How Slack is Silently Killing Your Productivity

For a few months I’ve been trying to convince our team to spend less time on Slack. Not so easy.

Slack’s state-of-the-art onboarding and overall likability makes it feel as if I'm trying to kick a popular colleague off of the team.

More than with any other product I’ve used, Slack feels like a friend. So why on earth pick a fight with him? These are my reasons.

1
Slack breaks your flow

Reaching a state of flow requires around 20 minutes of uninterrupted focus time. Whenever this is broken, whether by a colleague walking up to you or by an incoming Slack message, you have to start over again. Slack spreads your attention residue all over your chats and channels.

cartoon of a light saber

We shouldn't care about the number of hours spent in the office; we should care about the quantity and quality of work we get done. And most work is done better and faster when we’re in a state of flow.

Responsive jobs, like chat support, are by their very nature filled with interruptions. So Slack makes sense for our support team to quickly discuss customer questions in a dedicated channel, or to receive notifications from Chat Butler.

But most teams using Slack don't have responsive jobs. I get worried, for example, when I read that NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is using Slack as their main communication platform. Lucky that it's just robots that they're launching.

2
Slack creates a pressure for responsiveness

The fact that we're connected all the time is pressuring us into permanent responsiveness. That’s messed up. We need peace of mind to think. We’re all knowledge workers, so our economic value derives from our brains.

A clear mind is an undistracted mind. So when it comes to professional tools, we should be stimulating those that produce fewer distractions, not more.

3
Slack is too easy

When you lack some information, Slack makes it too easy to just send a message to the person who could give it to you – instead of thinking it over yourself a bit. You basically sacrifice the other person’s flow for a few moments saved in thinking time.

Besides not breaking anyone’s flow, another advantage of favoring a project management tool like asana for your communication, is that the information will also be visible for others working on the relevant task or project. Less duplication of questions and answers.

4
Slack is like a never-ending meeting

There’s always something you can add to a conversation; there’s always an opportunity to make a good point or joke.

What’s the sense in setting up strict, time-saving meeting principles while letting our digital meetings run wild?

cartoon of two chairs

5
Slack messages are disconnected from context

Unlike a tool like asana, in which you can comment directly on a task or project, Slack requires you to always add contextual information.

Asana is task-oriented; Slack is conversation-oriented. And like in normal conversations, things easily slip off-topic. Communicating via a project management tool forces you to structure your thoughts towards actions.

6
Slack is a silent killer of productivity

Slack is similar in its addictiveness to social media apps like Facebook and WhatsApp. That has to do with them operating on a variable ratio schedule. Imagine a refrigerator that, whenever you open it, would contain a different food product. That's basically how slot machines work, and that would be a mightily addictive refrigerator.

cartoon of a brain

Today's addictive apps work the same. In Slack, a new message could always be waiting, so there is a constant pull to open the app. But unlike social media, Slack doesn’t give you that guilty feeling. It doesn’t feel like you’re not working – you’re discussing work-related stuff, after all.

7
Slack hasn't fixed much

Slack was supposed to fix the problem of inbox overload, but what did it fix, really? Focus is still being broken. And like email’s CC tyranny, we are still pulled into wave after wave of discussions that don’t really concern us.

Slack boosts transparency, is one common argument. But when we checked our Slack stats, they showed that 95% of the messages sent were private, direct messages. Where's the transparency in there?

Slack is like email, but then a real-time, colleague-only type of email. The colleague-only part is nice, but the real-time element has added a stressful expectation of instant replies.

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Sometimes while engaged in a Slack conversation, I find myself waiting for a response after sending a message. How stupid is that? The other person might have walked away for a coffee, and I’m sitting there waiting.

8
"But I can manage it"

Yes, some people are better than others at managing Slack. Any team's Slack stats will show you that. The real question, however, isn’t whether you're relatively good at managing it, but whether the quality of your work would be better without it.

A study in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research showed that the mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces your available cognitive capacity. Your smartphone is literally making you dumber. I bet Slack has the same effect, because the process is similar. By nature we are curious about the happenings within our tribe. Resisting the urge to check for new messages sucks some of our brains’ processing power.

So why did we ever decide on Slack?

Well... first off, Slack is a silent killer. It takes some reflection to realize the negative effects trumping the positive ones, which definitely exist:

  • Chatting is fun (which contributes to it being the perfect channel for customer support)
  • Slack gives a feeling of having everyone on one page
  • Slack gives instant access to anyone
  • Slack gives the illusion of transparency and being able to track everything
  • For managers, Slack gives a feeling of control that comes with seeing everyone’s green dots lit up (“Aah they are all working, great!”).

Also, the negative effects grow slowly with team size. At Userlike, we’ve been using IMs for collaboration since the early days, starting with Adium.

When you’re working in a team of four, the number of daily chats is manageable. Ten is also still ok. The 30-something we are now isn’t apocalyptic either… we're still getting stuff done. But things are quickly getting worse. We're like the boiling frog.

We should be careful not to fall for what Cal Newport terms the 'Any Benefit Fallacy' calls in his book Deep Work. Yes, Slack has its merits. I’ve had a lot of laughs over Slack chats, and no asana conversation has ever cracked me up. And yes, it feels good to see everyone on one page – especially for a remote worker like myself.

But no combination of benefits can offset the downside of broken flow and productivity. Getting stuff done is why we’re working here in the first place.

Fixes

I believe those are all my objections to Slack... So should teams who want to get things done get rid of Slack altogether? Maybe, I’m not sure. There are some legitimate benefits that come with instant messaging, especially for support teams. But these could probably be obtained with a free Slack account, or with a simpler tool like Adium.

But instead of killing off Slack right away, let me suggest two simple fixes first.

A. Take more offline time. We’ve made various earlier attempts to incentivize teammates to adjust their chat behavior, such as only using Slack for urgent messages.

The problem with this approach is incentive misalignment: the offender isn’t the one bearing the costs. Only the receiver’s flow is disturbed by the message. That is, unless you take full control over when you check your messages.

When you go on- or offline is always within your circle of control. The Slack behavior of your colleagues is not. Your productivity is your responsibility, so take control and only check Slack on fixed times, for example as you would check email. In the morning, noon, and at the end of the day, for example.

B. For emergencies, call or walk up to the person. But emergencies hardly ever happen. Don’t break your colleague’s flow out of laziness.

C. Use a project management tool. Instead of Slack, do most of your communication via a project management tool, where everything is task-based. We use asana, but practically all such tools have communication options built into them.

Slack is definitely not an evil colleague bent on destroying your productivity. Rather, it's a lovable one who does so unwittingly, just by being so much fun to hang around the water cooler with.