I stopped using Slack and it is wonderful

Specifically, I shifted my use of Slack to become a low-volume, two-times-a-day, asynchronous, opt-in communication medium in my workflow. In doing so, I removed its essence as a chat, always-on app. I stopped using the “Slack” that my industry experiences; only its logo remains.

This has had tremendous positive effects on my mood, my productivity, my interactions with my team and the quality of my work. And, so far, my co-workers have not found the change detrimental and, in at least two occasions, acknowledged it was an improvement.

This was an experiment: “what if I quit Slack? What would happen?” I did not have a priori expectations of the outcome. I found the result enlightening. From this learning experience, I now feel confident to recommend my co-workers to shift their own Slack usage and reap similar benefits for themselves.

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What happened precisely

This was really a sequence of small shifts, which, over time and in combination, radically changed (and improved) my workflow.

The first shift was to remove the notifications: both mobile and desktop notifications. This happened more than a year ago. I found it important that Slack would not pop up in the middle of a period of focused work. Of course, I did the same with every other source of notifications. The counterpart was to become mindful about how frequently I would go and check whether “something was happening”. When I first disabled notifications, I started by checking just once per hour. Over time, I decreased the frequency. More on this below.

The second shift was to reduce its visibility. I removed the Slack icon from the home screen on my mobile phone. I removed the status bar icon for the desktop app. When using Slack in the browser, I would run it in a separate window hidden behind the main window where I do my work. This happened also more than a year ago. This way, I avoided letting Slack come into my field of consciousness while switching between work (and non-work) activities and reduced its ability to call for my attention.

The third shift was to stop reading the back history in channels. When getting back to Slack at any point, if there was more than a screenful of conversations I had missed, I started to simply ignore the rest. I started doing this six months ago. That way, I reduced the amount of time I needed to dedicate to Slack even though the team and the volume of conversations was growing. I learned that a conversation that is more than an hour old is either: a) not important enough that I’d miss out, or b) important enough that it will come up again on its own, or c) if my involvement is specifically requested, my co-workers would have notified me explicitly. The counterpart of this shift was to become mindful to “do my homework” and casually explore past conversations, on the odd occasion when I am requested to pay attention, so as to avoid repeating arguments that had already been discussed or re-open a topic that had already been concluded.

The fourth shift was to mute most channels. A muted channel only shows up in the side bar when there is activity. The only channels that I left non-muted where those where I found myself interacting more than once a week. By muting channels, I keep them out of sight, and thus out of mind, and thereby further reduce the ability of Slack to call for my attention. Over time, I also decreased my attention for the grayed name of active but muted channels in the side-bar, and stopped checking them out regularly — I now look at them just once or twice a day. I did this a couple months ago. I noticed that for conversations where my co-workers originally expected me to contribute spontaneously, they now actively “@” mention my name to attract my attention when needed. I also process these mentions mainly two times per day: once after my morning productive time, and once one hour before leaving work.

The fifth shift was to remove Slack’s always-on status. I had de-installed the mobile app and the desktop app already more than a year ago, keeping only the web app in a background window on my computer. Now I also keep the Slack tab closed and only open it occasionally: once, shortly, at the end of the morning after a period of productive work to catch up on notifications from the previous day, and once during my period of direct 1:1 interactions with co-workers, to use it as a sharing medium for hyperlinks, formulas, etc. This shift happened a month or two ago. This was perhaps the most difficult shift as I was afraid that my co-workers would start to find me difficult to reach. I learned instead that my co-workers respect each other’s (and my) time and do not expect immediate reactions. Moreover, I have one-on-one conversation with co-workers on a daily basis; if any topic suddenly requires my active participation, this will be mentioned during the 1:1 conversation and I will then open a private conversation channel with the individual or group that requires me, for the duration of that project.

The sixth shift and most recent shift was to leave most channels. When I had initially joined the workspace more than 3 years ago, I had been invited to about ten different channels. Over time, this had organically grown to two dozens and perhaps more. A year ago, I started to leave channels where the activity was either low or where I noticed I hadn’t personally interacted for weeks. Then, as explained already, I started muting most channels except for a few. Now, recently, over the last two months, I aggressively applied a simple rule: I would remain on a channel either because

  1. I need daily updates that have a direct impact on my work (dev infrastructure + my team’s channel), or
  2. I actively choose to participate daily based on alignment between my values and strong positive feedback about my contributions (e.g. customer support, dev infrastructure), or
  3. I am explicitly requested by a manager or co-worker to remain on stand-by to provide answers and guidance (my team’s + that of another project), or
  4. the general channel where company-wide announcements are being posted and the “who’s in the office” channel (more on this below).

and then left the remainder. I thus remain subscribed to just 6 channels. 3 are “muted” and I only check them once or twice daily.

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Slack is now just another forum

I choose to check out the customer support web forum perhaps once a day, at least a couple times a week. Lately, I have noticed that my use of Slack has become similar: I check it out once or twice a day, and keep it closed the rest of the time. Moreover, my leaving of most channels ensures that the volume of backlog I need to process every time has become very low. Slack has thus become just another forum, and a quiet one at that.

In comparison, I check my e-mail inbox at least four or five times a day [1]. I thus successfully relegated Slack “behind” e-mail, as an occasional, opt-in, asynchronous and low-overhead forum.

I won the battle for my attention from Slack and I am pretty happy about it.

[1]note that I also aggressively auto-filter and auto-file my e-mail, so that only important e-mails pop up in my inbox each time I check.

