Productivity gains from Slack

I was slow to sign up for Slack. Hangouts came for free with GSuite and did everything I thought a chat app needed to do. Eventually, I conceded a couple years ago when pushed by some colleagues at my last start up to give it a go. We can probably all agree that Slack is best in class when it comes to chat apps. It’s a different beast than email and it has made internal business communication comically easy and therefore more frequent. With the gains in both ease and usage, claims of productive gains are likely to be questioned.

So what gives with the click bait title?

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Slack ships with a built in reminders feature, and it turns out that the reminders can be a really good tool for improving productivity!

Disclaimer – I love lists. I’m probably not alone here, but if you’re not a fan of lists, then the following may not apply to you.

Using Slack reminders came organically and accidentally, to be honest. I’m a father of two kids (12 year old son, 9 year old daughter) and a big fan of Khan Academy. My wife and I wanted our kids to watch at least one Khan video every day after school. It wasn’t the easiest to keep the kids motivated and engaged, and I wanted some way to be track their progress. There didn’t appear to be anything in Khan’s notification settings that worked for us, so I started playing around with their API. I wrote a quick AWS Lambda function that fetched the data daily and summarised the results. While I could have sent myself an email, I took the plunge and set the family up with a Slack account because email sucks and Slack seemed to be the only chat platform that would accept messages pushed from outside the system.

That worked well. It made me wonder if there were other ways we could help our kids.  It was starting to feel like the majority of the dialogue with our kids involved reminding them on what they needed to do. Annoyed, I did what any good software engineer would do, I outsourced the task to code. Given the success of the Khan + Slack experiment, it made sense to step it up by adding some channels and setting some reminders. We added homework reminders to the #learning channel (where the Khan summaries appeared). We added a #habits channel (for hygiene, etc) and a #chores channel (for stuff they’re expected to help out with around the house). The reminders are set up at appropriate times, like after breakfast but before school for brushing their teeth, for example.

I’d been personally using reminders in Slack occasionally, but not that much. So I was surprised by how good to felt to shift the responsibility of reminding my kids to Slack. To begin with, I still needed to spot the reminder and remind them myself, but I didn’t need to remember to remind them which was a nice improvement. As the reminders came at regular intervals, it became routine for my kids and eventually they got into the habit of doing it on their own.

Inspired, I started to play around with reminders for myself. With the transition to online music subscriptions, I’d fallen out of the habit of discovering new music. So I set a reminder to play new music every morning while I was making breakfast. When there’s something in house that needs to be fixed, a reminder gets set to look into it over the weekend. When I think of something fun to do with the kids, a reminder is set for when we’re next likely to be together. Eventually, the reminders became an important part of staying organised and being productive.

As a result of this experiment, I’ve seen four gains:

  • Reduced cognitive load – There can be a lot of stress or anxiety from not wanting to forget something….or worse realising you have forgotten something. In the past I’ve relied on lists to shift the worry of forgetting, but that didn’t always work because the task would often sit in my list for far too long.
  • Formed new habits – New habits don’t come easy and take a long time to settle in (roughly 66 days with a range of 18–254 days). It’s more likely that a small lapse (not exercising for a week, for example) will break a new habit. The reminders make it easier to miss a daily or week habit and get still back on track.
  • Stay focused – When inspiration strikes but it’s nothing to do with what I’m currently working on, I can set a reminder so that I don’t forget the idea and can stay focused on work, the family or even just relaxing.
  • More multitasking (even as a man 😆) – It’s a lot easier to schedule the things I want to get done. If a reminder pops up and it’s not a good time, you snooze it for minutes, hours or days in the future. As I’ve done that, I’ve found certain times of the day or week to be suitable for certain tasks. I’m now doing more with the family, more around the house and taking on more stuff I want to learn.

Conceptually, there’s a hint of Toyota’s Just-in-Time process going on here where “only what is needed, when it is needed, and in the amount needed” appears as a reminder. Essentially, the Just-in-Time tasks (trademark 😉) are all in the future and scheduled to arrive when you expect to have the capacity to complete them. If the reminders deliver more tasks then you have capacity for, it’s easy to triage (snooze) the task for a future date where you expect to have more capacity. Just like the Toyota Production System, if you’ve got spare time, you can list your reminders and dip into the inventory of outstanding tasks that are still scheduled as reminders.

While it’s been great, it’s worth noting a few things:

  • As with all notifications (email, SMS, social media, etc) there is a fine line between signals and noise. While I don’t have an exact number, too many reminders will feel noisy and therefore less useful.
  • This isn’t a replacement for maintaining lists. I still use Workflowy (highly recommend) for things I’m still considering/researching or things I need to collaborate with my wife on.
  • Keep an eye on the habit forming reminders because they’re easy to ignore. You don’t want to get in the habit of ignoring the reminders. If the habit has formed, delete the reminder.

Hope that help! If you decide to try it out, please let me know how it works for you.

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