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Slacklash: too much of a good thing

Harnessing application benefits requires intentional engagement. 

Unfortunately, the very tools we use to improve our productivity can easily end up undermining it. 

Nowhere do we see the tension between application capabilities and their potential downsides than in the now-ubiquitous Slack. Initially hailed as “the holy grail of office communication and collaboration,” Slack has more than 12 million daily active users, and has quickly become a kind of one-size-fits all communication tool where knowledge workers share everything from important, pressing documents to cat gifs. 

But the cost of creating a tool that provides real-time communication is just that: everything has become real-time, regardless of how urgent or important it actually is. In recent years, the tool has come under fire from a number of angles–it’s ruining work, it actually really sucks, it’s awful, it destroys teams’ ability to think, plan and get complex work out the door and it hurts your workplace productivity

There is a common theme at the base of all these complaints. While Slack might solve some pain points, the current culture around using it has produced even worse problems. Distraction reigns, and knowledge workers end up fighting to protect smaller and smaller chunks of uninterrupted, focused work time. 

Slack Culture

Tools are not inherently good or bad–it’s all about how we use them. So we might ask ourselves: how did we reach a place of such dissatisfaction and frustration with Slack? How did Slacklash culture evolve?

A brief (and topical) dip into cognitive science can help us here. Following design trends used in social media, Slack’s base mode is programmed to notify the user whenever any kind of content in any of their channels or messages comes in. When a notification pops up, we experience a physiological reaction that we are essentially powerless to ignore. Research has unequivocally shown that notifications create a dopamine feedback loop in the brain that is addictive and leads to distraction and anxiety. We are literally hardwired to feel a profound urgency to respond, partially because we get a little hit of dopamine-induced pleasure in doing so, and partially because we are afraid not to.  

This fear of missing out is the second, arguably more insidious aspect of Slack culture. Not only is our brain chemistry predisposed to enjoy ‘putting out the little fires’ signified by Slack’s red notification dot–we are also conditioned to protect our status among groups. Because Slack channels and messages are often occurring between more than two people, no one wants to be perceived as not contributing. The result is an anxiety-induced over-attentiveness to content. If all of the content being shared on Slack was highly relevant and distributed in time-appropriate ways, that would be one thing, but the reality is that vast quantities of what is shared is irrelevant and distracting. 

The result? A culture of reactiveness that undermines focus, and cuts the bottom line. 

The Costs of Fragmented Work

An honest appraisal of focus in the modern digital workplace is horrifying. The numbers are in–the average knowledge worker switches back and forth between apps at least 10 times each hour, causing cognitive whiplash and distraction to spread out of control. When it can take 23 minutes to get back to focused work after being interrupted, the ubiquity of apps in the workplace end up draining productive time by up to 80%

The costs of fragmented work are multifaceted and far-reaching. It’s easy to see how a loss of up to 80% of productive work time is disastrous for business, but the impact doesn’t end there. More and more, knowledge workers suffer from a decreased sense of fulfillment in their work. An attack on focus is an attack on our ability to contribute in a meaningful way. This creates a vicious cycle: in a perennial struggle upstream to deliver meaningful work while putting out a thousand notifications at once, knowledge workers burn out, and their engagement plummets. Worse still, it seems like there is no way out, because everyone appears to be in the same boat. 

But the truth isn’t quite that simple. Let’s return to the premise we began with: tools aren’t inherently good or bad. Is it possible to reclaim–first as individuals, and then gradually as a culture–the way that Slack and tools of its kind are used in the digital workplace?

A Brave New Approach

Perhaps the solution for Slack is deceptively simple: use it in ways that help your work, and not in ways that detract from it. Undeniably, Slack enables a form of real-time communication that can be incredibly useful in a modern age of digital collaboration. The question then becomes: how can you harness what it has to offer without getting sucked into a Slacklash quagmire? 

The answer is partly technical, partly mindset. Jory Makay has already written a very thorough, well-written article on all the ways you can customize your Slack to protect your focus. We highly recommend you read it in its entirety, and choose the settings that best compliment your work style and needs. Turn off your notifications, star the messages and channels that are actually relevant, and most importantly, practice protecting and prioritizing your focus. 

But deeper than simply fine-tuning settings, a shift in your relationship to Slack ultimately has to come from taking responsibility for your own focus. It takes practice, and commitment. A cultural shift in how we use tools like Slack always begins with the individual, and your agency as an individual: every time you feel the uncomfortable niggle in you that worries you are missing out on something or wants an excuse to divert from the task at hand, ask yourself whether there is really anything all that pressing. 

The answer, more often than not, is no.