Or the great productivity paradox of our modern times
The message came late on a Friday night:
Hey man, just a heads up, I’ve been told by a few people today that they are finding it really hard to get hold of you on Slack. I know it’s hard to keep up with the madness, but just try stay on top of it mate. Even if you have loads of work just let them know your busy, in case they’re dealing with an emergency 🙂
This was a Slack message from my manager basically telling me I needed to get a hold of myself. For the past 2 months, our workload had increased a lot, and I was starting to feel a little overwhelmed. I had been quiet on Slack before, not getting back to people while still getting the work done. I had also been late on a few tasks in Asana, this was nothing new either. But it was the first time my manager reached out to me to let me know things needed to change.
After the pandemic, it was agreed that those who preferred to keep working from home were welcome to do so, as long as they were of course staying on top of the various projects we had to work on. I’ve been working remotely 90% of the time, which means I get a lot of Slack messages and/or emails. This also means that as soon as I get such a message, a notification pops up in the top right corner of my screen, which usually takes my focus away and thus makes me a lot less efficient at my work.
A few months ago, I decided to always turn on the “Do not disturb” mode on my laptop. The upside is that I can now get work done without being constantly interrupted. The downside is that if I don’t see a Slack message or I forget to reply to someone, people have basically no way of knowing what the hell I’m working on (well, they could look at my Asana dashboard, but we’ll get back to that).
In the beginning I would check my Slack once every hour, in between tasks, to make sure I wasn’t missing anything important, and to keep people up to date on the various projects we had going. But as more and more work kept coming in, I started checking my Slack less and less. The notifications began piling up, I became terrible at catching up on everything, and it culminated on that Friday evening when I was left with no choice but to find a solution to my messy digital life. Things had to change.
Within 1 week, I put together a system that enables me to stay on top of everything, available to others, all the while being able to focus and stay in flow. It is based on 5 core principles:
- Clear segmentation between digital tools (no 2-way interaction)
- “Do not disturb” mode at all times, for all tools
- Inbox 0 at all times
- Important messages get moved to to-do lists
- Always sort tasks by the nearest due date
In this article, I’ll present the system tool by tool, and give an overview of how I use it to make those tools work together.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say one good thing about Slack, yet everyone seems to use it. I don’t hate the tool, but everyone I talk to agrees that its biggest pain point is by far its notification system.
If you’re a small company, Slack can be great. But if you work for a big organization with hundreds of employees (like me), it becomes very, very hard to keep up with everything. In fact, putting together my new system made me realize it’s simply impossible to keep up with everything, and one of the main reasons for that can be summarized in one word: channels.
Channels in Slack are like groups. You get invited to them for events, workshops, meetings… There are channels for teams, for specific targets, campaigns, projects… Here is a screenshot of some channels I’m a member of:
The bold ones are the ones I haven’t read yet, and when someone specifically mentions you inside a channel, there’s a red dot next to it. But here is where it gets tricky. Inside channels, people can also reply to specific messages, and mention you there too, which creates another notification (I think). When someone replies to a message it creates a “thread”, which is like starting a whole new conversation inside the channel, outside of the main “feed”.
This means that if you stop keeping track of who is saying what for even a few hours, you most likely won’t be able to understand what the hell is going on. I always have unread messages on Slack. As hard as I try, I can never get to inbox 0, because I literally don’t know what message to look for, in what channel, what thread, what mention… I see I have notifications, but I don’t know where they point to.
It’s just bonkers, and everyone I’ve asked about Slack agrees with that. Yet somehow, people manage to keep track, and I haven’t. I have never thought too highly of myself, but I don’t think I’m particularly dumb, so I knew that if other people managed to keep track, I probably could too if I tried harder. Here is how I did it.
Step 1: leave all useless channels
Because I had given up on reading unread messages in old channels, some of these were months old and not even active anymore. I left 90% of the channels I was a part of, and just like that, I decreased my number of unread messages by over 50%.
Step 2: Inbox 0
I then proceeded to painstakingly find all the remaining unread messages, mentions, and threads I should have seen a long time ago. After about 20 minutes, I finally got to 0 unreads in Slack, and I am committed to keeping it at that moving forward. I know that if I let it pile up, I won’t bother to catch up, so I check my unreads at least once every 2 hours to stay on top of everything.
Step 3: Bookmark important messages
This is one of the cornerstones of my new system, and it’s based on a tip I got from one of my colleagues. Before I changed my approach to Slack, I would always see someone asked me to do something, and tell myself I’d get back to it. But because I was drowning in work, I would always have something to finish before that specific request, and I would eventually forget about the message 80% of the time. Even worse, I would sometimes remember I had something important to do but couldn’t find the message with the specific request anymore, buried somewhere in the threads.
