How to respect other people’s time with Slack

Slack can be great for improving workplace communication, but it can also be a collosal distraction for everyone. Tens or hundreds of channels and DMs, and an expectation of near immediate replies… 

With so much communication going on, how can anyone get any work done?

After giving this a lot of thought, one simple fact has occurred to me: every time I post anything to slack, I have chosen to take a little piece of someone’s time away. It might only take a few seconds to read a one-line message. An emoji or gif posted in reaction to another comment may only take a moment to glance at. But each one of those messages adds up, and together they create work and distraction for your colleagues.

Every message, even just an emoji, creates a notification on your colleague’s computer. A message posted in an open channel creates that notification for everyone who is in that channel. 

So each gif only takes a moment to glance at. But let’s do the math: let’s say there are 50 people in a channel – that’s 50 people who need to spend a little bit of mental energy clicking on the channel and consuming your gif. But remember it’s not just the time spent looking at the gif itself – it’s switching tabs to Slack, switching to that channel, looking at the gif, and then probably responding. So let’s round it up and say it takes 10 seconds. (This doesn’t account for the cost of task switching, which is a whole different topic).

10 seconds x 50 people: 500 seconds, or 8.3 minutes. And how many gifs are sent a day? 50? 100? The numbers quickly add up.

To that end, I came up with a few simple rules of engagement for Slack, to be considerate of everyone’s time and distraction:

  • Use public channels for communications that are relevant for everyone. Don’t waste people’s time and attention with messages that aren’t relevant for everyone in the channel. Use a DM instead.
  • Reply to messages only when a reply is really needed. If it’s important that the other person knows that you’ve read the message, use an emoji “response” instead, which does not create an unread notification on the channel.
  • If you want to reply to someone who posts in an open channel, but the reply is only relevant to that person, don’t reply in the main channel – start a thread instead. That way, the reply won’t create an unread notification for everyone in the channel. Bonus points: don’t reply to the person on the channel at all; use a DM instead.
  • Think twice before posting a gif to an open channel. Yes, they’re fun and all that – but they are also massive distractions.
  • If you are writing a longer response, don’t hit ‘ENTER’ until you’re finished. That way, the recipient will receive only one notification, and only when the message is finished. Otherwise, the recipient gets pulled in after the first line, and sits there waiting, staring at the “Will is typing…” message and wondering what is coming next… which is a huge waste of time.
  • Only reply to messages in open channels when you have something useful to say. The number of messages you post in open channels is not a measure of your productivity. (Rather, it tends to be the opposite). 

With every message you send on Slack, you have unilaterally decided to take a little piece of time and attention away from one or more people. Use this power over your colleagues wisely! 

How to use the weekends to improve your productivity

I don’t normally think much of lists of productivity tips, but I quite liked this list from Quartz: Ten things to do on weekends to make your Monday more productive.

The article starts with the oft-quoted statistic that productivity declines rapidly after more than 55 hours per week:

“The study found that productivity per hour declines sharply when the workweek exceeds 50 hours, and productivity drops off so much after 55 hours that there’s no point in working any more.”

So if you’re not working all through the weekend, how can you use that time to give yourself the biggest productivity boost come Monday?

 Most productivity “hacks” are nonsense, but I found myself agreeing with nearly all of the recommendations on this list. Particularly:

  1. Make time for YOU on the weekend. Do a hobby, learn something new, or just sit back and read a book. I find that time for me is the hardest thing to come by during the week, and I’m someone who needs regular, short breaks of solitude. 
  2. Disconnect. Turn off your phone and laptop, just for a few minutes. 
  3. Plan for the week ahead. This is the one habit that has the biggest impact on my productivity during the week. I like to use Sunday afternoons to do my weekly planning: I look at my annual and quarterly goals and reflect on what I need to do in the coming week to move this forward. I also use it as an opportunity to clear out my emails, slack and to-do lists, so that I go into Monday with a clean slate and a clear plan.

With so few hours in the day, where you spend your time has a huge impact on your overall success, and reactively moving from one thing to the next is the best way to fill lots of time with being busy and not getting much done. Take the time to step back, reflect and plan.

On solitude and taking a break for a day

On Friday, I did something I nearly never do. I took the day off, and spent the day outside in a Kayak.

The simple act of being outside, alone on the water, was not only fun, but it was refreshing and energising. I relaxed. I had nothing to do, nowhere to be, no emails or slack messages to read: just me, my kayak and the water in front of me. It was nearly meditative.

