The Folly of Real Time Chat

Real time chat clients like Slack, Hipchat and Skype are becoming very common place in most work places. They let you communicate quickly with your co-workers and ask questions as soon as they come up in your work day.

That all sounds great but it means yet another pervasive distraction in your work environment. However, unlike email, real time chat still has the expectation of a near immediate response. This is the problem. Even the smallest distractions have a switching cost – the time it takes to bring your mind back to where you were before the distraction.

Such requests are almost always not urgent (if they are, they are usually followed up by other means like a phone call). They serve the requester well, in that they can get assistance with a problem they are facing in real time. But they have a high cost to whoever gets distracted by the request. Multiply this by the people in a group or channel for a group request and it becomes clear they are clear and present danger to productivity. A group/channel request is basically like walking through an office with a loudspeaker shouting out your problem. Is what you are asking really important enough to be doing that?

The usually quoted time to refocus after a distraction is around 15 mins. A few trivial real time requests can quickly build up to hours of distraction across the entire organisation because they are much more difficult to ignore (and the expectation is for them to be answered immediately).

Like all tools, real time chat, is just a way to communicate. It is up to the user to use the tools well. The first thing in adopting such tools is to drop the stigma associated with not responding immediately to a real time chat message. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

The second thing, is awareness. Realise what it costs to make such requests. Make it clear they aren’t urgent (they never are). Set the expectation to receive a message when the other party is ready which could and probably should be many hours after your request.

Take Control of your Time

A key principle in productivity is that if you don’t take control of your time, someone else will take control of it for you.

Every endeavour in self improvement requires establishing a habit, and a key part of that habit is allocating time to focus on that habit above all else. Considering a regular workout routine, or a habit of reading daily. To get these habits to stick, you first have to be the master of your time, and master is the correct word here. You need to be ruthless, and make sure everyone around you understands it is your time, and it is more valuable. Don’t let them make you feel guilty for it. When its all said done, what are the chances you’ll regret not clocking in more time for someone else? Remember, its an investment in your life, and interestingly, by ruthless in your time, you can come out of it all, more able to help those around you, because you put yourself first.

I find one way to make this stick is to remember the safety advice when you get on a flight:

“Fit your oxygen mask before helping others.”

Look after yourself first, so you can help others later.

The Path of Least Resistance

Like most things in nature (water, electricity) humans tend to follow the past of least resistance. Another way to put it is that we tend to default to conserving energy.

Given the options, we tend to take the path that requires the least amount of effort/thought. Yes I’m saying we are all lazy. If you don’t believe it, consider whether you would rather watch a good TV show or clean the house. It isn’t your fault, blame biology. The tendency to conserve energy makes sense. What if there’s a tiger around the corner waiting to chase you?

One weapon against this is will power, which we all know is fairly limited but works. This is what stops us (well most of us) from just sitting around all day and not accomplishing anything. To take another physics analogy, we also follow the law of motion, which for this purpose can be paraphrased as :

“things at rest tend to stay at rest and things in motion tend to stay in motion”

That is, once you have some momentum, the path of least resistence often changes, and it is easier to keep doing the thing you are already doing whether that’s resting or moving.

So with some theory behind us, my suggestion is to always assume you and your future self will take the past of least resistance. People are over optimistic about what they think they will accomplish. This view point brings you back down to earth.

If you have 4 hrs left on a project, the optimistic future planner in us assumes we can knock that over in half a day tomorrow. But seriously, if we are to assume we will take the path of least resistance for the entire day on this project what is actually reasonable? Maybe 15 mins assuming we arrange that time in advanced? Better to get 15 mins in, then plan to get the full 4 hrs in and to do none (and then feel really bad about it!). At the end of the day you have actually progressed. This way of thinking is a real cognitive barrier. Because it goes like this:

(A) “I could have done 4 hours on this project but I didn’t do anything on it. I’ll definitely get 4 hours in tomorrow”. Or worse yet, “what’s wrong with me, why do I keep procrastinating? I’ll never get this done”.


(B) “I did 15 minutes on the project, yippee and now there’s only 3hr 45mins to go”. Perhaps better yet that 15 minutes has made siginificant progress on the project and now there’s only another hour to go?

