Become productive again · Henning Witzel

Become productive again

January 5th, 2020 · 4 min read

When I joined NewStore five years ago, I had no idea what it means to have a calendar that feels like a school timetable or an inbox with 200 unread emails overnight. Chat tools like Slack made it possible for everybody to reach out to me and interrupt whenever they think it's necessary. In the beginning, I thought I need to be responsive to everybody not to seem rude or unproductive – but actually, I started to feel and became unproductive.

You go into the office in the morning and join one meeting after another. During the breaks and even during the meetings, you are checking Slack. And of course, your email inbox pops up every now and then to inform you about something that happened in Jira. It was time for a change!

Books like It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, Ted Talks about Why work doesn't happen at work, and articles like Group Chat, Group Stress inspired me to look for solutions in my current work environment.

Regain control of your calendar

Finding a time slot in someone's calendar is easy. You can just drag and drop in a meeting and book their time. Did you consider that this person maybe wants to get some work done? No, not at all. Should you invite Andy as well, since he might know something about it? Yeah, let's check his calendar. It was never easier to schedule something - thanks, Google!

This easiness comes with a cost: you're not in control anymore of your own time. I started to experiment to regain control.

First, I tried to reduce the number of meetings I was invited to. Do I really need to be there? In the last three times, was there something important I would have otherwise missed? What was the purpose of this again? Most of the meetings have no agenda and lack a certain sense of purpose. My favorite meetings are the "sync meetings" where you suppose to update each other. For those, I started to recommended using asynchronous ways to keep everyone updated. I can read them in my own time and ask questions afterward if needed.

Second, I planned my calendar a couple of weeks ahead and added working blocks. For example, if there was nothing on my calendar on a Monday between 10:00 am and 12:30 pm, I blocked 2,5 hours. Then after lunch until the first meeting, I can have another 3,5 hours of blocked time.

After some weeks, I regained some control back. The working blocks helped me to focus and get work done. Naming them by the number of available hours gave me a good indication of how much time I have. Some people told me they can't book any meetings with me anymore since my calendar is always full. Well, sure, you can. Just speak to me upfront, let me know the purpose, and I'll make time for you! Most of the time, a meeting isn't even necessary, and it should be the last resort anyway. Below you can see two examples from Slack where people from my team tried to book time - it worked!

There are still people who ignored the working blocks and put meetings up. Every time some did that, I checked if there is a description or agenda. If not, I declined politely and asked them why do they want to meet. Some colleagues became more aware and respected the working blocks. At least they didn't put a meeting in the middle of the 4-hour block and instead tried the beginning or the end – I appreciated that!

Remove distractions

Notifications are helpful to get informed about something and don't miss out. There are situations where you really need that, but most of the time, during a typical workday, you don't.

Apps like Slack, Calendar, Mail, iMessage, Tweetbot, and others literally spam you with notifications – everything seems to be important and urgent. The Do Not Disturb mode in Mac OSX helps, but it's not always the notifications itself that disctracts. It's also having these apps open. A quick check if someone wrote something in #random or if there are new mails is just a click away. Humans are really good procrastinators and look for things to distract.

Luckily I found an app called Quitter. It automatically hides or quits distracting apps after periods of inactivity. I've found it tremendously helpful to my work efficiency to hide Slack and quit Mail after 10 minutes of inactivity.

Approx Slack – I turned my status always offline and left a lot of channels because group chats mean group stress. It was said nicely by Basecamp that a "[...] group chat is like being in an all-day meeting, with random participants, and no agenda." So I used one of their advice and started to treated chat and specifically channels like a sauna — stay a while but then get out.

Work from home

It may sound counterintuitive, but the office unfortunately is not the best location to get work done. Companies spend a lot of money to provide a nice office with a good infrastructure for everybody. One of the downsides is that your colleagues can always walk to your desk and disturb you. Sometimes they ask questions they could have quickly answered by themselves, or just want to chat because they saw you.

If I really need to get some important work done, the best way to do that is to stay home and do it there. You can easily remove all the usual work distractions and take as much time as you need. If your job allows you to do that, then consider yourself lucky – not everybody has that luxury.

Removing meetings from my calendar, adding working blocks, and using apps like Quitter helped me to become more productive at work.