The Chatodoro

I am a compulsive dot squasher. When an app shows me a “hey! something new is here!” dot, then I must click it. It’s unavoidable. It’s an addiction.

This habit doesn’t mesh well with work group chat. After years (YEARS!) of getting my productivity absolutely hammered by the dots of work-related group chat apps, I finally think that I’ve found something that works for me.

How bad was this, really?

For me: bad. Bad bad. Let’s look at some data. I use RescueTime to track what apps/websites have my focus throughout the day/week.

If I list Flowdock (what my company uses) and Slack (what some of our clients use) as Unproductive in RescueTime–more on that in a minute–then I get something like this in any given week:

See all that red? When I drilled down into individual apps, I see that my top 2 apps/websites were Flowdock and Slack. Combined, they took up about 12 hours per week. That’s almost a third of my week spent just chatting.

And that’s not even the worst part! The worst part is number of times they grabbed my focus as opposed to the number of hours. 12 hours per week wouldn’t be so bad if it was all batched together, but it’s spread out in teeny tiny pieces throughout the entire week.

With the help of a coworker who wrote a Python script to parse the RescueTime API and grab raw counts, I saw that I was switching focus to Flowdock over a hundred times a day, every day. Every day! And that’s not even counting Slack.

Ok, but who’s to say work chat isn’t productive?

You got beef with me for calling work chat Unproductive? Fair. Let me defend that.

First off, I’m not saying that nothing productive happens in work chat. It can be great for rapid fire swarming around a bug, cutting down on email, or having fun watercooler chats that are important with remote teams, or lots of other things.

The problem is shows up when checking chat becomes a habit, or even an addiction. And that problem compounds when there’s an entire company where many of the people are just as active on chat as you are. More active chatters means more activity which means you need to check it more often to keep up, and you’ve found yourself in a vicious cycle.

Group chat is like being in an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda.

Jason Fried

Even worse: when group chat is that embedded into a company’s culture, you start to see big decisions being made over chat. Suddenly, chat doesn’t seem as “asynchronous” as it was made out to be. Suddenly, you feel the need to watch the chat firehose like a hawk or big things will happen without you ever being aware. In this situation, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re being productive by chatting, but really you’re just feeding the beast so that it can grow more powerful.

Keeping a steady eye on the chat firehose is what led me to check chat over a hundred times a day. That’s about the same as someone walking up to my desk and tapping my shoulder every 3 minutes, all day long. And let’s not forget why you shouldn’t interrupt a programmer. So long, deep work! Farewell, concentration!

So even if some of what happens in chat is productive, is it productive enough to lose the ability to do deep work? Is it productive enough to warrant you being distracted by it over a hundred times a day?

For me, it wasn’t, and I had to break free. That’s why I listed work chat as Unproductive.

What didn’t work

“Umm, how about you just don’t check it that often?”

I tried! If you’re not a dot squashing addict, this probably seems ridiculous. But I tried really hard. It was an addiction. I checked chat without even realizing I was doing it. I checked chat even though I had just closed chat literally 1 second before. I checked chat while actively in important video calls with coworkers that I was trying to pay attention to. It’s really hard to just decide to stop, when you’re battling a habit like that.

To try and fix it, I tried lots of things and tested lots of advice, including:

  • Read this book or that book. I read “Deep Work” and “It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work” and “The Power of Habit” …they all showed me “what” and “why”, but I was still missing “how”.
  • Disable notifications. I actually opened chat MORE because I was constantly wondering if I had new messages, since I didn’t have notifications to tell me.
  • Just don’t click the dot. This is just too hard for me. I trick myself into thinking it’s ok to click it just this once, every single time, literally over a hundred times per day.
  • Everyone just stop using group chat at all. Some say that the answer is to just give up on group chat and switch the entire company to something like Basecamp. This is very difficult in a company with 100+ people where group chat is deeply embedded into the culture.

The turning point

I think I’ve finally found the magical combination of tools to give me freedom from chat but still allow me keep up enough to not feel out of the loop.

Here’s the 3-part recipe, in order of importance:

Tool 1: “The Chatodoro”

You may have heard of the Pomodoro technique. It’s really simple: you do 25 minutes of focused work, then you get a 5 minute break, and you repeat. (Often people take a longer (15 minute) break after 4 pomodoros, but that’s not important for this use case).

How do we apply this to group chat? Replace “focused work” with “time away from chat”, and you’ve got it. So you close chat for 25 minutes, and then you are allowed to have it open for 5 minutes, then repeat, all day long. That, my friends, is “The Chatodoro”.

This means that at most you’re spending 80 minutes on chat per day, and that’s if you spend the entire 5 minutes on it, every time, which is unlikely. You’re more likely to spend 30-40 minutes on it. If we round up to an hour, that gives you 5 hours per week on chat, which is much less than my original 12 hours.

