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Personal productivity 2020 - Slack and Microsoft Teams didn't ruin work - but they didn't fix work either

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed February 7, 2020
We're in the era of messaging disillusionment. Slack, Teams et al didn't solve our productivity problems. But we can't squander this year hoping for a better tool to come along. In that spirit, here's my zen of personal productivity for 2020.


I almost didn't do a 2020 productivity post this year - I was too busy crossing items off my to-do list. That, in essence, is our modern productivity dilemma.

We are too busy notching tasks to plot our strategic direction. We are too busy putting out fires to get transformative deliverables out. You know, the unique IP that changes our company or career (The career-defining consequences of value productivity).

But there's a twist that motivated me to put this out after all. For lack of a better term, I'll call it "messaging disillusionment." I think you've run into it by now, via linkbaity pieces like How Slack Ruined Work.

For an all-too-brief honeymoon, the enterprise surge of next-gen messaging/collaboration tools like Slack, Teams, and Workplace by Facebook implied we could put our email bog pit out of its misery. Mobile-ready UIs and emoticon shorthand would save us from ourselves.

Granted, email isn't the only productivity mudslide. Our always-on smart phones are probably the tougher conundrum. But: the intoxicating notion that we could eradicate email by empowering work teams was a nice productivity twist to ponder. It was also a lawful alternative to elaborate retaliations on "reply to all" and "I'm adding you to this thread" email abusers.

We've also made use of messaging environments in our personal lives, from text to instant messenger to Twitter direct messages. And yes, the asynchronous-to-synchronous flow of these tools is often far more convenient than either phone or email.

All the workplace messaging tools have stats indicating small-to-big declines in email usage (particularly internal emails). But as Wired's "How Slack Ruined Work" points out, it's not like that work went away in a puff of Slack notifications. It just moved to a (hopefully) better interface for that type of communication. Wired warns, however, that messaging brings an always-on dopamine-like fix, one that can hurt our productivity more than email, via continual distractions. They quote neuroscientist Lucas Miller:

Technology advances usually supplant what has come before but Slack hasn't, it's just doubled the pain, he says. The problem, Miller explains, goes beyond the inconvenience of monitoring another inbox. He sees Slack as a particularly "scary offender" in stopping people getting their work done because it encourages them to be constantly distracted. It's scary because messenger-based systems directly tap into how humans seek to reward themselves, and the long term result is unhealthy.

I agree to a point, but: a busy email inbox is dodgy for prioritizing. When a client or co-worker needs me, messaging has a jugular result that a hectic email inbox cannot compete with.

Where are we going to land here? With the same productivity dilemmas:

  1. New messaging tools can be valuable for paring email back to the core it's best for. But messaging is ultimately just another tool to consider, not a workplace transformation (Our Phil Wainewright has written extensively on the broader collaboration issues that must be solved).
  2. Our employers and clients won't necessarily implement these tools properly, or have our productivity interests at heart. Therefore, that rare counter-balance of value productivity and peace of mind is a personal commitment. It requires our attention and advocacy.

So how does an individual have a productive and sane 2020? Obviously, you can't shut off your spastically-vibrating phone, or work on next-gen deliverables, when something is blowing up at your client.

I believe we all have one thing in common now: the reality of daily task incompletion. No matter how hard you or I work today, we're going to leave some things undone. Chances are, several of those things will nag at us. At least a couple will seem pretty important - yet still undone. If we want to look after our health, REM sleep, and families, that means leaving even more undone.

Ten tips for productivity zen in 2020

1. Therefore, a huge productivity skill is cultivating a "zen of incompleteness." That's a brutal one for me personally. I love a perfectly tidy desk, a to-do-list all marked out, and email at inbox-zero to match. But a "zero inbox" is the equivalent of a freshly moved lawn - a dog can't wait to poop on it. That's why I'm a big fan of "inbox 20". Inbox 20 solves that hopeless "zero inbox" obsession, but still imposes discipline. Apps that ease email inbox hassles can be potent also - my colleague Den Howlett swears by them (I'll add his latest app recommendation in later).

