Unless you're living under a rock, you've probably heard of or used Slack, the now wildly popular workplace chat application that's slowly killing IRC. It's uncommon for me to look over the shoulder of my peers and see another chat client these days. Slack's emphasis on collaboration, clarity, and fun make it the go-to choice for workplace chat. Slack attempts to replace email in the work setting by creating a realtime chat environment that gives teams an always-on channel for discussion.
Don't get me wrong: Slack is an incredible tool if you work in a fast-paced, customer-oriented environment. If you work in tech support, customer service, sales, or sysops, Slack is indispensible for staying on top of inbound alerts that help keep your business running day-to-day. But when you're a programmer, designer, writer, or other creative, it's imperative that you're granted several hours per day of uninterrupted flow.
Also make no mistake: Slack is an amazing chat application. It's the best I've ever used. It's intuitive, friendly, fun, and engaging. I love it.
But Slack represents a destructive psychological shift in the way we conduct creative work: The always-on always-available culture amplifies anxiety and destroys real productivity by putting our attention up for auction in a highly distracting and unactionable environment.
Always Available, Never In Focus
In Merlin Mann's famous Google Tech Talk about his Inbox Zero methodology for email processing, he explained how email has turned from a fun and exciting new medium of exchange into the reactive centerpiece of the modern desktop. At one time, checking your email was a once-per-day activity, something you did when you connected your 56k modem to the Internet for an hour. Now it has become an always-on communication center from which we draw our next actions and conduct our day-to-day tasks.
Not only does this always-on approach segment our attention from our most important work, but it provokes a sense of constant anxiety, wherein we believe we must respond to every message with ever-accelerating urgency. And that's exactly why I believe Slack is the ultimate productivity killer.
When there's an unspoken, implicit expectation that we'll be on Slack all day long, we begin to measure our personal productivity in terms of our response to chatter instead of in terms of the completion of our most critical tasks. We lose control of our time and what was once creative, intentional work turns into a constant stream of opinions, anecdotes, and noise.
Like Email, Slack Causes Anxiety
Studies show checking email frequently causes anxiety. By constantly feeding our brains new inputs about our responsibilities, we're effectively sending ourselves into a panic about whether or not the task we're currently attempting to complete is the most important.
Slack effectively puts this anxiety on overdrive. Sitting down to implement that new feature your investor is expecting next week? Too bad: Your teammate needs help defining requirements for another feature and sent you a private Slack message to ask you to help. With Slack, true heads-down focus and intention is a thing of the past. And you can forget losing yourself in your work: Slack will make sure you always have something more pressing (read: an opportunity for procrastination) to do.
Unlike Email, Slack Doesn't Have Threads
In Slack, you can organize your team's discussions into channels, but that's hardly a substitute for the hard lines drawn by operating within threads in email. If Slack truly replaces email, how do I reach Slack Zero? When I'm scanning Slack for any actionable information, I end up re-scanning conversations numerous times to find the discussion I'm looking for. Email and project management tools don't beget that problem. They're threaded and that's the way discussion about specific tasks and projects should be.
None of this is to say that realtime chat doesn't have a place in the workplace. But I do think using Slack in place of a more rigid communication medium is a sure recipe for losing your mind.
Solution? Check Slack Twice Per Day
That's why I'm making a commitment to checking Slack as infrequently as I check my email: Once in the mid-morning and once near the end of the day.
When we reduce the number of inputs vying for our attention during our workday, we are better equipped to focus on what we've already deemed our day's priorities. Let's turn off Slack, turn off email, and get to work.