Escaping the Availability Trap

Prioritising Productivity Over Reactivity

Jul 15, 2023 · 11 min read ·
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It’s Tuesday.

Your calendar shows your morning is mostly filled with meetings. First things first though. The Task needs to get done before you go into the first meeting of the day.

You just need to check your email quickly. You open the inbox. 132 new emails. Before you have time to reply to any of them you get a notification from Slack. It’s Carl. “Hey, do you have a minute?”.

You really don’t, but you also don’t want to leave Carl hanging. “Sure! What’s up, Carl?”

The rest of the day is an endless series of trying to catch up and The Task never gets done.

Oh well! Maybe you’ll have time to do it tomorrow…

This state of trying to be available at all times is what I call the Availability Trap.

Most of us have been there. The intention behind it is often rooted in helpfulness and inclusivity. What it leads to, however, is context switching that happens too often, a constant feeling of lack of focus, reduced overall productivity, stress, and eventually burnout1.

Something I’ve found tremendously helpful for avoiding the Availability Trap is to get myself on something that looks more like what Paul Graham calls the Maker’s Schedule2. Long uninterrupted periods of time where I can focus on getting my Task for the day done.

Paul Graham advocates for whole days without meetings. However, I’ve found that to be hard to implement unless you have a lot of power where you are working. Most people just need a way to set up a fence around their focus.

This blog post is about how I do that.

But before jumping on a solution, let’s explore how we ended up here in the first place.

Shoulder Taps

Back before the year 1990 technology was not as omnipresent as it is today. You had faxes and telephones. But the most common way to get someone's attention was to walk over to their desk and tap them on their shoulder[12].

But then email happened. First slowly, then all at once.

Email was especially popular in environments where people sat on different floors or in different buildings3. Suddenly you could just fire off a quick question without having to walk over to the other person's desk.

Email was instant. And you would expect the response to be instant as well. Just as it would have been if you had tapped your colleague on the shoulder.

There is just one problem with this digital shoulder tap. When you walk over to somebody's desk you’ll see if they are busy with a conversation with someone else. Or they might not be there at all. Either way, you’re going to have to come back another time. When you send an email there is no notion of being busy, there or not there. You just send it. This means that shoulder tapping has gone from 1-to-1 communication to n-to-1 communication4.

In the context of email only this might be manageable. But add on Slack, Teams, text messages, phone calls, Instagram DMs, Twitter, LinkedIn messages, etc, and this translates into a never-ending loop of checking the next notification to make sure we never miss a thing.5

We get stuck in a cycle of reacting instead of being proactive.

Falling in and out

As Cal Newport puts it in his book, Deep Work: "Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don't simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction."

Thus, the solution is to reduce the number of interruptions during the day, so you can focus on your most important thing6.

Some people recommend blocking out focus time in your calendar, but this only works if you’ve already rid yourself of all distractions. What I propose instead is a three-step rocket to change the way you view incoming messages and requests.

The first thing to realise is that digital communication is inherently asynchronous. When talking face to face with someone you get an actual instant reply. But when sending someone a message, at the very least it will take the other person some time to formulate that message. This means you will ALWAYS have to wait to get an answer7.

Use this fact to your advantage!

Starting with email, I recommend using something called batching. Simply set a schedule for when you reply to messages, and then reply to them all at once. Batching means you can focus completely on emails when you’re dealing with emails. And completely ignore it the rest of the day. If you get a lot of emails, you might want to time box the batching to an hour or 45 minutes.

I like checking email once a day, before lunch. This gives me the morning to focus on getting my most important work done without spilling into my afternoons. Tim Ferriss checks his email at most once a week. I recommend starting with twice a day and then experimenting with different times to find what works best for you.

Batching email is not that surprising to people anymore. But when I tell people I do the same for Slack and other Instant Messaging apps people tend to give me a funny look. Aren't Instant Messaging tools supposed to be instant?

No. They are just another form of shoulder tapping.

Slack, Teams, and other messaging tools are slightly more complicated than email though8, so I do a little bit more than just batching. Primarily, I try to push conversations towards public channels.

