Improving Productivity and Focus by Removing Distractions

This blog post could easily be titled: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Curb my Notification Anxiety, or, How to Effectively Work Remotely.

I work at a remote web development agency. This means that all of the employees work remotely either from home, from a digital workspace, from a cafe, a pub or even in the middle of a field if they so choose.

For the most part, I work from my Home Office, and it’s wonderful.

When you work remotely you have one obvious disadvantage. The people you work with day-in and day-out are not (usually) physically in your remote work space. Most organisations fill this space by using tools such as Slack or Email.

Slack and Email are wonderful. They can be used to get quick responses from you, just like if a team member or your boss were to come to your desk in a physical office space and have a quick chat with you about their project.

The difference between a real office work space and Slack (or Email) is this: If you weren’t at your desk, your boss would not keep talking to it, until you returned to it would they?

Well, I guess it depends how eccentric your boss is (and I’ve known some pretty “eccentric” ones in my time).

Because of this, a lot of people who I know have their emails and Slack constantly open, and react to every notification. This, in my opinion, is not good for anybodies mental health (and this is how I used to behave until around three weeks ago).

Reactive not Proactive

Reacting to constant barrage of notifications is distracting. It removes focus from the task in hand.

Without focus, you cannot efficiently deal with your daily tasks. Things take longer than they should and details get missed, in short, your productivity goes down.

When you are being reactive to all these notifications, you automatically go into ‘firefighting’ mode, where everything needs a solution immediately, and fast. This method of working causes massive but unwarranted levels of anxiety.

Let’s stop a minute, breathe, and realise what the main issue is.

Communication Channels

It is communication channel 101 that you should use the right form of communication channel for the right sort of communication. You wouldn’t email about a fire in the office. Email is not an ‘urgent’ form of communication. Nor is instant messaging for that matter (which describes Slack).

When things are urgent, a good old classic phone call is the most suitable form of communication.

Even in the business world where Service Level Agreements (SLA) exist that include email support, response times for support requests are well-defined. I do not recall a single one of our SLA’s stating that we will respond immediately to any issue. This would quickly become unsustainable.

It occurred to me that this reactive method of using Slack and Emails had to stop. I needed my interaction with them to be on my terms. I would no longer be controlled by my notifications.

Turning off Notifications – My Journey

I have a business phone. It is also my personal phone, which means that I am never away from work. I am also a notification addict, and if I see a notification I have to check immediately what it is!

Step 1: Phone Notifications

In step 1 of my Journey I turned off notifications for Slack and Email on my phone. I figured if I was working, I would be at my desk, and I could check notifications there. To be honest, I found this pretty simple and painless to do.

I left on the little red dot that indicates how many unread messages there are in each application, but I had no banners, no buzzing and no noise.

I found the little red dot handy for when I did want to check my messages on the phone, and with a little bit of discipline and self-control, I trained myself to only read those unread messages when I am in a position to do something about them (IE at my desk).

Step 2: Computer Notifications

Step 2 was the hardest part of my journey. I would no longer have my emails and Slack open all day. I informed all staff that I would only be checking Slack once every couple of hours (between other daily tasks), and I wrote an amendment to my email footer stating that I would only be picking up emails twice a day.

I told staff that if they needed an immediate response from me then call my phone number, failing that, send me a text message as I wouldn’t muting be these forms of notifications.

It took me a week longer that I had planned to ‘let go’. This is just because of the habit I had formed  checking slack constantly. Breaking a habit is a hard thing to do.

But, I eased myself into it. I went half a day without checking constantly at first. Then a day, and finally a full week (and I’m still doing it).

Nobody seemed to realise that I wasn’t there, and the company didn’t seem to suffer at all. Things were just not as urgent as I had perceived. The problem that was causing so much anxiety for me (as often is the case) was me!

Bonus Step: Inbox Zero

When you stop checking your emails as soon as they arrive, you actually start to get them piling up in your inbox! Oh no, more anxiety!

Relax, we have a handle on that. I now use the Inbox Zero approach.

There are a million and one tutorials online about how to achieve Inbox Zero, but I just use the following rules:

  1. Check my email twice a day
  2. Quickly skim the emails in the inbox and perform triage
  3. If the email is junk, a newsletter I don’t want to read, a notification of something that you have been copied into – Delete it (unsubscribe first if you need to)
  4. If the email needs reading in detail, but you don’t have the time – Snooze it until you can (I use the wonderful app Spark Mail for this)
  5. If the email needs action, and the action is small – Do it there and then!
  6. If the email needs action, and it will take significant effort – Schedule time in your diary to do it, and snooze the email until you are available to do that task

Using these techniques will quickly help you take back control of your inbox.

Office Replacement Therapy

When dealing with Slack in the ways described above, how do you deal with regular old physical office things like meetings, water cooler chat, banter, ideas, lunch time conversations and all the other office stuff that you might be used to doing in Slack?

Well, let me solve that one for you:


Use a better tool! We have implemented a daily standup routine that uses the Slack calling feature, and 99% of the things that were said in Slack are now covered off by this.

Water Cooler Chatter / Lunch Time Chat

You still have a break in your home office right? You still have lunch? Did people who were eating lunch or stood by the water cooler in your physical office space always do it at the same time as you? Probably not, so just open up slack and talk to whoever is available at the time.

Ideas and Innovation

Slack is fantastic, you can dump your idea in a relevant channel, and people can feedback when they get the chance.

If you need something more instant, bring it up in a meeting, or schedule a meeting if it is super important.


Ok, banter might not be instant anymore, but on the plus side, banter can now go on for weeks, and it is now aided by the clever use of animated gifs!

Posted by Matt Watson

Matt Watson loves to talk about Health, Wealth and Code (mainly WordPress). Get in touch with Matt or follow Matt on Twitter to get notified about his latest posts.