It took me an hour or so to relax. I couldn’t paddle fast enough. The kayak kept going in circles. The rudder was tangled. I was stressed. I pulled up at a small jetty to try to fix the tangled rudder cables, and as I was getting out I did the classic kayaking newbie trick and rolled the kayak over and fell right into the water. I suppose in hindsight that could have made me even more annoyed, but the unexpected dunk into refreshing cool water actually calmed me down. I laughed out loud at myself, and at the silliness of it. Then I untangled my rudder cables, got back into the boat and set out for a totally relaxing few more hours on the water.

Just from taking one day off, and spending it in solitude, has worked wonders. I woke up this morning feeling energised and happy.

Solitude can be a rare thing to find for someone with a young family. Between the office and home, it’s rare that I spend more than my 35 minute bicycle commute on my own. But the value of solitude to your stress level and focus can be profound.

Many of the greatest thinkers rely on long bouts of solitude to get any thinking done, from Carl Jung to Bill Gates. Cal Newport talks about many of them in his book “Deep Work”.

The act of stepping outside of the daily routine is refreshing and energising. Our weekdays are full of meetings and work, and the weekends are often full with friends, family and other plans. So take a day off. Just one day. And spend it doing something by yourself. Go to a museum, go for a hike, hang out in a park. It doesn’t matter; just take yourself, maybe a book, and step outside of your daily routine.

There’s something nice about doing it on a weekday. Sure, you could do it on the weekend too, but something about knowing that the rest of the world is carrying on, and you’re stepping away from it, just for one day, makes it special. For extra impact, make it a Friday: then you get the bonus of waking up Saturday, refreshed and energised, with your whole weekend still ahead of you.

I’m planning to do one of these “think days” once per quarter. For my mental health and overall productivity, I see only upside.

Kayaking in Berlin, Wannsee

Kayaking in Berlin, Wannsee

Why you should love your computer and your phone

My father, in his younger years, was an interstate trucker. As was common in those days, he owned his own truck, instead of leasing one or driving one that belongs to a company. His truck, the trailer, the tarps and ropes and chains, were all the tools of his trade.

During the week he was always away, somewhere on the Pacific Highway, a roughy 1000 km stretch of coastal highway between Brisbane and Sydney. On the weekends at home, he would care for his tools.

He would start by washing the week’s worth of road grime, dirt and bugs from the truck. He would carefully unroll his tens of meters of tarps and inspect them for holes and scuffs. He would untangle the chains and oil the ratchets, fill the water tanks, check the tyres…

The point is, he loved his tools. His tools were a part of who he was, and he knew he would only be as effective as his tools were.

I don’t have a truck, and I don’t work with chains or ropes or tarps. The physical tools of my trade are my computing devices and my software. But I still love my tools as my father loved his.

You mean you love your MacBook? You really love Illustrator? Keynote? Outlook?

Yeah, I do.

(Ok, so I don’t love Outlook. It’s hard to love Outlook. But you get the point…)

To be truly productive, I think you must love your tools. You spend your whole life with them in your hands. They shape your words, they communicate your ideas, they turn your dreams into reality. How could you not love that?

How horrible it must be to spend your whole day working with tools you dislike, or even tools you hate. How can that be anything but negative for your productivity? For mental health? Your well-being?

There is nothing worse than poor quality tools. But, like spanners or wrenches or cordless drills, the tools of the information profession have a variety of quality levels, and as the saying goes, you really do get what you pay for.

A professional mechanic isn’t using the 30€ set of wrenches from the supermarket.

Invest in the tools of your profession. Buy the right tool for the right job, and pay for the right level of quality.

And love your tools.

Special note for employers: your employees will only be as productive as the tools you give them. Sure, the 500€ Dell PC might seem like a bargain now. But the question is: what price do you put on the productivity of your staff?

The Law of Two Feet – every day

My feet

In open space-style workshops/sessions there’s a concept called “The Law of Two Feet”. It means that if, at any time, you feel you are not contributing to the session, or if you are not learning something, then you should use your two feet to leave the session and find one where you can contribute and where you can learn something.

It’s a beautiful rule because it gives all participants the permission to go where they think they can be the most effective.

It occurs to me that nearly all the meetings I attend in the workplace could benefit from having meeting participants understand this concept.

So often we find ourselves in meetings that are not valuable for us. Sometimes we’re invited “just for our info”, so we go along just to avoid the risk of missing out. Sometimes meetings go so off-topic that the value starts to dissipate. And sometimes the meeting probably wasn’t necessary in the first place.

In any of these situations, I propose to you that you invoke your right to use your feet. If the meeting isn’t valuable for you; if you cannot contribute or cannot learn something valuable – then leave.

You have my permission!

A brief memoir of my days as a barkeeper (and why ex-barkeepers make great employees)

Cocktail Group – by kurmanstaff.

Over the years since I finished high school I’ve had the immense good fortune to work with a handful of remarkable people who have inspired me deeply; who have mentored me and taught me an incredible amount about myself.

