so on.

Our frontline support works across the hall from R&D, and both teams will work in tandem when required for certain issues. iIt's pretty important to make sure we have the right balance of accessibility for resolution of new bugs and respect for everyone's time (higher tier support, R&D, etc).

Compared to my very first job out of university, these two standards for communication were far better, and I think it left many people much happier. Having a grounded stance on communication expectations for your workplace can do a lot to ease the torrent of emails and messages; there will always be people who are exceptions, and will spam messages or email or phone calls for whatever whim they have, but you can't really plan for such types; the rest will fall in line if there is a clear expectation of best means to communicate. This doesn't have to be set in stone or put harshly, just clearly stated as "I'm happy to help - here is what I really can help with, for other things, you probably want to find X, and you can best get my attention by doing Y. Problems [P-S] get my attention quickly, other things may be responded to in T minutes." It doesn't have to be that formal, but if your time has to be that micromanaged, then something like this helps.

Most people really are worried about interrupting and interfering, but there aren't always clear visions of what is and isn't bugging someone. Just getting it out there clear for people goes a long ways to reduce work stress.

I made a Chrome extension for Gmail which uses CSS to make your inbox hidden by default [1]. This makes it easy to search your archives or compose new messages without seeing your inbox.

Users of the extension report benefits that sound similar in kind and magnitude to those mentioned in the article [2]. The median user has Gmail open, but the inbox hidden, for 1.5 hours per day (mean: 4.5 hours).

I'm starting to think that "inbox hidden by default" should be the standard UI for an email client.

[1] https://inboxwhenready.org

[2] https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/inbox-when-ready-f...

Google Inbox has this built-in. Just turn on the pinned toggle at the top of the screen.

If you are checking a feed like email, or chat, you are expecting a new item. If you fail to get a new item 9/10 times you check the feed, it certainly makes sense that you may feel stressed or feel like you have less control over things. You can't control when the items come into your feed. 9/10 times, you are hyping yourself up to expect something, and then getting disappointed when it's not there. I think this kind of result is true for anything that requires waiting for something out of your control. The train, the doctor's office, replies to your comment, etc.

Here's the solution I follow for the problem(s) you point out: https://www.google.com/search?q=circle+of+concern&espv=2&biw...

Interesting, and introspective. I think I now remember doing this in 2nd grade. We don't wanna forget about the things in the circle of concern, but we don't want to dwell on them unless we can actively influence them. If one is keen to dwell on something in the circle of concern, they should make an effort to move it into the circle of control.

Yes. People. This. And it applies even more to texts.

It prevents you from fully interacting with the people who are actually around you when you pull out your phone every 30 seconds to fire off a quick text reply.

There is absolutely no reason to check your texts on a continuous basis, as they come in. It makes you nervous and instills a perpetual low-grade anxiety in you.

If it's an emergency, they'll call you. If it's not, then it can wait.

tl;dr check notifications in batches, at predetermined checkin points, rather than continuously throughout the day. You'll be happier for it.

I am a hyper paranoid person. If I don't check my phone, I think that someone might have messaged me. If my phone's notification light is blinking, I think of all the things it could be; the possibilities occupy 100% of my brain. I think -- what if mom just got hit by a bus? What if my doctor's calling me with test results? What if my sister's just found out she's having a baby?

These things are rarely the case. 90% of the time it's a spam e-mail or a note from a friend that doesn't need to be addressed right away. But I will still think about these things, and actively worry about them, until I read the message.

So it helps to put the phone away, somewhere where I can't see it, on silent so I can't hear it -- even still, I have to check it at frequent intervals, without a real pattern, because a random glint in the corner of my glasses will make me think "oh was that my phone? Wait, my phone's in the other room. I wonder if I have messages? Shit, what if someone's been trying to contact me?"

Yes, exactly!

The solution is simple (but not necessarily easy): turn off ALL notifications and badges and vibrations, except for the actual telephone function (i.e. when people call you synchronously, a traditional phone call.) Disable all the rest entirely. No blinking, no vibrating, no numeric badges with little numbers quietly ticking up and up in the corner.

Then tell all your important friends and relatives and co-workers to just call you on the phone, a real traditional synchronous phone call, if something truly important happens.

I got a Pebble for Christmas and it has solved this problem completely for me. I now no longer need to check my phone at all - there is no reason. If I have a text or email, I'll know instantly - there's no missing that wrist vibration. And because you can't reply from your wrist, there's no compulsion to - you know instantly if it can wait or not. Usually it can. Low-grade anxiety dismissed.

Uh... maybe it works for you, but to me, placing a vibrating notification on my wrist is the opposite of a solution.

It's probably related to the frequency of notifications. I don't get many, and they're easily missed, so the vast majority of my phone-checking was just compulsively making sure I hadn't missed anything, or "did it just vibrate? better check". Same goes for email - I was checking it way more than I was actually getting email. Needless stress, feeding an intermittent reward causing addictive behaviour. Converting all my communication to "push" instead of "pull" eliminated the intermittent reward (if I have a message I'll already know), and hence the addiction. To achieve that it's critical the notification be reliable, otherwise you'll still check. As a bonus, my phone is silent 100% of the time now.

