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E-Mail’s Not the Issue

Why a new messaging platform can’t solve our productivity problems.
February 23, 2016

I’m a productivity consultant, which means I work every day with people to organize their time, and to make the best use of whatever information and energy they have. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, so I was around when e-mail was the great savior that would make us all more organized and productive. Instead, it’s crushing our ability to get anything done. Clients tell me: “I don’t have any time to think.” “It’s hard to turn work off at night.” “I can’t focus.”

Why is e-mail so bad? It’s like an overstuffed toy box full of miscellaneous stuff—missives from your boss, requests from clients, FYIs, news feeds, social-media alerts, junk. We spend more time sifting through it all than getting anything done.

It’s led to an instant-response culture, with pressure to constantly check messages. It’s no longer okay to reply a few hours from now. You’re expected to interrupt your work and respond now. And then there’s the fear-of-missing-out phenomenon. Even if you’re “allowed” to turn e-mail off, you don’t, because of competitive insecurity: if your boss puts something out there and your colleagues respond first, you feel you’ve lost out.

So along comes an app like Slack, which offers to combat some of e-mail’s perils (see “Slack”). By separating internal company communications from the general “toy box,” it offers something less miscellaneous, more focused, more collaborative. Slack’s “channel” feature consolidates information by topic, offering a snapshot of a project’s status—in theory much better than rummaging through e-mail threads to find what you need. 

But like all technologies, Slack is a tool whose success depends on the skill of the people using it. How many iterations of “Thanks!” and “Got it!” do you have to weed through to get to the substantive info? Without clear protocols, Slack channels can get just as messy as e-mail.

Companies need to actively shift away from the instant-response culture. How? Establish protocols for reasonable turnaround times. Make it highly uncool to send things at the last minute. Create quiet spaces and hours. Train people to disconnect and think—to strategize, analyze, problem-solve, and recharge. People can’t perform at their best on high-level tasks by squeezing those tasks into seven-minute windows between checking messages—and it doesn’t really matter if those messages are coming over Slack, e-mail, or something else altogether.

Julie Morgenstern is the author of, among other books, Never Check E-Mail in the Morning and Other Unexpected Strategies for Making Your Life Work.

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