Last year I turned off all my notifications. I stopped booking meetings. I started living asynchronously.
Now instead of being interrupted throughout the day — or rushing from one meeting to the next — I sit down and get work done.
I work a lot. I communicate with hundreds of people a day. I collaborate extensively. But I do so on my own terms, at my own tempo.
You can live more asynchronously, too. I’ll explain the benefits. I’ll show you how.
We’ll start by talking about how interruptions — even scheduled ones — can destroy your productivity.
But first, a web comic:
Did you see what happened? The boss came by and totally wrecked the developer’s train of thought. And for what? To notify them that the next time they checked their email, a message would be there?
When you interrupt a developer, it takes an average of 10 minutes before they can get back to productively coding.
So why do 70% of offices these days look like this?
Most studies conclude the same thing that this widely-cited paper does: people hate open plan offices.
Employers have chosen to sacrifice job satisfaction and productivity, all so they can pack a few extra sardines into $72-per-square-foot San Francisco office spaces.
They do this under the guise of lowering barriers to communication. But if you think about it, they should be raising them instead.
Because here’s what happens when you need to get some real work done in an open plan office:
Reaching that flow state
Let’s talk a bit about how us humans get work done.
Is it four hours of crushing it, a lunch break, then four more hours of crushing it?
No. It’s more like coffee, email, coffee, meeting, coffee, lunch with coworkers, coffee — OK finally time to get some work done!
Did you know the average developer only gets two hours of uninterrupted work done a day? They spend the other 6 hours in varying states of distraction.
But here’s what happens during the two hours they have to themselves.
They warm up.
They check logs, issues, and wrap their heads around what needs to be done.
They dive into the code.
Their pupils dilate.
They enter what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a “flow state.”
If you’ve ever been “in the groove” or “in the zone,” that’s what this is. A happy state of energized focus. Flow.
If your job requires even an ounce of creativity, you’ll do your best work in one of these flow states.
And yes, you can reach a flow state in an open plan office, with noise cancelling headphones cranked up to 11. But it’s a lot easier when you’re in a quiet, comfortable room by yourself.
So Mihaly figures out that task switching utterly devastates your productivity. Something as mundane as getting a text message about dinner will completely wipe out all those things you’re juggling in your working memory. It will knock you out of your flow state.
Most of Mihaly’s fellow researchers agree. There’s a serious cost to switching between tasks.
Mihaly spends the next 30 years researching flow states. He publishes a ton of papers. He does some consulting. He teaches at Berkeley. He writes some books. Here’s a good one.
But employers, for the most part, don’t listen.
They continue to cram their teams together into noisy open plan offices.
They continue to pepper their teams’ days with meetings.
They expect their teams to be responsive to emails or Slack, further dashing hopes of ever reaching a flow state and getting some real work done.
Do you think Tolstoy could have written War and Peace in an open plan office?
Do you think Mozart could have composed The Marriage of Figaro in between stand-ups and one-on-ones?
Do you think Torvalds could have designed the Linux Kernel with Slack notifications popping up every 15 seconds?
How to live asynchronously
Here are three things you can do reclaim your flow state.
I’ll assume that, like most people, you’re crazy busy. You’re skeptical of the gazillions of productivity tips you see in your newsfeeds every day. And you probably don’t greet major lifestyle changes with open arms.
So I’ll introduce these in increasing order of commitment required. One Dalí Clock means you can do it immediately after finishing this article. Four Dalí Clocks means you’ll need a full-blown action plan to make the leap.
Tip #1: Turn off as many notifications as you can (difficulty: 1 Dalí Clock)
Remember when Microsoft Outlook added that feature where it showed you a notification every time you received an email? You shut that off, right?
Good. Now shut off pretty much every other notification on your phone and computer.
Do you really need to be notified right this instant that a new podcast will be available during your commute home tonight? Or that your aunt liked the photo you took of your lunch two days ago?
The only notification you really need is that old standby from 100 years ago: the phone ring.
Because if it’s really important, people will call.
I can’t find you in the food court. Call.
Your kid threw up at school. Call.
The servers are melting down. Call.
Some of my friends will still leave their text message notifications on. I did this for a few years, too. But I turned these off a few months ago. So far, planes have not fallen from the sky.
As a bonus, when people expect to hear back from you within 24 hours — rather than 10 minutes — they take the time to actually think about what they want to say to you. No more “hey there” texts. Or that old favorite: “can I ask you a question?”
By the way, just for fun, here’s the extreme opposite of no notifications:
Tip #2: Defend your time by dodging meetings (difficulty: 2 Dalí Clocks)
Next time you sit in a meeting, do a quick experiment. Write down all the important things discussed that couldn’t have just been mentioned in an email thread.
There may be a few. But were those things really worth the 30 to 60 minutes you just spent away from your work?
Email brings out the Hemingway in all of us. When someone can’t get their point across in an email, it just means they’re going to have an even harder time explaining it in person.
The next time someone writes you asking if you have time to meet, try responding: “What do you want to talk about?”
They’ll write you back with an answer.
Then respond: “OK — what are your thoughts on that?”
They’ll write you back with an answer.
Then respond with your own thoughts on the matter if necessary. Or just say: “OK — sounds good.”
Phew. Meeting dodged.
Sometimes you get that message from a cheerful stranger on LinkedIn: “Let’s grab coffee and catch up!” Or that message from a coworker: “Can I swing by your desk and pick your brain?”
If these people valued your time, they would just tell you what they wanted right up front. But in many cases, they don’t know exactly what they want.
Don’t commit your scarce time to meet with them unless it’s clear that they know what they want, and they’re willing to tell you before hand.
A lot of people may bristle at you not just accepting their meeting request. Be polite and patient, and tell them you’re happy to answer their questions right here — in the email chain, or instant message client — wherever here may be.
Your time is your most valuable asset. Be protective of it. Don’t let others thoughtlessly waste it.
Tip #3: Ask for a private office, or to work from home (difficulty: 4 Dalí Clocks)
There are tremendous benefits to working remotely. When you have 4 minutes, read this article: Fitter. Happier. More productive. Working remotely. An economic analysis of distributed teams.
A lot of the 13% productivity gain you get when you work remotely is because you’re not in a noisy office.
If you can’t work remotely — or if you are one of the many people who enjoys the energy of the workplace — ask for a private office.
Time to think. Time to create. Time enough at last.
In closing, I strongly recommend this book by one of the founders of Pixar.
You can learn about their experiments with improving their teams’ productivity and creativity. Among other things, it explores the evolution of their meetings, their use of open plans, and their transition back to mostly private offices.
Thanks for reading, and happy coding.