I can easily imagine it from the other way around, though - if every time you check your messages you have tons, then making each one come through in real time would indeed drive you mad. One solution is to try and manage things so only important stuff gets "pushed" - another is your social solution of only treating phone calls as time critical, which is great if you can make the rest of the world fall into line.

I think it is very important to set expectations about this with peers and friends.

Texts and emails are asynchronous communications, but too often people forget that fact. I generally don't let texts break my workflow. People get pissed sometimes, but over the years my friends have learnt to expect reasonable delays in replies from me. :)

It might be neat to apply machine learning to something like incoming messages (whether E-mail or text or otherwise), to automatically determine the real importance of a communication based on how you classify other messages.

After awhile, it should be possible to achieve minimal interruption, based on what you consider worthy of an interruption.

I know that I don’t like simple solutions like marking E-mail as “important”. In my experience, some people will always mark their stuff as “important” and their definition is not my definition.

I think Thoughtbot did something like this with 'FOMObot' - analysing whether you're likely to be interested in current conversation in a channel, rather than always being altered to the channel's activity.

Iirc it's open source on Github, I heard about it on 'the bike shed' podcast. (Which I'd recommend, for whatever it's worth.)

Spark already does this. It classifies emails into "personal", "newsletters" and a few others — it will only notify you of personal emails.

My understanding of what makecheck is talking about is a more personalized sort of classification, though. I haven't used Spark, but it seems from what I see that this aspect of the product just classifies a few generic types of emails that everyone receives. However; I don't think Spark learns to classifies emails that only I receive. Like I always instantly delete emails from Debby in marketing about upcoming customer engagement sessions. If you could create your own category, and add new emails to that category and once you have a statistically relevant number, ML could start classifying that stuff.

On the other hand, who needs ML when you can just set up a filter to automatically delete emails from Debby with the word "Customer Engagement" in the title.

Why not get an admin assistant instead?

That's a great title for a self-help book. I'll read it once I finish 'How to look out the window'. It never occurred to me that obsessive email checking could be a distraction or a negative thing, but now someone has done a study of 124 people it has made me sit up and think, but alas I can't figure out how to stop so I'll need someone to tell me.

Nowadays there's not much reason to actually check the email manually because of all the mail-checking browser extensions.

This of course brings up another problem: getting the emails as they arrive can be as distracting as constant stream of notifications from messengers and team chats like Slack.

I've disabled all noises, vibrations, and 99% of notifications on my phone. For the few apps I do use, all of them are disabled from pushing notifications. Only iMessage and Unibox(email) get placed into the notifications queue. I just can not be glued to this thing anymore.

We don't have this problem, too busy checking Hacker News to check the email often.

s/Email/HN/g for me

I should add "don't check HN too often" to myself.

It's funny (and sad), but people, even when they are not actively interrupted tend to check things like Hacker News a lot when they live in an environment with many interruptions.

This kind of aligns with the idea (backed to some degree by various studies) that trying to do multiple things, which you are doing in such an environment leads to people finding it hard to focus and distracting themselves.

I just look at my notifications when I pick up my phone to check what new emails came in, if it's important I'll either reply to it there or if I need to reply later with something I need a PC for I'll leave the notification up so I remember later. I don't have any issue with this and it seems pretty much perfect to me. I don't get the problem.

I check my email once an hour. I hate the feeling of imminent distraction, so I close the email client and open it again one hour later.

Each to his own but checking email should be done strategically. There are plenty of people who are more than happy to elect to clean out low attention and no value emails inside their work inboxes even when on leave via mobile phones. It makes their 1st day/week back at work all that much less involved in email.

Perhaps if we read less email we would have more time to read articles on the nytimes and be subjected to shitty ads.

That's when you don't get someone sending you an email and then coming to your desk right after that saying "Hey, so, I've just sent you this email, you don't have to respond right away, but huh, it's about this client... <20 mins of rambling nonsense>"

Even though it's about the design of Unix (tools) this seems to be mildly related:


I haven't checked my email since 2008. I didn't think many people still did. My phone simply alerts me when one comes, and at work it appears on my screen.

Can I assume you don't get 150 emails a day? Or maybe you just have clever filtering that blocks the junk ;-)

For a while Xobni was elite at being able to see metrics and dashboard like stats for email communications. Not sure about the Infinity Version though...

I removed access to my email-account from my iPhone. Never regretted it.

NYTimes with its lengthy articles is the most ridiculous place to find tips about how-to-stop-being-distracted-by-bs... Not to mention, that NYTimes is some 10 (if not 20) years behind schedule with this particular article...

But email tells me when there's a Facebook update.

When I saw this in the HN feed, my first thought was "I should see if I got that email"

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