Attention management for writers, part 3: The obligatory Slack and email post, or: guilt management for writers

Until now, we’ve focused on calming the chaos of our internal voice. Now it’s time we talked about that other attention killer: external voices. And, because I like to cheat, their influence on our internal voice.

One thing you can do this week: Understand the difference between objective obligations and emotions.

Nothing new here

Honestly, I’ve nothing to say about communication that you don’t already know. The whole internet has been writing for years – and especially this past year – about the simple solution to the drag on our attention that is communication: turn it off. For hours at a time.

Then why am I writing a post? Because what some other voices on the internet don’t always address is the feeling of guilt that we get when we ignore people. If we work at a company where rapid responses are the norm, it can feel terrible to be the exception. The one who’s off writing for a couple of hours and leaving people hanging.

So let’s talk about guilt.

Turn it off, guilt free

Guilt is distracting and stressful, and a prime motivator for doing what’s right for other people at the expense of what’s right for the ultimate quality of our work.

Guilt nags at us.

But why do we feel guilty? We weren’t hired for our ability to joggle instant messages; we were hired to write technical content. Communication is part of the job, but isn’t the job itself. So what ideal do we feel we’re not living up to here?

There are usually a couple of parts to the answer:

  • Our view of ourselves as kind, helpful people.
  • Some badly defined standard of responsiveness at work.

Kindness

Ignoring people feels asocial, dismissive and even technically undesirable (it blocks people). If we think of ourselves as nice, kind, helpful people, it can be hard to reconcile that with the cold calculation of “I’m working now and no one else matters”.

Here’s a question we can ask ourselves: Do we feel guilty when we don’t respond to purely social messaging, too? If we do, then we know we tend to put pressure on ourselves to respond quickly even where the sender of those messages probably doesn’t, and when the objective situation doesn’t justify it. So with that in mind, are we sure our guilt at work is justified? Could it be just as misplaced?

When we’re feeling guilty about neglecting people, it’s helpful to think of all the other people we’re neglecting when we’re constantly Slacking and emailing:

  • Our users, who deserve timely, excellent content.
  • Our family and friends, who deserve some of those hours we put in as overtime to get through the work we were constantly diverted from.
  • Even the people we’re constantly communicating with, in a half-on, half-off mode of cycling between messages and sending scattered thoughts.

Framing our incommunicado moments as being an act of caring for people, just not the people who happen to be online right this very second, can help us see how narrowly – and wrongly – focused our guilt is. So this is more about redirecting the guilt than reducing it. But hey, it works.

A real way to lessen the guilt is to set a timer while we work, so that we know when we’ll get back to people. Having something that clearly shows “It won’t be forever, it won’t even be for very long – we’ll take care of this in 30 minutes” lessens our guilt because of the visual reminder that we are going to get to it. It’s an odd trick, but much like the guilt redirect, it can work wonders.

Vague – even false – standards

Where did our standards of responsiveness come from? Some of it is our environment, some of it is our internal voice. If an environment says “every X minutes”, our internal voice sometimes hears “every 0.5X minutes”.

There’s never anything particularly realistic about the expectations our internal voices set for us. In their imaginary little world, there is no cost to constant communication and we’re being selfish and lazy if we turn away from others to concentrate on our own work.

But that’s just not real life. In real life, the cost of constantly stopping what we’re doing to respond to a Slack message, an email or a meeting invite is very high, while the cost of ignoring them is quite low: we’re technical writers, not emergency respondents.

And we do have other standards we should be meeting. Objective, clear standards, that just happen not to come with badges and notifications: we have standards for the quality and timing of the work we produce. Our communication standards are more visible, and can cause more short term grumbling from colleagues, but they’re not the most important standards around.

Communication standards are also usually not official company policy. We get a sense from our colleagues that we should be responsive, but there’s no clear definition of what that might mean. This vagueness – coupled with some people’s preference for distracting themselves from painful tasks by Slacking everyone and everything – can create a sense of dread when we don’t respond. It’s important we don’t confuse this subjective emotional response with professional obligation.

Guilt-trips

You may be thinking now that I’m being naive, saying it’s all in our heads. There are plenty of real judges out there: The people getting cranky as they wait on us, the boss who thinks we’re slacking off, the decision process we’re not participating in. These are external pressures to respond, and it’s hard to convince ourselves we shouldn’t feel guilty when other people clearly think we’re doing something wrong, even if they’re very vague about what “right” looks like.

