Email isn’t the only high-tech distraction that makes it hard to focus at work. You’re probably also struggling to manage business text and instant messages, not to mention notifications from services like Skype and Slack or HipChat. A client recently wrote me to ask for tips on the best ways to manage messages from these sources.
These messages create interruptions. But my client has noticed they cause another problem: They’re easy to forget about once you’ve read them, because the notification disappears. That’s fine sometimes. For example, your boss might text that she’s running late and to start the staff meeting without her. The issue comes when you need to take action based on the message and you’re not in a position to act when you read it.
I shared with this client some of the strategies I use to manage business text, instant messages, and other notifications. These techniques help me both limit distractions and make sure I follow through when needed.
Tell Others How to Reach You
The best way to manage business messages like texts, IM, and group chat notifications is to set boundaries for how you want people to interact with you.
For me, text and IM are appropriate only for information I need to know immediately, like “I’m stuck in traffic” or “While you’re at the store, we also need copy paper!” I only check text, instant message, and other notifications when I’m not doing other work. Otherwise I always have them set to some form of silent, “away” or “do not disturb,” so I can get work done without being interrupted. So I don’t have the problem my client described of allowing the distraction from the incoming message, but not being in a position to act on it. I’d recommend this course of action if you can (try it for just 15 or 20 minutes every hour to get important work done). However, if you don’t feel that you’re in a position to silence these distractions, even for brief intervals throughout the day, here are some other options for dealing with the interruptions.
For information about something I need to do later, the people I work with know that I’d rather receive that info via a different communications tool, like voicemail or email.
I recommend that you tell others about your own communications preferences—if not explicitly then by the way you respond. That alone should help you manage messages.
Deal With Disruptive Messages
But, inevitably, someone is not going to abide by your wishes. Let’s say, for example, that you get a message from a colleague about a task you need to do later, but you can’t act on that text now. You have a few options to manage this business text or instant message, depending on your relationship with the sender.
Ignore it. And leave the burden of initiating the conversation again, with the sender. I believe we all have to be both responsible receivers and senders of information. Conveying information in a way the recipient has already told you doesn’t work for her is like trying to play catch with someone who doesn’t know she is in the game. Furthermore, you’re also throwing the ball at her back and then blaming her when she doesn’t catch it!
Change the channel. Stop what you’re doing when you receive the text, capture the information, and respond to the sender by phone or email when it’s convenient for you. This gives the sender the message about the best way to communicate with you. It may take more than one time, but eventually, most people will start to notice your preferences. They’ll stop communicating with you in ways that don’t get a response.
Give a reminder. Follow the above strategy, and then add a statement like this one but based on your own preferences: “Text is not a good way to reach me except for urgent or time-sensitive communication, so please use email going forward.”
Block Out Distractions
Again, don’t forget the power of putting your phone in “do not disturb” mode, and setting your other services to “away” (or closing them completely) when you don’t want to have to manage business texts and other instant messages. If the matter is truly urgent, the sender will use another method to reach you. Depending on your phone, you can also allow messages from certain sources to be received even when you’re in DND mode. Worried that you’ll forget to take your phone out of DND mode to start receiving messages again? Use a reminder like a rubber band around your phone.
You should also always close out your IM client or otherwise prevent it from receiving messages anytime you don’t want to be interrupted, or when you can’t take action on the messages you receive.
For example, I stay logged out of Slack except when I’m expressly working in it. Notifications appear on my phone but stay “unread” until I check them. I don’t see Slack notifications on my computer until I log in to the service. And I do that only when I can address my messages there.
Tools like texts, IM and Slack aren’t going away. So it’s important to learn to use them in ways that boost your productivity instead of depleting it. In my upcoming book, Work Without Walls, I’ll give you more strategies on effective corporate communication strategies. Stay tuned here for updates on its release date.