The first of these was not a CEO or a VP; he had, in fact, nothing to do with the technical career I was then aspiring to pursue. He was a barkeeper.

A cocktail maker in fact; “Chief Cocktail Maker”, if such a title existed. His name was Ted; he was in his mid fifties then and had worked in the same piano bar in Sydney’s inner southern suburbs for something like 20 years.

The cocktail bar was part of a large lounge and bar complex, filled to overflowing with glittering poker machines and rowdy teenagers. In the midst of this sea of lights, noise and excitement, Ted’s little cocktail bar was an island of quiet and still.

There were many bartenders working at the club; maybe 40 or 50 at any one time. Ted was feared by some, awed by many; and respected by everyone. Something of a legend in the cocktail business, his skill with a boston shaker and hawthorne strainer was renowned.

Ted had worked in that dimly lit bar behind that lotus-green marble countertop for as long as he could remember, and as far as I know he’s still there now, mixing up his classic appleseed martini. And yet I learnt from Ted a few fundamental things that have stayed with me through my career as a Product Manager and helped define who I am and how I work.


Firstly, Ted taught me the value of understanding the customer experience. When you come into his bar, you are not there just for the drinks. What you pay for is the end-to-end experience. This is something any good restaurateur understands: the quality of the meal itself is only as good as the quality of the experience surrounding it.

The same is true of software products. When you pay for a piece of software (either with cash, or with your attention), it’s not just the source code that you obtain – it’s an experience. And the experience doesn’t end with the user interface of the product. The sales process itself is part of the product, as is the customer support line, the warranty process, the packaging, and so on. And the user’s perception of every part of this experience influences their perception of everything else.

Ted taught me about this experience. The guest’s experience starts when they enter the bar and see how the room is lit, how the chairs are organised, what music is playing. It continues when they order their drink: the menu, the options. How a cocktail is prepared and presented to the customer is almost more important than how it tastes; in fact, mixing the ingredients in the right way is the easy part – the true artistry comes with the flair with which it’s prepared and the quality of the presentation in the glass. (The artistry involved in creating new drinks is quite something else, but that’s another story).

This brings me to the next critical skill I learned under Ted’s tutorage: attention to detail.

Red Stools – by Jack Zalium.

Ted was obsessed with orderliness, and every stool and every table needed to be perfectly positioned and perfectly aligned. He was known for walking through various parts of the club with a ruler, measuring the distance between the chairs and tables, as well as rigorously enforcing other standards of excellence, such as ensuring coasters laid out on the table were positioned so the text would be the correct way up for the seated guests, or that every bottled product served to a customer should be served with the label facing the guest (something actually every bartender knows and continues to do intuitively when placing bottles on the table, long after their bartender career has ended).

Details come in all forms great and small, and the ability to keep your eye on the details while maintaining the end-to-end view is, I believe, one of the chief virtues of incredibly successful people.

To understand the impact of these two things, consider the packaging of an Apple product, whether an iPod, MacBook or an iPad. Every aspect of the package has been considered; the colour, the use of images and type. Bold in its modesty, an Apple product stands out among the clutter through its thoughtful minimalism and stark beauty.

Attention has been paid to every aspect of the end-to-end experience, from what the product looks like on the shelf to the experience of taking the product out of the box and using it for the first time.

In every product I work on I come back to that which I learned during those long evenings in the Skyline cocktail bar. But Ted taught me more than that.

Library Bar – by ZagatBuzz.

Ted’s obsession with orderliness didn’t end at the alignment of the chairs and tables. If he saw a dirty table, he’d be the first to grab a rag and a spray bottle and he’d be off to clean it. If an ashtray had ash in it, he’d empty it, or if there as litter on the floor, he’d pick it up.

It didn’t bother Ted that he was actually the bar manager. He could have called the cleaners; he could have delegated to a more junior bar staff member. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t his job: if something needed doing, then he’d do it.

Ted, of course, expected nothing less of the people who worked for him, and the result was a culture where “not-my-job” thinking just didn’t exist.

Every team has issues that don’t get resolved as quickly as they probably should – old, un-refactored code, unanswered customer support queries, lingering bugs. But when these things start to stack up into ever-increasing piles, I’ve found that it’s often due to an established “not-my-job” attitude, and changing this attitude once it’s ingrained in a team is very difficult.

On top of all that, my time in Ted’s cocktail bar taught me that hard work is rewarding work. It might sound like a socialist slogan, but when I fell into bed at 4am after making cocktails all evening, I fell asleep exhausted, but fulfilled. I’d had fun at work, I’d learned something (which I did nearly every day), I’d met interesting people and helped serve an experience to our guests that they appreciated and told their friends about.

