How To Avoid Email and Slack Overload

  1. Ways to fix your organization workflows to prioritize high value, focused work.
  2. Personal productivity tips to help avoid inbox hell.

The Problem

Fix Your Organization

Design workflows

  • Direct emails and instant messages being send to individually named people. These are not publicly searchable, and rely on you knowing the roles of everybody involved in a project. Default to being transparent, and use centralized project of team communication spaces wherever possible. If you really need to use email like this, create shared mailboxes with aliases that show exactly what they are for.
  • Individual people doing a lot of customer support in an untracked way. If providing support is important, allocate time and rotate that responsibility throughout the team. Use that allocated time to build better documentation and self-service materials.
  • Tasks are assigned without using a ticketing system. This untracked work is often invisible and can be a significant cause of burnout to people who feel like they are being pulled in multiple directions.
  • Does your organization know all its specific responsibilities (OKRs, product deliverables, monitoring, recurring meetings, supporting customers/partners/stakeholders, etc)? Have you documented which people or roles are responsible/accountable (RACI) for each of those things? My mobile organization has a simple spreadsheet which lists all the things that we do, and allocates a primary owner to each (including all recurring meetings).
  • Do you have a lot of recurring meetings? What are they for? Status updates and reviewing lists of tasks can happen offline. If you’re trying to achieve something specific, try making it a task in your workflow!
  1. List all steps in the process for delivering work (these are the columns on your kanban board).
  2. Make all work in progress visible (the task cards on your board).
  3. Establish limits to work in progress (max number of cards in each column).

Use project spaces

Use a focused, recurring meeting with a clear agenda

  • A clear owner: they need to solicit for and curate the agenda topics, facilitate the meeting (timebox things, drive to consensus, etc), and make sure that any decisions are appropriately captured.
  • A shared, public agenda that all participants can edit. This must be updated at least a couple of hours before the meeting so that people know it will be worthwhile attending.

Some things are best done in person

Fix Your Own Inbox(es)

Learn the right mindset

Unsubscribe / unfollow

Turn off all notifications

Batch email process

Use email filters

Tips for instant messaging

  1. “check multiple times per day”: things I am directly responsible/accountable for (e.g. production support for my applications, the people leaders in my org, the tech leads in my org, some more senior leadership channels).
  2. “check weekly”: internal customer support channels so I can spot check that we are providing a good service, project-based channels that I want to stay close to, and channels that my organization uses to announce our releases.
  3. “check occasionally”: I occasionally dip into the channels for all the teams that I am accountable for to get a sense for how things are going. This also includes some product and release train related channels.
  4. “everything else”: Slack automatically splits these into those with unread messages, and those which are all read. It’s rare that I check these, though I will always respond on threads where I am explicitly tagged.

Use snooze / scheduled reminders

Move email thread/conversations somewhere better

  • Does the information in this conversation relate to a specific project or team? When somebody new joins the team next week, would it be useful for them to see it? The conversation should probably go into a project board, or shared Slack channel.
  • Are you making a group decision here? If so, it should probably be tracked in an internal space that others can search for and refer to in future (shared documents folder, internal documentation portal, etc). Try using an RFC process or similar — many successful tech companies do this well.

Be the change that you wish to see in the world

  • Establish norms on how frequently your team should reply to an email/Slack message, and ensure that you respect those, especially if you are in a leadership position. Personally I aim to at least acknowledge every 1:1 or small group communication within 1 business day. I deliberately batch my processing and do it every couple of hours.
  • As usual, Merlin Mann has some great, pointed advice:

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Machine Learning & Android — https://stackoverflow.com/cv/dj

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Machine Learning & Android — https://stackoverflow.com/cv/dj

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