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Cutting off work-related digital distractions at work

I recently realized that I wasn’t as productive as I wished I was at work. Sure, the colleagues playing pool at any random time of the day right next to my desk, or the whistling and singing (seriously!) in the open space don’t help, but I noticed I was also distracted by something sneakier: some of my very work tools. Namely, Slack and e-mails.


Slack’s business consists in empowering users to replace their too numerous short e-mails that span long threads with… a hundredfold more numerous instant messages that fill a screenful of channels. Gee, what an improvement! Even with desktop notifications off and my phone most often in airplane mode, the red icon in the Slack browser tab, and e-mail notification if I ignore it too long, guarantee regular distractions. I eventually resorted to some drastic measures:

  • Leaving some channels where I really wasn’t relevant. Like that channel where designers configured Zeplin to send notifications every time they commit a change
  • Muting chitchat channels like #random or #music
  • Starring as few as possible important channels, and hiding by default all channels except the starred ones and those with unread stuff
  • Limiting notifications to mentions and direct messages (and keywords, but I don’t have any), when I have to have notifications on (when working remotely)

I’m down to 6 starred channels and 4 muted channels out of around 25+. I also starred 3 private messaging channels, with tiny groups of people I regularly exchange with. I didn’t leave that many channels, I’d say about 3 or 4. But even then, Slack is now a lot less distracting. Unread stuff flashes way less often, and whenever I do check updates in those less important channels, as soon as I leave them they disappear again. Out of sight, out of mind.

Note that muted channels will reappear when you have unread messages in them, only they won’t be highlighted (unlike non-muted channels). Now that I think of it, this seems logical, but at first I was a bit surprised by this.


That may be a bit trickier depending on your setup and habits. When I last changed my e-mail provider, from the start I added folders and I set up filters so that habitual incoming e-mails end up right where they belong, rather than flood my inbox. Try to do that. But not all at once: every time a new e-mail arrives, see if it’s a regular one that should fall into a folder. By regular, I don’t necessarily mean newsletters: it could also be for instance a contact with whom you exchange regularly.

Since I mentioned newsletters: ditch them. Seriously, if you do just one thing about your e-mails, I think that’s the one, and that’s easy enough. Like the incoming e-mail filter, don’t try to do it all at once, do it as they come. When a newsletter arrives, ask yourself: does it really interest me? Has this newsletter interested me at any time within the last X months? If no, hit that unsubscribe button. If yes, ask yourself if you really need to have that information pushed into your inbox, or if you can just actively consult it in your own time.
Unsubscribing is easier than ever now, as GDPR prompted newsletter managers to make sure unsubscribing is easy. Since I started the draft of this post, I think I unregistered from about 20 newsletters. My e-mail box feels so much quieter now 🙂

A last idea about your e-mails, although that one is hard to reach: try to keep your inbox empty. The previous tips are more important, and kind of a prerequisite, in order not to waste time moving e-mails around. Also, achieving a truly empty inbox might be a bad goal if you focus on it so much that it becomes in itself a distraction. But an empty, or near-empty, or at least an inbox where you can see the bottom of the list without scrolling feels quite relaxing to me. So I do try to keep my inbox to less than a screenful. Even if it means moving some e-mails into a “todo” folder that I process regularly: the inbox is where I land whenever I open my e-mail tab, a little stash out of sight in a todo folder feels better than a crowded inbox.


Slack: leave and mute channels, star the few important channels, hide non-starred channels, tune down (or fully turn off) notifications
E-mails: unsubscribe from newsletters, auto-sort regular incoming e-mails into folders, move the rest manually out of the inbox

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