You might not believe it, but it’s truly amazing what you can learn in a bar.


Attention to detail

The Simpsons: Homer and Scorpio

Homer: It’s nothing big; it’s just a lot of little things.
Scorpio: Homer, you can’t argue with the little things. It’s the little things that make up life.

In the biography written by Walter Isacsson, Steve Jobs recalls watching his father paint the posts for the picket fence in the yard of their Cupertino home in the 60’s. A young Jobs asked his father why he was painting the back of the posts as well as the front, even though nobody could see the back of the posts. His father replied: “because I know they’re there”.

This is attention to detail.

The little details count, and more than you probably think. Whether spelling or grammar; visual consistency or alignment; order or neatness: paying attention to the finer presentation details makes an important difference to your message. It doesn’t matter if it’s a visual interface within a product, an instruction manual, a marketing message, a powerpoint slide or a simple email: the principle is the same.

It’s not just about having a powerpoint slide with consistent punctuation… and it’s not about perfectly painted fence posts. It’s an attitude that you carry with you everywhere; that’s part of everything you do.

Some general tips:

  • If you have three paragraphs on a slide or page, and the first three have a fullstop and the last one doesn’t… fix it. Don’t use 5 different font sizes on the same slide.
  • If you’re writing code, take care to follow the coding guidelines. Document. Clean up after yourself. Keep it tidy.
  • Grammar, spelling, etc matter… whether in an email or in interface copy. Take care. Use a spell-checker. If you’re not a native speaker of the language you’re writing in, have someone proof-read it for you if it is something that will be seen by a lot of people.

Cracking eggs

They say you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. That’s true.

You can, however, make an omelet without smashing eggs and getting egg-shells throughout the whole meal.

The act of breaking the eggs open is a controlled, thoughtful act. It’s not panic.

When you’re working on a new product strategy, fixing a bug, planning a meeting or refactoring a piece of code, think to yourself: are you smashing eggs, or breaking them?

When you want something done right…

“Well, you know what they say… when you want something done right, you have do to it your bloody self.”

My dad used to say this all the time. In fact he still does. How often have you heard it said?

A key turning point for a new manager is, I think, the realisation that this is quite often not true. (Certainly less often than you probably suspect).

Rallying the “troops”: how things can be misunderstood

Soldiers at attention.

I was reminded today of a story about managing people. About 8 years ago I was in my first management job, managing a team of about 15 web software designers and engineers. I saw a key challenge in bringing the team together, inspiring one vision and building a sense of identity and unity within the team.

At the time, I was fresh out of the Army, and was still active as a part-time Army reservist. I took to calling the team my “troops”, and turned some of the key challenges we faced as a team into our “key battles”. I saw it as a term of endearment to the team. In my mind, I saw it bringing a sense of unity and a common, understandable vision to the team. I saw it flattening the hierarchy, putting us all at the same level to encourage shared responsibility and the willingness to speak out. I saw it helping to build individual relationships between each of the team members. (Looking back, I think subconsciously I also hoped it would help give me, as a very young manager of an experienced team, a sense of authority; but I wouldn’t have told you that at the time.)

All-in-all, I saw it as a positive, understandable and motivational message. Indeed, military expressions like “rallying the troops”, “strategic battles” and “war rooms” were common in business parlance then, as they are today.

In reality, though, the team themselves saw something quite different. In short, they hated it. They hated being referred to as “troops” or “soldiers”, which they found disrespectful. Where I saw it flattening the hierarchy within the team, they saw a new hierarchy emerging: one with officers who sit back and give orders and soldiers who follow them. Where I saw it encouraging initiative and shared responsibility, they saw themselves reduced to simple soldiers who just follow orders and are not expected to think for themselves. On top of that many found the frequent references to war and battles offensive and tiring. (This was just after the second invasion of Iraq, and soldiers were still dying every day in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

I learned two very valuable lessons from this in my young management career.

Firstly, be very careful with military references in the workplace. While it’s still common in business to hear talk of “battlefronts” and “attack plans” and so on, I’ve learned to be cautious with how often, and in which situations, I use these. I think in the context of a conversation between a few people it’s probably ok; but I wouldn’t frame the team objectives/targets for the year in terms of “battles” and “wars”.

Secondly, sometimes you just don’t know how people are responding to the messages you deliver and the things you say. As a manager, when setting a vision or delivering a message, you need to remember that your job isn’t done until you can confirm that the message was heard and understood by your team in the way you intended. For my example above, how could I have known that my efforts to bring the team together were not working out as I had intended? I think the answer is: ask. Ask for feedback from individuals, from the team. Just like in agile and scrum, constant feedback helps you constantly iterate and adjust, which applies as much to management and communication style as it does to code.