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Why this works in this organization

There are four “features” of the work organization that were key to making Slack obsolete in my case. In decreasing level of importance:

  1. I have developed a routine of periodic 1:1 check-ins with co-workers, both from my team and other departments. These tend to naturally concentrate and distill news about the organization and other topics of interest.
  2. groups post their meeting notes by e-mail, where I can read them (once a day). This way, I become aware of important decisions without having to discover them indirectly via online conversations.
  3. the organization uses a bot that randomly pairs individuals to meet up and get to know each other every week, across the entire organization. This facilitates meeting new folks, and also hear about topics I would not think about or seek otherwise.
  4. there is a wiki where “current” institutional knowledge is being maintained. I go there when I need information, and I share my own knowledge there instead of using Slack. This concentrates conversations and avoids the noise caused by repetition of common facts.

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Key benefits

The first and obvious benefit was fewer interruptions, and thus less time spent context-switching between tasks or topics of activity.

This benefit was reaped after just the first two shifts described above. I think that most folk find it hard to effect these steps because Slack heavily capitalizes on intermittent rewards (= irregular notifications) and a feeling of peer/social pressure to attract and disrupt one’s attention. I found that overcoming this psychological barrier merely required an exercise in mindfulness.

The next benefit was to free a tremendous amount of cognitive bandwidth. To remain aware (even if non-participating) of activities around me costs some mental and emotional energy. Even if each only requires a tiny bit of daily attention, the sum can become non-negligible. Each conversation on Slack that occurs around my work constitutes such an activity. When a conversation is initiated by someone else and I am merely a by-stander, it will cost me a tiny bit of energy to evaluate and decide whether to participate. I pay this price every time, even though in many cases I end up deciding not to participate. By preventing myself from perceiving that the conversation happens in the first place, I saved the mental and emotional energy for all these little decision points. I could then reuse that mental energy to perform more useful work, and the lower emotional cost lowered my work pressure overall.

This benefit was reaped after the two next shifts (avoiding the back-log and muting channels). I think that most folk find it hard to effect these steps because of Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO), another psychological mechanism akin to addiction. I found that overcoming this barrier required me to acknowledge and recognize that the social work group is well-organized to tolerate intermittent participation: when a co-worker is temporarily inconvenienced, for example because of life events or due to vacation, the rest of the group is structured to ensure that they are brought up to date and involved when necessary. I could productively use this social guarantee to shed my fear of missing out.

The last benefit was to increase the quality of interactions. By choosing to participate only once or twice per day, I found it necessary to elaborate my contributions so that they would become more self-sufficient and effective. “Self-sufficient” means that I avoid providing answers that unnecessarily require further clarification (and thus require my further participation): I address all the aspects of a topic at once, and provide external references for readers to investigate further on their own instead of relying om me. “Effective” means that I spend extra time to tailor information to the audience while keeping it as generally applicable as possible, so as to avoid having the same conversation multiple times.

I had learned this communication style in a previous stint in a customer support role:

  1. “the customer is always right”: acknowledge and validate their feelings and experience, do not argue about where they are coming from, and do not try to repair their invalid assumptions unless they ask or unless strictly necessary to seek resolution (see next point).
  2. “seek progress”: ensure that the “next step” is always clear, and ensure that the other party is responsible for the next step. Close open loops. If I am responsible for a next step, I establish a clear specification and a deadline upfront instead of depending on a long-winded conversation to refine desired outcomes.
  3. “seek acknowledgement of resolution”: if I sense a topic is nearing resolution I will assert this with “I hope you found this conversation useful, and let me know if you need further input” and, in case of doubt, I close a loop with “I am not sure how to help you further. Please let me know what you would like me to do.” In both cases, I seek to make the other party mindful that they are involved in a transaction and that it is time and effort-bound.

Applying these customer support principles in the workplace, in other words effectively treating co-workers like customers who are using my services, ensures that they leave interactions with me with a sense of validation, progress and added value. On my side, I become mindful that these interactions are a service that I work for, and the progress and success of these interactions become a measurable part of my productivity (as well as a measurable part of my daily attention budget).

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Next steps

I hope I can further reduce the role of Slack in my work.

I believe a group chat can be useful for the team of 5-10 individuals whom I interact directly with in my daily work, even though, in practice, my particular work group functions better via e-mail than using a group chat. A contact list in a regular one-to-one messaging system would satisfy all my remaining needs for personal interactions on the workplace. I find the other Slack channels unnecessary and that all the relevant information is disseminated via email in a way that is both more effective and less disruptive.

In fact, over the last two weeks, I have analyzed which interactions on Slack do not yet have better substitutes outside of Slack, and I found only very few examples:

  • there is an announcement on Monday mornings of important events during the week. This is useful, but could just as well be sent by e-mail instead.
  • the bot that randomly pairs up individuals could send calendar invitations instead of a Slack notification.
  • “congratulatory” messages including birthdays, births, anniversaries etc. could instead be sent to the organization’s web app that collects peer acknowledgements.

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Summary

Over the last six months, incrementally:

  1. I removed notifications;
  2. I removed the app from my screen;
  3. I stopped reading channel backlogs;
  4. I muted most channels;
  5. I stopped the app from running in the background, opening it only twice a day instead;
  6. I left most channels.

This works because:

  1. I stay in touch with co-workers in person regularly;
  2. groups send meeting notes by email;
  3. we have other ways to randomly interact;
  4. there is a wiki for institutional knowledge.

Thanks to this:

  1. I suffer through fewer interruption, and spend less time multi-tasking; I became more productive;
  2. I waste less mental and emotional energy, I feel better performing my work;
  3. the quality and usefulness of my interactions has increased.

Meanwhile:

  • my co-workers did not find the change detrimental, and even found it an improvement in at least two occasions;
  • I now have definite (personal) experience that using Slack less makes my work better.