What happened when we took a week off of Slack

Working hard, or hardly working?
Working hard, or hardly working?
Image: REUTERS/Thomas Peter
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

During my company’s last retreat, we had a good discussion about productivity and focus. This is a recurring theme at every retreat, and once again Slack kept coming up as a pain point when it comes to focused work. We’ve always looked at Slack as synchronous. Anything that happens there should be able to disappear, and it’s not where critical decisions are made. Even so, it causes a ton of distraction and confusion.

As an experiment, we decided to spend a week without Slack to see how it feels and to hopefully learn a thing or two.

We had few rules:

  1. Don’t use any shared or public rooms
  2. DMs are still okay, since we don’t use another chat app.
  3. Our alerting channel is okay to monitor if you are on-call.

It was only a week, so we didn’t expect it to have a huge impact. We were so wrong!

Lessons learned

Here are some quotes from the team that help explain all we learned. First, one team member wrote:

“I found that it helped tremendously with my FOMO and Inbox Zero compulsion. It felt liberating.”

The main reason we did this experiment was to encourage deep work. From this perspective, it was a huge success. The team had less anxiety and was able to compartmentalize their communication and work better. Another team member said:

“Not posting status updates like ‘Going on a lunch run’ or ‘Good morning’ was freeing. It feels a little like punching the clock.”

We’re a remote-first company, and we pride ourselves on flexible work schedules. At the same time, Slack encourages the idea that “online” means working. This was eye-opening for my cofounder and I, and we no longer have this “hi/bye” habit. Another piece of feedback we got on the experiment:

“The biggest con was that I felt more isolated. Even if there’s nothing important going on, seeing the chit chat in #general helps. I did miss #music and #outside.”

The community aspect was definitely a challenge, and why most people still keep Slack around despite the focus issues. We’re learning how to rely on Slack less for this, by for instance using our project management software as a place to post a “How was your weekend?” response. One team member said this of the community aspect of Slack during the experiment:

“I had some awesome things happen during the week that I wanted to share with the team, but they didn’t warrant a Basecamp post or email. So I just celebrated alone in my office. Which felt pretty lame.”

A lot of useful things are shared in Slack, such as interesting articles or new tools. There was a common theme that people didn’t know where to post these. At the same time, if Slack is synchronous, then only the people “online” will see them. We’re working on ways to post these things without distraction. One team member noted:

“I used email a lot more. Emoji responses aren’t the same in email. Still a slow process where Slack is fast. Would Slack exist without emojis?”

One thing we realized is that email can replace a lot of what we do in Slack. There are some cases where a quick back and forth is faster in Slack. Or, a simple email thread can turn into a huge discussion where it is better for Basecamp. The conclusion: use your judgement.

Slack is a procrastination enabler

The biggest lesson by far was how much we realized Slack enables (even encourages) procrastination. I heard of a concept recently called “switch-tasking.” It’s not multi-tasking, which can be productive in some cases. Instead, we switch to Slack hundreds of times per day with no context or connection to our primary work. The productivity danger here is very real and with the popularity of Slack I would dare to say it’s sucking the focus out of a lot of companies. One team member told us:

“Overall, this opened my eyes to how often I habitually open Slack without actually getting anything done.”

Sure, you can say there are ways to discipline your use of Slack with muted channels, alerts, etc. The truth is that even the most disciplined people get caught in the switching trap.

By turning off Slack for a week, we realized how bad the switching trap really was. The urge to check Slack was there, but since we knew nothing was happening, we had to train (ween) ourselves away from it. It’s like a drug, and we had to break the habit. Over the course of the week we realized that without the Slack procrastination, we were able to focus without that itch in the back of our minds.

Another neat thing happened. Procrastination is a real thing, with or without Slack. However, with Slack gone we started to find other procrastination methods, but they were a bit more healthy. As one of our team members put it:

“It was tough not checking in every so often. After Monday, the anxiety went away and I was able to really take advantage of not having Slack. It felt liberating not having to notify the team in Slack when to step away for some fresh air. I really think being remote makes me feel that I need to do that.

With that said, I did use Slack’s status feature for those moments. I felt this was helpful! For example, I stepped away from my computer to make coffee, I simply set my status in Slack to coffee or lunch. This way if someone wanted to get in touch they could know my status without me having to post it in Slack.

The rest of the week was much easier and I really felt like I had more focus time (even on support days) because I wasn’t checking into Slack every few minutes. I felt like I got more done last week as a result.”

This is an incredible change to me. Instead of an unhealthy procrastination, the team member took a walk to refresh and regroup.

What’s changed since?

So that’s a lot of trash to talk on an extremely popular service. But here we are, a few weeks later and still using Slack. We still find value in Slack for bringing a remote team together and feeling like a community. The amazing part is that taking a week off Slack taught us valuable lessons, and we’ve changed our behavior based on it. We all have a real perspective on where Slack is dangerous and where it is valuable.

What has been amazing to watch how quiet Slack has been since the week off. It caused a real mental shift and we use it less because we realize the distractions that it causes.

Here are some of the changes we’ve emphasized:

  1. We all agreed that Slack is synchronous. If something is said there, you are not expected to scroll up.
  2. We no longer do the “hi/bye” routine. It’s nice, but encourages a feeling that you “have to” be there.
  3. Shut down Slack if you want to be heads down. We’ve always had this rule, but it’s hard to maintain. We’ll do our best to reinforce it and revisit.
  4. Slack is not a place for critical alerting. If something is down or wrong, someone should be on call and get that directly.
  5. The team is now more diligent with muting and turning off notifications.

This was such a fun and valuable experiment, and we learned a ton. I’m suspicious of the long-term effects, though. A few people suggested having Slack on only on certain days, which we may try. I also think doing this “week off” a couple of times per year might help refresh our perspective as we get sucked into the service over time. Either way, we’ll keep pushing ourselves for more deep work opportunities.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Wildbit blog.