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Do you have any thoughts on how we can reduce distraction in a team?

Created: January 19, 2021

Previously I asked a question of you all:

What's the largest challenge you face in running (or planning to run) a SuiteScript development team?

In response, a thoughtful reader wrote in with an excellent question:

(shared with permission, anonymous by request)

Good question. Something I’m thinking through right now is the matter of distraction. Social media, email, and chat messages all somewhat ruin our ability to focus on one particular area for a significant amount of time. Do you have any thoughts on how we can reduce distraction in a team? In the SuiteScript world, it’s important to communicate with clients, but it would be great if there was a way to make this more standardized and less frequent somehow. Hope you have a great day! And thanks for these helpful emails!

Below is my response, also shared with permission:

Ah thanks for the great question, and for the kind words! While I haven't yet formalized much of this thinking, I think about the tension between productivity and responsiveness a lot.

Software development requires significant deep thought and focused work. You can't do either when you're chasing (or dreading) red bubbles all day. Aside from the constant distraction, this need/desire for immediate communication only yields knee-jerk, reactionary responses. There's never time or room for more thoughtful communication, debate, or decision-making to be done; you're just trapped in reactionary fire-fighting mode. Too often, everything is treated as either urgent! or emergency!!, nothing else. It's no way to live life or get great work done. Still, there do need to be methods of immediate communication for when actual emergencies do occur. That said, email seems like the absolute worst method when you need an immediate response and/or real-time conversation.

You might find the book "It Doesn't Have to be Crazy at Work" interesting and relevant to this topic. It talks a lot about this tension (and many more). While I've never used them in practice (so these are not endorsements, and I'm not affiliated), the authors at least designed Basecamp with a distraction-free workflow in mind and are about to release an "email replacement" called Hey. I plan on doing some further research on these tools and any others I come across.

I have this embryonic idea about how to design better structured, more intentional approaches to communication both internally and externally. Take Slack as an example: typically with Slack, all of your communication is going through the same "pathway"; client emergencies, bug troubleshooting, random off-topic social chatter, design problem-solving are all co-mingled, and because "client emergencies" is in there, everyone MUST pay attention to that pathway at all times, even if 99.9% of the messages are just funny cat GIFs.

In order to remove that necessity, the pathways for communication need to be separated, isolated, clearly identified, and deeply respected.

This separation of communication paths is I think the critical piece. If the only thing Slack is used for is social chatter or other non-urgent communication, I know it's safe to ignore - or even better, turn off - those red bubbles. Conversely, if the only thing Slack is used for is client emergencies, I know that red bubble means Drop Everything. Does that mean you have entirely separate applications for different priorities of communication? Maybe? I'm genuinely not sure about specific systems or tactics to recommend yet, but I am sure that being extremely diligent, intentional, and ruthlessly minimalistic about what types of communication are allowed to flag our attention is crucial. There should be very, very few things that are allowed to actively distract us with pop-ups/notifications/bubbles.