Think about the difference in working week (5 days):

  • Scenario (A) means we have 4 hours left because we planned and failed to complete the whole project on any given day.
  • Scenario (B) means we have competed 75 minutes (5 days, 15 mins a day) of the project.

There’s a really important side effect of Scenario B. That 15 minutes each day is doing a lot things in the background that do not happen with scenario A, for example:

  • You are building the thought process, ideas, cognitive pathways to solve the problems associated with the project
  • You are thinking about the project outside of the 15 minutes you actively work on it (subconsciously) and you your brain is actually doing some background processing for the next day.
  • You are succeeding in small increments (not failing) and therefor eating the elephant one bite at a time.
  • You might identifier any blockers or additional items you need to do in that 15 mins that you can progress independently of the main project.

An impressive trick, considering that often you will find this approach will solve the problem faster than you anticipated, assuming it isn’t something that is purely time based, as most projects are a mix of creativity, work, and follow up.

One final thought. Remember that any estimate you have on the length of time to complete project, can often be optimistic. The 4 hour project might end up taking 10 hours. So scenario B (15 minute increments) will bring that to light a lot faster than starting the entire project in Scenario A and finding out the elephant is a lot larger than you thought!


I recently discovered Workflowy and have been using it for just over a week and really love it. I use it for task management but really it can do a lot more. At first glance it seems too simple, but you’ll quickly discover that is what makes it so good. It turns into a brilliant and intuitive outliner for your thoughts (great for getting tasks out of your head). Most importantly, it has one crucial feature that other outliners don’t get right: context.

I always found once I created a list of any size, I would start to get lost in it. I really only wanted to focus on one small part of it at a time, but would be overwhelmed by the sheer size of it. However at the same time, I did want everything in the same list. Quite the conundrum. Workflowy solves this really well by letting you zoom in and out of your lists, and by searching and tagging. 

So enough talk, go check it out. Make sure you use my link above so you get some additional space – and I do too 🙂

Mastering your time

Came across this article the other day, a fun and important reminder of doing things that are important (taking control of your time) rather than those that are urgent (letting others control your time):

It’s harder to do than you would think, and you can sabotage yourself in subtle ways e.g.

  • Do you catch yourself waiting on things to pop up in your inbox/im/social network/etc to guide what you are going to do next?
  • Do you find your days are full of “fire-fighting”? Moving from one urgent task to the next, without considering what’s actually important?
  • When you have a chunk of time free, do you have a clear plan about what to do next?
  • Can you justify why you are doing the thing you are currently doing? How does it match up to your goals and what you want to achieve?
  • Have you done something, anything to contribute towards achieving your most important goal today?

The other great reminder from this is that there is limitless number of stormtroopers – urgent tasks that will come your way. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can just get one more thing done before starting what’s important …

Custom Google Drive Search

A nifty search you can add to Google Chrome is to search Google Drive. Here’s how to do it.

Chrome settings > Search > Manage search engines

Scroll to the bottom and add a new search:

Name = Google Drive
Keyword = drive (you can change this to whatever you like)

Press OK. Go to your address bar, and type your keyword (e.g. drive) followed by the tab key to bring up the search.

The speculation meeting

You know the ones, where you all get together and “talk” about what you think is the problem and how it can be addressed, but no has actually come through with any concrete information or measurements. It must just be my personality type, but I find this unbearable. 

How the $#%! can you determine what is wrong if you don’t have as much information as possible at your disposal first? Even then, I’ve never been in a situation where such things were solved by a meeting. It is almost always due to the effort of a few people doing conclusive investigations and reporting back their findings and resolution.

Sure you can argue that the meeting can be used to plan what to do next. That’s fine, but that should take 10 minutes tops. Why the other 50+ minutes speculating? Putting a group of knowledgeable people in a meeting to solve a problem doesn’t work.

Real problems don’t get solved in meetings. 

Not a productivity ninja

Despite the number of (hopefully) insightful posts on this blog, I’m not a productivity ninja. In fact I’m far from being all that productive. I have a concept of what I think productivity is, and sometimes can get into a good rhythm (i.e. “the zone”). But I find I have to push myself to stay productive most of the time. I don’t think it comes easily. So if you are feeling unproductive, don’t worry. The key is to change one small thing and see if that helps. Continue that approach and hopefully you get closer to where you want to be.