How To Avoid Email and Slack Overload
Most of us are familiar with that feeling of messages arriving faster than you can process them.
This article talks about how this problem came about, and shares ideas about two ways to improve the situation:
- Ways to fix your organization workflows to prioritize high value, focused work.
- Personal productivity tips to help avoid inbox hell.
For most people, processing email is a distraction from the core way that they are supposed to deliver value to their company or customers.
As Merlin says:
Clearly, the problem of email overload is taking a toll on all our time, productivity, and sanity, mainly because most of us lack a cohesive system for processing our messages and converting them into appropriate actions as quickly as possible.
I know a lot of people who seem to have given up on email. In most large companies, there is no cost to send an email, and no coordination between the senders, which results in a deluge of mostly worthless communication intended to serve the needs of the sender, not the recipient. Unfortunately, with the introduction of instant messenger applications like Slack, we now have another channel that pushes communication requests and information to already overwhelmed recipients. Even worse, requests and information often end up getting duplicated across both email and Slack.
The excellent book World Without Email by Cal Newport talks about how we got into this state.
When we made communication free, we accidentally triggered a massive increase in our relative workloads.
Introducing email didn’t just speed up existing written communication, it changed how we work.
The issue is that we tend to think of email as additive; that the office of 2021 is like the office of 1991 plus faster messaging. But this is wrong. Email isn’t additive; it’s ecological. The office of 2021 is not the office of 1991 plus some extra capabilities; it’s instead a different office altogether — one in which work unfolds as a never-ending, ad hoc, unstructured flow of messages, a workflow I named the hyperactive hive mind. We didn’t used to work this way, but today, now thoroughly entangled in the hive mind’s demands, we find ourselves crushed by shallow busyness and struggling to get important work done, all the while feeling increasingly miserable.
People have accidentally built workflows around email and instant messenger, instead of carefully designing how work should flow through their business. Cal Newport draws a parallel to how horse stirrups may have caused medieval feudalism.
In Lynn White Jr.’s study of the stirrup we find a classic example of a technology introduced for a simple reason (to make riding horses easier) leading to vast and complicated consequences never imagined by its inventors (the rise of medieval feudalism).
Returning to email, in most cases, there could be huge quality of life and efficiency gains from adopting purpose-built workflows and tools that are more appropriate for getting valuable work done in companies.
Knowledge work is better understood as the combination of two components: work execution and workflow.
Software engineers are often familiar with Scrum or Kanban methodologies, which are workflows. The tasks allocated through these processes usually contribute the core of the engineer’s job. Unfortunately, in many companies other tasks (often low value ones) are also imposed on the team members without coming through the same prioritization and tracking processes. This can lead to inefficient task switching, and sometimes overwork and feelings of burnout.
Knowledge workers with highly trained skills, and the ability to produce high-value output with their brains, spend much of their time wrangling with computer systems, scheduling meetings, filling out forms, fighting with word processors, struggling with PowerPoint, and of course, above all, sending and receiving digital messages from everyone about everything at all times. We think we’ve advanced because we no longer need secretaries or typing pools, but we don’t factor in how much less bottom-line-boosting work we actually accomplish.
As organization sizes grow, these communication and administrative issues can get exponentially worse.
You can try to avoid this problem by requiring all tasks to come to the team through some kind of gatekeeper, who will help with the prioritization, and bring the tasks to the team at the right time (apparently Extreme Programming (XP) usually works this way as engineers are pair programming, so they can’t check email during the day).
Let’s talk more about some of the fixes: first for your organization, and then for you individually.
Fix Your Organization
We need to give our specialists dedicated time to focus on their core, value-producing work.
In the knowledge sector, working on fewer things, but doing each thing with more quality and accountability, can be the foundation for significantly more productivity.
We need to move to “pull” instead of “push” models for communication. We need systems and workflows where people can focus on one thing, for as long as they want to, without being constantly forced to context switch between unrelated tasks — especially not lower value ones!
Shutting down “push” based communication should also improve our quality of life.
When you’re at home at night, or relaxing over the weekend, or on vacation, you shouldn’t feel like each moment away from work is a moment in which you’re accumulating deeper communication debt.
