Turn off those notifications

Dear new developer,

Shut off your notifications.

There are so many interruptions in your workday that it can be hard to find the time to dive into deep work. Disabling alerts from communication programs can help you stay in the zone and avoid having distractions pushed to you.

Here is a list of the software for which I’ve turned off alerts:

  • slack on my computer
  • slack on my phone (if I even install it there)
  • email on my computer
  • email on my phone
  • any other applications on my phone (except SMS)
  • discord

I know people who have disabled new text message alerts. I think that is a bit extreme, but do what works for you.

Shutting off these notifications lets you check messages in these systems on your time, not whenever someone sends you a message. Even though it feels good to respond quickly, doing so impacts your ability to ship working code (or whatever else you are trying to deliver).

Here’s a playbook for freeing up your attention.

First, think about how much time you should block out for focused work. If you are just starting, aim for thirty minutes of uninterrupted time. If you are working on a hard problem, a block of a couple hours a day will be better.

Then, discuss with your team at work. Find out what their expectations for responding to messages are, for any mechanisms used such as email or slack. This is a great conversation to have with your manager at a one to one. The expected response time will vary based on the content of the message, but try to get a broad understanding. Is it ok to respond an email or slack message within a business day? At the end of the day? In a couple of days?

One thing to be aware of is that as a new developer, you may get blocked. You need to make sure your heads down time doesn’t mean you keep banging your head against a wall if you don’t see a path forward. There’s a distinction between needing to reach out to someone for help and being interrupted by others. The former is expected, the latter is what you are trying to avoid. Make sure you discuss that distinction and have clarity around it.

Another thing to know is that decisions may get made without your input, especially if you wait a couple of days to reply. This is a tradeoff. As a new developer, however, you may be more interested in the decision as opposed to weighing in on it.

Next, make the changes to your applications. Turn off notifications for communication software such as email or slack. I find it helpful to block out time on my calendar to remind folks. You may need to close messaging clients entirely.

Also, don’t forget to provide an escalation path. If someone really needs your feedback on something, how can they get ahold of you? I always add my cell phone number to my profile and tell people that if they really need me, text me. Plan for this. It won’t happen often (at my current job, no one has ever texted me) but if you are truly needed, you want to be available.

Finally, set a schedule to check in, as informed by your needs and the team’s expectations. Think about whether you will check in daily, a few times a day, or every hour. Whatever you and your team have agreed to, do that.

Beware the tendency to check in on email, slack, etc, mindlessly.

You are avoiding the push of distraction; don’t fall into the trap of pulling distractions to you. This is a bad habit of mine. If I’m waiting for a page to render in a jekyll site or a local server to restart, I’ll sometimes idly flip over to slack or email (or worse, an online community like Reddit). Doing so defeats the entire purpose of limiting notifications.

A colleague once told me that there are three types of tasks: big, medium and small. You can think of your day as a container that you are filling with rocks, gravel and sand, respectively corresponding to the big, medium and small tasks.

If you fill your day with small tasks, such as checking your email, you won’t have time to work on the big rocks, just as if you put sand in the container first, you won’t have room for the rocks.

If, on the other hand, you allocate specific time to the bigger tasks, the smaller tasks can fit around the edges.

Turning off your notifications and controlling when you are responding to messages from others is a good way to focus on your big goals.

Sincerely,

Dan

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