So the first thing is to figure out how real that external pressure is, and what it defines as acceptable communication outages:

  • We can run an experiment: check email and Slack only twice a day and see if anyone notices – and cares. They do? Try three times a day. Still not enough? Maybe four or five. The point being: we use these tools as little as possible and see what the push-back is.
  • We need to clarify expectations with our team and line manager. If they want us to be instantly, constantly responsive, we start a quiet campaign to convince them they’re wrong. We work with them on the experiment from the previous point: we change our communication pattern and see how they – and others – feel about it after a few weeks. We also show them the change in the quality of our work over those weeks, so that they see the value of these ideas in real life. We try to show that by doing a lot of quick, short-term tasks, we shortchange the long-term, bit projects.

Once we understand other people’s expectations, we can start considering whether they matter all that much – to us and to them. They are, essentially, simply another standard. And we’ve already established that they’re not necessarily the most important standard.

The decision making process is the hardest bit, sometimes: we need to convince people to wait for us, rather than rush along to a decision when we haven’t had a chance to contribute. This can test people’s patience, even if the decision isn’t about an emergency. But do we really want a culture where people have to make decisions casually and quickly, just as another part of their Slack obstacle course, while trying to keep their minds on something unrelated? Do we want to encourage guilt-based promptness? Pushing against this may not be easy, but it shouldn’t be guilt-inducing.

What to do

We need to remember that those messages and emails are a call to action, not an FYI. They drive us to do something, and if it’s not the something we should be doing right now, then we’ve just been driven off course.

So what do we do to communicate less, but guilt free?

Establishing some new patterns

First tip: we don’t need to advertise to everyone that we’re going to be ignoring them for hours at a time. This is bad news, and there are no good ways to deliver bad news. Instead, we just quietly get on with it.

What are some patterns we can adopt this week?

  • Set a timer, and ignore all communication methods for that time. It should be 60-90min, but the minimum is about 45min. Less than that and we won’t have much focus time.
  • Once we start a discussion on Slack, we should try to stay with it until it’s resolved. The normal method of using Slack is a little too much like a paper route: we go up and down the channels, throwing out one message at a time. We should instead try to encourage a Slack conversation to be more like a face to face conversation: focused, short, to the point (that is how we all discuss things in person, right?).
  • If we’re working on Project A, and someone comes back to us with an answer about Project B, we don’t need to jump to Project B – we can keep doing what we were doing. It’s important we don’t ruin our plan just because someone got bored at a meeting and started replying to their emails.

Those of us still working from home should take the opportunity to establish this new pattern while people can’t punch holes in it by popping round to our desks.

Office hours

This is a fairly famous concept by now: rather than endless emailing and messaging, we tell people we’re available for short calls at a fixed schedule. If we use Zoom, for example, we can put Office Hours on our calendar with a call link, and let people drop in if they need us.

This method has a few advantages over email and messaging, including:

  • It removes a mental barrier: A lot of people would like a quick chat, but don’t want to schedule a meeting or ask for a call when you might still be in your pajamas. By taking the meeting scheduling out of the equation, we’re helping them communicate in their preferred way.
  • It makes for better communication: People who drop in with a question or two are probably focused on the conversation, rather than distractedly sending messages while waiting for their kettle to boil.
  • It condenses the conversation from a day or two of messaging to five minutes.
  • It promises the sheer joy of not having that many emails and messages throughout the week.

Mute and conquer

Most of our communication channels should be muted; there’s no reason to be aware of the flood of activity on them. Whatever tool we use, we should find a way to mute most of the traffic.

I use Slack. I’ve muted most of the channels and divided them into folders by how often I should check them: A couple of times a day, once every few days, or practically never. This is because most of those channels don’t require me to respond to anything that happens on them, and the information they contain is never urgent.

Communicate less, but better

One of the reasons email threads refuse to die is that they’re unclear and often unactionable. They leave the readers with a lot of questions, to which they try to get an answer using another bad email.

So if we want to create a molehill out of the email mountain, we need to take the work off the readers – put some real thought into our emails and make them clear and actionable. An email should include, at the very least:

  1. The context (we can’t assume people remember we had a meeting two weeks ago, or what was said in it).
  2. The open questions or pending actions.
  3. The next steps, clearly laid out and with an assignee. Who needs to provide answers? Who needs to schedule a meeting?

Communicating better allows us to communicate less without feeling guilty – there’s nothing to feel guilty about if no one’s waiting on us because our last email was just that good.

Coming up…

What to do with all your research notes.

Recommended reading

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