I now use the bookmark function in Slack. As soon as I see a task request, or something I have to follow up on, I use the bookmark icon to save the message to my “Saved items” list, and I check that list when I’m done with my current task. This way, new requests don’t get lost in the constant stream of incoming messages, and I can “unsave” the task once I’m done working on it. The nice part about this is that I can also click on the saved message and it takes me straight from the “Saved items” list to the message in its original context:
Asana is another example of a popular solution that again, kind of fails to deliver on some key features. I often run into visibility issues on the platform, where I can’t see the whole project context around a task because it is “locked” by someone else’s progress on the overall project.
Many people I’ve talked to also agree that there are too many ways to have a conversation in Asana. I’m not even exactly clear on these, but here is what I got from it:
- The simplest way to message someone is to reply inside the task that was assigned to you and have a conversation there, but only people who have access to your task will see what you said.
- People can also start a conversation under the same task in the general project overview, but the problem with this is that if you’re busy talking about the task in your own task thread, you might miss what others are saying in the project overview, about the same task. I once worked on a task for days without hearing much feedback, before realizing that there was a whole thread going on in the main project thread, about the same task. This is ridiculous.
- You can also message everyone who’s part of a project in the “What’s the status” section on the Overview page of a project. This is something I have recently discovered and it seems to work fine.
Taming Asana: Table view for projects + tasks
The default dashboard view in Asana is actually not the most efficient at all. To keep track of everything I have to do and also make sure I get a full overview of what people are saying on parent projects (the main projects that hold the sub-tasks), I use the “My Tasks” view mode, and I sort the table by due date:
This way, I can both see the threads in:
- My tasks only: by clicking on a task in the first column on the left
- The overarching projects: by clicking on the parent project in the last column on the right
There are 9 tabs available for any given project homepage, and I only use 2 of those:
As a graphic designer, I often need to download assets from other team members or upload my own work, and the Files section is really nice for that. It removes the hassle of looking for the specific task where someone uploaded deliverables, everything gets automatically linked to in this section.
I use the Overview tab to send messages to everyone on the team (in the “What’s the status” section) and to find the key assets of a project. Usually, these will consist of a brief, a root folder on the cloud, and references for inspiration.
Once I got a hold of the 2 tools separately, I started wondering if there was any way to make my work more efficient by connecting the 2 platforms (Slack and Asana) together. Slack has a lot of options to connect to third-party tools, so I tried the Asana integration for a few days.
But then, I realized that all this does is post every single update on every single task and project I’m a part of, no matter how involved I am in it, or how close the deadline is. I didn’t find it useful, and the layout of the updates isn’t very clear either.
Plus, this adds up to my Slack notification count and makes me feel like I have even more to catch up on. I realized I might as well check and reply to everything in Asana, rather than add more complexity.
The great paradox of modern productivity
We’ve never been more busy and unproductive at the same time. It’s like technology has enabled us to save so much time and energy, but it’s been stealing our attention simultaneously. The result is this complete mess of unused productivity apps that we try for 2 weeks and give up on, unreplied emails that we forget about, and missed deadlines that stress us out for weeks on. We don’t need more integrations, more communication, more apps. We need to turn all the complexity these tools bring into simple, beautiful, and productive solutions.
In a world where connectivity, digital interactions, and notifications rule our everyday life, it has become almost natural to look for ways to integrate tools together. Your Apple watch has to be connected to your phone, which has to sync with your email, which is set up to ping all devices on every incoming message, and with Zapier you could even create a to-do task for every unresponded email. That’s great but unecessary.
With that in mind, segmentation became another fundamental principle of my system. Everything is already overwhelming, I don’t need more connected “stuff”. I figured the best way for me to stay on top of my workload in Asana and on top of my communication in Slack is to clearly separate them.
At the end of the day, no tool will ever be perfect, and I get that. Developing solutions that can keep up with the complexity of our modern world all the while being simple to use and nicely segmented is extremely challenging. Slack and Asana are at the forefront of digital productivity, but they still have a long way to go to become “natural” to use.
If you think about it, almost none of the technology we use daily was around 15 or even 10 years ago, and the rate at which we’re experiencing change is always increasing;
The next 10 years are about to get even crazier, and unless you’re willing to live under a rock and not learn anything new, you won’t have any other option but to adapt and adopt a lot of these new tools.
I do hope my article inspired you to make your digital productivity system more efficient, however, I also urge you to remember this: don’t follow all the productivity advice you read, watch and hear online. If your system is working, by all means, don’t change it.
You may be one of the few lucky ones who actually have their productivity sh*t together.