But the best part is that it’s batched time. I chat in 5 minute batches every cycle, so I’m really only switching my focus over to chat about twice per hour, or about 16 times per day, which is a heck of a lot less than over 100 times per day.

And you don’t have to stick to 25 minutes. If you can do cycles of 55 and 5, even better! Maybe you can do even more than that, but I was trying to start small. I find that checking in every half hour is a pretty good balance between it not consuming my life and not feeling out of the loop.

As for what to use, there are a ridiculous amount of Pomodoro timer apps for any given platform, or you can go old school with a little windup kitchen timer. There are also plenty of websites if you don’t want yet another app.

Tool 2: App/website blocker

Keeping up with Chatodoros requires a lot of discipline. If there’s nothing standing between you and group chat besides a dumb timer, and your addiction is as strong as mine, then you’re likely to just keep on opening it without even meaning to.

This is where app and website blockers come in handy. I use Focus, but there are plenty of others. Find one and configure it to block your chat apps/websites, and then manually set it to take a 5 minute break each time the Pomodoro timer goes off. Simple as that.

Now, each time you open chat out of habit during your Pomodoro, you’ll get a big fat nothing. It doesn’t take many big fat nothings before your habit starts to fall away.

Tool 3: Todo list and GTD

With my chat under control, I found myself in a wonderful predicament: I had more time to do actual work. A lot more time. I came to rely on my todo list a lot more than before.

Before, my todo list was mostly just a basic list of things that someone asked me for, and I didn’t want them to have to ask me again. Now, I’m having to organize it into actual projects and checklists and “Next Actions” vs. “Waiting” vs. “Someday/Maybe” and other GTDisms that I never thought I would have time for.

If I had chat blocked, but I didn’t see a lot of stuff waiting for me on my todo list, then I was more likely to shut down my app blocker and open up chat, because “there’s nothing pressing to work on anyway.” The truth is that there’s always PLENTY to work on. I just didn’t know how to recognize it because I was so used to scattered days of chaos. I had grown accustomed to only addressing the chat pings and the fires, that I had forgotten how to plan deep work that nobody is yelling about yet.

Having organized todo lists with everything from “OMG FIRE” tasks to “eh, someday I might want to do that” tasks helps me to resist the urge to break my Pomodoro and open chat since “there’s nothing pressing to work on anyway.”

And on the flipside, for things in my todo list that specifically require work chat (like asking someone a quick question or posting a good article I found), I tag those in my todo list with the @chat context so that they can be batched together into the 5 minute slots.

Adding some automation

Turns out, my todo list + Pomodoro timer (Amazing Marvin) and my app/site blocker (Focus) both support scripting. I told Marvin to activate Focus whenever a Pomodoro started, and to deactivate Focus whenever a break started.

Here’s how that looks in the configuration. For Marvin, I turned on the “System Triggers” strategy, and added this config:

Marvin configuration screenshot

As a bonus, Focus lets you run commands when starting a break, which means I can automatically reopen Flowdock and Slack like so:

Focus configuration screenshot

End result: when a Chatodoro starts, it shuts down and blocks my chat apps, and when a break starts, it re-allows them temporarily and opens them automatically. It’s a beautiful thing.

UPDATE: I switched to using cron for automating this instead of Marvin’s Pomodoro timer, just because it’s simpler. Now I have this little cron task:

0,30 9-17 * * 1-5 open focus://focus?minutes=25 >/dev/null 2>&1

That kicks off at 25 minute Focus session every half hour, starting at 9am and ending at 5pm, Monday through Friday. When Focus is doing a timed session like this, it shows a countdown next to the tray icon, so it’s like a little automated Pomodoro timer.

The proof is in the data

Let’s look at the current week in RescueTime (which is still in progress, and Monday was a holiday, but still):

A jump from 45 to 76 for the productivity score. That’s a 68% jump! Yes, it’s arbitrary and you can’t really judge productivity by what apps you’re using, but it’s something.

But my sanity is the real winner here. I don’t feel like a slave to my group chat addiction. I feel like I have time to solve hard problems and work through important but non-urgent tasks that have been lingering for weeks or months. I feel like I can do deep work without staying up and working late at night when nobody is on chat. I feel like I can breathe.

Have I missed out on anything by not checking chat 100+ times a day? I don’t think so. My 5 minute break is generally long enough to catch up on what I missed, and I’ve never had anyone complain about having to wait 25 minutes to get an answer from me about something.

Group chat was supposed to be asynchronous anyway, right?

Note: I was able to write this post thanks to all the extra time I now have from not checking the chat firehouse every 3 minutes.

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