Let’s talk about some ways to achieve this.
Think how work flows through your organization, and build formal processes for as much as possible.
Designing rules that optimize when and how coordination occurs in the workplace is a pain in the short term but can result in significantly more productive operation in the long term.
Here are some smells that might indicate you have a problem:
- 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!
To fix these problems you can embrace some Kanban principles (Kanban In Action is a good guide for beginners).
- List all steps in the process for delivering work (these are the columns on your kanban board).
- Make all work in progress visible (the task cards on your board).
- Establish limits to work in progress (max number of cards in each column).
By doing this, you will force yourself to address the bottlenecks in your organization, and can create workflows to help reduce the bottlenecks, and/or make the business case to increase staffing or investments in the bottleneck.
Use project spaces
Crucial to this optimization is to minimize the back-and-forth communication associated with your processes.
Project management software like Asana, Basecamp, Jira and Trello can help collect all information for a specific project in one place. The most current information floats to the top, and the group can crowdsource updating stale information. This way the group is always pushing forward the project, without needing to wade through hundreds of email messages that may have already been actioned and not need to be read.
For this to work well, you may need to avoid redirecting the team to your instant messaging tool for project conversations, as (depending on your organization norms) it could be distracting to see lots of unread 1:1 direct messages.
Use a focused, recurring meeting with a clear agenda
I find that recurring meetings are generally overused, but they can be very efficient at reducing ad hoc communication if they are run properly. Two recurring meetings that have worked well for me are: 1:1s, Android Developer Meetings (discussing Android platform topics and improvements for Android developers across multiple sprint teams). For these to be successful you need:
- 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
It’s important to recognize that in person (or on video) communication is much higher bandwidth than email or other text-based communication. There is lots of evidence showing how inefficient and open to misinterpretation they are.
Pentland later presented written versions of the plans to a new group and asked each group member to decide on their own which was best. Their decisions were significantly different from those reached by the group that heard the pitches in person. “The executives [in the group setting] thought they were evaluating the plans based on rational measures,” Pentland explains, “[but] another part of their brain was registering other crucial information, such as: How much does this person believe in this idea? How confident are they when speaking? How determined are they to make it work?” The executives who simply read the plans didn’t realize how much they were missing. Both groups reviewed the same pitches, but they were working with vastly different information.
Similar to the Dunning Kruger Effect, the worst part is that we all routinely overestimate how clear our own text based communication is.
They were confident that they were correctly detecting sarcasm or identifying humor, even when they weren’t doing well at all.
Use in person or video meetings when you want to build good relationships, and/or have difficult or high complexity discussions, or have a long list of things you need to discuss.
Fix Your Own Inbox(es)
Fixing your organization workflows is obviously the best solution, as it helps everybody at once, but there are lots of things you can do to improve your own situation too.
Learn the right mindset
This is the single most important step! As usual, Merlin Mann of Inbox Zero gives us great advice:
Stop thinking of emails like precious family heirlooms, and start treating ’em like pints of milk. Perishable, time-stamped milk that becomes a little less fresh every day until it smells kind of funny and just needs to be dumped. Believe me, there will always be more coming.
Your time is precious, and you should treat emails much like you would treat an unsolicited door to door salesperson. You didn’t ask them to come, and in ringing your doorbell their company has already imposed a cost on you without your consent. You shouldn’t be rude, but you also shouldn’t feel any obligation to spend much time on them.
if you don’t learn to value your time, you will quickly find a volunteer army of slackers who will be more than happy to help waste it for you.
Like learning to save money or driving a stick, the earlier you start slavishly guarding your time, the easier the habit becomes.
Accept that your workload exceeds your resources — that you are the first and last filter for what deserves your time
Merlin has some inspirational words to spur you to action:
Your email program is not a toy or mama’s loving teat — it’s a powerful tool for communicating with strangers and friends across the world. And if you want to stop being part of the dolorous majority whose ass is getting kicked by email every day, it’s time to get serious about improving your habits. And that starts with changing your attitude.
