It’s time to write. I make coffee, open a blank document, and then decide to quickly review Slack before I start.
Two hours later I didn’t write anything.
Team chat apps are essential for online collaboration, but their existence makes it difficult to focus on longer-term projects. There are always something I could respond to Slack, and responding to those things usually feels productive – and sometimes it is. But that time adds up and that’s why I’m putting off bigger and bigger projects.
I know that I can easily solve this problem Close Slack or Turn off notifications, but that’s not enough for me. Just the idea that me could open Slack distracts me and the app is always just a click away. This is why I decided to experiment: completely block Slack for a few hours every work day and use software that makes it impossible for me to open the app even if I want to. And I’ve invited my co-workers to do the same.
If you don’t block Slack, you can still reduce the time spent in the app by automating some of your Slack workflows. Here are The best automations for Slack users.
Slack is fuzzy – and that’s the problem
“My first thought in this experiment was, who am I without slack anyway?” Said Katie Redderson-Lear, Zapier’s Escalation Customer Champion. “I think that’s a sign that I should try.”
Apps like Slack are essential for remote teams – they really are the virtual office. But Slack is just as addicting as other messaging apps: notifications, red dots, and other features grab my attention and make me spend more time in the app.
So it makes sense that Slack is the app I’ve been spending the most of my time this month Time tracking app on my laptop. Google Chrome, a browser that I only use for work, takes just under a second – mainly for research, but also for writing and editing in Google Docs. Ulysses, the app I do my first drafts in, comes in third – and I spend half as much time with this app as I do with Slack.
Not all of my slack time is idle. If I dig down I’d say easily half of my slack time is directly related to work, and another quarter is tangential.
But that leaves a quarter of my slack time … in chat. Probably at least 10 hours a month. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – small talk at work is healthy and especially important during times of social distancing when I’m more hunger more than ever for social interaction. But at the moment the balance is disturbed. I also know that the existence of Slack makes it difficult for me to focus on writing.[Read: How Netflix shapes mainstream culture, explained by data]
This is not about whether Slack is good or bad for productivity – after all, Slack is just a tool. This is about studying how we use a particular tool and then making adjustments to make it work better for us. It turns out I need to block Slack in order to make good use of it when it’s time to focus. If you feel the same way, here’s how.
How to block Slack
There are enough of Apps to help you focus and block distractions. For this experiment, we used the SelfControl Mac app because it’s free and almost impossible to undo.
These apps all work similarly: you add a list of domains to block, set a timer, and then have no choice but to wait for the clock. To block Slack, you must block slack.com and your specific Slack subdomain (for example, zapier.slack.com). Make sure you close Slack too. In some cases, notifications will still be received. This means that you can see incoming messages but cannot reply. This is basically torture – and the opposite of it.
My usual routine is to hide two or three hours on my calendar. I make sure that all research is done in advance, especially anything I need to interview employees about. Then when my focus block shows up, I close Slack and block it with Self Control. I usually also block Twitter, just for good reason – add whatever apps you usually lose time on.
The beauty of Self Control is that it’s impossible to undo: if you don’t reinstall your operating system, you won’t be able to access Slack on your computer after you click begin Button – at least not until the timer runs out.
The details vary depending on the software used. However, here are some tips that are useful for any platform.
Do your research in advance. You don’t want to get into a situation where there is a question that you don’t have an answer to because you can’t ask your staff. For me, this meant sketching out an entire article with quotes and research in advance.
Block the time on your calendar. It’s easy to keep Slack open just because, so be on purpose. Schedule unplugged time – block it on your calendar if you have to. Set an intention and stick with it.
Write down questions that you want to ask laterSo you don’t have to ask any questions about Slack during the process. If you have any questions, put them in a document to ask later.
Put a status on Slack Let your reps know you are offline. I have An automation that sets “Write” as my status when I block writing time with Google Calendar.
Move your phone to another room. Also turn off all notifications. When you hear Slack news, you’ll wonder what’s going on, and that alone will be distracting. You could even get up and check Slack on your phone. Remove this temptation completely.
The surprising freedom of not being able to chat
Some of my coworkers blocked Slack with me. How was it? In a word, liberating.
“I turned off Slack for an hour today and it was very liberating,” said Eileen Ruberto, senior UX researcher at Zapier.
Deb Tennen, my editor, agreed.
“I got more done in 11 minutes than in an hour with open slack,” said Deb. “Knowing that I literally couldn’t check Slack even if I wanted to, helped put myself into focus mode. There are many times that I don’t check Slack for an hour, but even when I know it’s there, it distracts me and gets me out of my zone. “
I refer to it a lot. Sometimes I get stuck writing and opening Slack, more out of reflex than anything else. When Slack is blocked I can’t do that so I don’t even try to open it. Just knowing that I can’t access Slack makes it easier to focus. This, in turn, can create some kind of dynamic after the clock has expired.
“I ended up working with Slack for another two hours without a block because I was in the zone,” Eileen said.
I feel the same. I just went through a two hour blocked session but now I’m packing up this article instead of reviewing what I missed.
It wasn’t all positive, however. The main problem we encountered was predictable: sometimes you don’t know something and have to ask a colleague for help. The solution was simple enough.
“I was scared I’d have to look something up in Slack,” said Eileen. “There were a few things I absently tried to check Slack for, but then I just jotted them down to address later.”
Another problem was the all-too-human ability to find new distractions.
“At first I thought Slack was still working when it wasn’t, so I spent at least 10 minutes poking around to see if I could still get involved,” said Katie. She continued:
I tried finishing my Friday update and going through feedback on a document to make updates. I completed the update but learned that I’m very good at finding other distractions – apparently Slack isn’t my only problem, I’ve now blocked Twitter and Google Calendar as well (maybe honestly, I’m the real problem).
We are all our biggest problems. Blocking Slack doesn’t solve the problem of feeling distracted – no software tool can. But something like blocking Slack or some other distracting tool can help build the habit of Slack deep work. Blocking is just a tool that you can use to build the habit.
This didn’t fix all of my habits, but it gave me enough momentum to finish this article. It can probably help you too. Try it out and let us know if it works.