I had a co-worker with a nifty mantra, "I love my job; it is never complete; I'll get back to it tomorrow." That's the zen of incompleteness.

But of course, incompleteness is not always ok. Each day, we need to ensure the right things are completed and not, based on a shifting set of external pings and demands. Therefore:

2. Effectively re-prioritize, probably 3 - 6 times a day, taking stock of progress and slotting new inputs.

3. Apply filters to both communications and content. Ratchet those filters up and down based on our short-term time constraints (Email filters are powerful, but just the beginning here). Automating personal workflows may help also - there's a whole life hacks culture around that to explore.

4. Take control of your devices to make them subservient to your filters, rather than being prisoners of our pings. Tech detoxes are highly blogged about, but overrated. Same with social media detoxes. What is underrated? A set of filters that allows us to let in more, or less, based on our availability. See: Rethinking enterprise productivity - a critique of digital minimalism.

5. Protect your ability to unplug, sometimes for 15 minutes, sometimes for larger chunks, where we can only be interrupted by a select few. We aren't delivering differentiated work if we can't unplug. Yet too many of us pride ourselves on constant availability. Airplane mode is underrated also, and works great when you're nowhere near the tarmac

6. Excel at communication of that which is done - and isn't yet done. And: how we can be reached by those who need us. Example: I can't be effective, especially at events, when email is always on. It's on me to let my event planners know how to easily reach me otherwise (phone, text, etc).

7. The overall balance between task productivity and value productivity must be preserved for our careers to thrive, but that balance equals out over months, not days, or even weeks. There are times where the right move is to focus on a burning client issue, or hitting a tough deadline. Then you get back to the forward-thinking stuff.

8. There is no perfect productivity system. That's why the "4 Hour Workweek" is now used as lining for gerbil cages everywhere. Take what works and create your personal way of getting it done.

9. Use the portability of work to your advantage, while limiting the downside. The blurring of work and life can intrude upon us in the most unwelcome ways. But: portability can also be a win. I've written diginomica pieces on forest trails, waiting in dental offices, and even on party buses.

10. Digital well-being is a thing. So is replenishing ourselves outside of our jobs.

My take

Yes, most employers need to think more creatively about these issues. But burnout is our responsibility. We should not accept every expectation on our tool use and personal availability. Our job is to deliver, and come to a mutual agreement on the best tools to get that done.

Looking after ourselves is a big part of that. I've become a fan, for example, of the walking meeting. I've had countless clients and friends put up with my outdoor phone calls. It's gracious of them; if I took all calls at my desk, I'd become part of my furniture for good.

This summer, I went on a short hike with my friend Jim Spath who was in town. I took him to a local wildlife preserve I had been too busy to explore prior. Since then, I try to get there wherever I can. If I have to bring my work with me from time to time, so be it.

Unplugging is a discipline. With diginomica seven years in, we are all plenty busy. My diginomica partners are some of the best people I've ever met; my feeling of loyalty to them is sky-high. I never want to let them down, or postpone a target. Yet if I allow myself to take a work call from my desk when I could have taken it from the woods, well, that's not on my partners, that's on me. And it's my job to preserve my long term while taking care of the short term.

In closing, here's a pic I took from the preserve while I was on a work call this winter.

mill river Northampton - winter

While I'm out there, I always take a few minutes on a trail bench and clear out the task mites. So go ahead and use Slack, or Teams, or not. Make a list or not. But in 2020, find your bench.

winter bench Northampton

If you want more detail on these steps, particularly filtering and prioritizing, check my semi-occasional diginomica series, Jon Reed on productivity, filtering, and beating the noise, via differentating "deep work" and the art of curation.

Updated, Feb 8, 7am UK time with a bunch of resource links and small edits for a better read.

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