Let’s move on to some specific tips…
Unsubscribe / unfollow
Now that you have the right mindset, the next thing you need to do is to completely remove low value communications from your life. By far the most efficient way to deal with an email is to not receive it at all!
If the email has an Unsubscribe option, use it! Unfortunately, most companies don’t seem to offer this option on internal communication, so you may be forced to create your own inbox filters to auto archive or delete them.
Turn off all notifications
Getting into a state of flow usually brings productivity and happiness. It can be hard to create large enough blocks of time to achieve it, so routine email/instant messages must never interrupt your deep work! Turn off everything — message previews, alert sounds, and the little red unread count badge.
If something is truly urgent, establish a dedicated channel for that, e.g. PagerDuty, your cell phone, or a specific Slack channel that will always notify you. Everything else can and should wait to be processed in batches.
Batch email process
Process your email and instant messages in batches.
limit the number of times you check for and then scan new email throughout each day
Some people might need to set a recurring meeting to block out time to do this regularly. This is a good way to both remind you to do it, and to help limit the amount of time you spend on email. I naturally check my email enough that I remain quite responsive, but I am gradually blocking out more time for higher value “heads down” strategic work.
Use email filters
Gmail has an excellent filters feature that you can use to intelligently keep some emails in your inbox and auto archive/delete the rest.
Noisy senders: task management (e.g. Jira), source code management (e.g. GitHub, GitLab etc) and documentation (e.g. wikis, Confluence) systems seem to send a lot of automated notifications by default. I use filters to only keep those in my inbox where I am explicitly tagged, or are a registered watcher. This involves filtering the messages from a specific sender, and only keeping messages that explicitly mention your name, or your username. For bonus points, you can export your filters and share them with others in your team or organization. :-)
Recurring emails: I have some newsletters that I really enjoy, but I want to read them when I choose (i.e. “pull” not “push”). I don’t want to feel stressed that they are piling up in my inbox, so I set up filters to automatically file them all under a Newsletters label, leaving them unread so that I can dip into them at my leisure.
Tips for instant messaging
As a heavy user of Slack, these practices work for me (at the moment).
Notifications: there are a lot of notification preferences you can control, including control by keywords, channels and specific time schedules. I have all notifications turned off, though I do use keywords for some specific workflows (like spotting suitable recruiting candidates in a sourcing channel).
Channels: the number of Slack channels I am in has ballooned, so I use the sidebar grouping to collect them up. Roughly speaking, my groupings are:
- “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).
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
As usual, Slack have some great advice on how to best use channels.
Etiquette: I highly recommend reading Slack’s etiquette guide, which is excellent. A lot of their advice is about how to avoid generating too many notifications. :-)
I use Slack extensively with my teams, but I try to set expectations to avoid people needing to check and respond too quickly. When somebody is tagged or sent a direct message, I would typically expect at least an emoji reaction within 24 hours to acknowledge they’ve seen it (it is fine for replies to take much longer for low priority items).
Use snooze / scheduled reminders
One of the biggest problems with Slack is losing track of requests or follow ups, particularly in group direct messages. Once you’ve read a message it can be hard to find it again (particularly for private direct messages to a list of people).
I use the “Remind Me” and set a suitable time to ensure I don’t forget to reply. Some people mark the message as unread to do the same thing (I prefer “Remind Me” so that I know when I’ve triaged my messages when there are no unreads left).
Gmail has a similarly awesome “Snooze” feature that I am trying to use more often. There are lots of situations where an email might require a follow up after a certain time period — those cases are perfect for snoozing the message so that it doesn’t burden your inbox until an action is required again.
Move email thread/conversations somewhere better
There are very few things that deserve to live in an email thread. It is almost always better to move the conversation somewhere that is searchable by others in your organization.
- 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
Share your communications philosophy with your team, and model the behaviors that will make everybody more efficient.
- 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:
Candidly, the easiest trick here may just be to respond less. I’m not saying you should ignore people or blow off clients, but consider the cues that instant, frequent, detailed responses relay to people; one of the best ways to suggest that you want to receive less email is to send less as well.
Have you found a way to use any of these techniques successfully in a large company? If so, please share your story through a blog post or comment!