Public channels have two main advantages. Questions can be answered by anyone in the channel, and the answers get immediately distributed to everyone in the channel. Both advantages reduce the need to spend extra time on distributing information.

In my experience, most people are a bit hesitant to write a lot in public channels9. The most common reason for this is that they don’t want to disturb other people (ironic, right?). My answer to that is always the same. Mute channels, set your computer in Do Not Disturb Mode, set your phone on silent, and turn off all notifications.

Every person is responsible for guarding their focus. This includes guarding their calendar from unnecessary meetings. Do whatever it takes to make sure you decide when to handle inbound, instead of the inbound deciding for you.

Unnecessary meetings are the final form of shoulder taps. Modern tools have made it way too easy for people to get on other people's calendars. It’s just like sending an email. And when a person's calendar is full, they simply book over other meetings because of course their thing is more important.

I know a lot of people complaining that they have too many meetings and then proceed to do absolutely nothing about it. The key is to recognise your priorities10 and cut all bad meetings.

A bad meeting is a meeting that is spent defining the purpose of the meeting. In other words, there is no clear agenda before the meeting, no one does any thinking or work before the meeting and there is no real outcome from the meeting.

Fortunately, there is an easy fix. Simply decline meetings that lack clear agendas. That’s it! This simple act of protecting your time will feel uncomfortable at first. Mostly because of how other people will perceive you. There are however a couple of ways to let the inviter know why you decline and what a better course of action is.

If it’s a meeting with just you and one or two other people I suggest emailing the inviter “Hi! I didn’t see an agenda attached to this meeting. This makes it impossible for me to determine how to prioritise it, which means I have to decline. If you could summarise your thoughts and questions and what you think is the best course of action, I’d be happy to answer async via email/public channel.“

If it’s a meeting with more than three people I suggest emailing the inviter something like “Hi! I didn’t see an agenda attached to this meeting. This makes it impossible for me to determine how to prioritise it, which means I have to decline. If you think you could use my input in the meeting, please summarise your questions in an email/public channel, and I’ll be happy to provide my answers to you before the meeting. If you think I could benefit from the outcome of the meeting, feel free to send me the meeting minutes afterward.”

Both these templates are friendly, non-combative, and gently nudge the person sending the invite towards an async way of working. They also make it clear that you are the person owning your calendar, not the inviting party.

Wrap up

It’s Tuesday.

You don’t have any meetings all morning, so you open up the document you need to finish and start writing.

Nobody interrupts you, because you don’t have any notifications turned on.

By 11 you’re done and send it off for review.

The rest of the day is full of random encounters. And that’s OK!

You’ve already finished your Task.

This is what it’s all about. Protecting not just your time, but also your attention. Start small. Three or four hours of uninterrupted work every other morning, where you don’t react to inbound. Then work your way up from there towards full days.

Getting on the Maker’s schedule requires you to temporarily inconvenience people you work with. But most people are fine with that when they see the results you produce through focused work11.

Fair warning though.

The focus is addictive.


Footnotes

  1. The following study shows that while it actually might take us the same time to finish a task after being interrupted, it increases our stress levels. The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress, by Gloria Mark, Victor M. Gonzalez, and Justin Harris.

  2. Read the full essay here.

  3. My mom worked at Volvo Logistics, which is part of Volvo AB, her whole life. Their head office is located in the heart of Volvo Land (Arendal) which is comprised of 20-something buildings with multiple floors and meeting rooms in all of them. She would come home telling stories about how insane her meeting days were where she had had to run 500 meters across the loading yard to make it in time to her next meeting. Maybe this is where my hatred for meetings was born.

  4. Or n-to-n communication if you’re unlucky and end up on a mail thread with a bunch of people all replying to different emails.

  5. In his book Why We Cooporate, Dr. Tomasello argues that we might be born with the urge to be helpful. Nicolas Wade at The New York Times has written a nice summary of the book here.

  6. If your problem is that you don't know what to focus on, I've written a blog post about how you can use the Focusing Question as a guide.

  7. In other words the Instant part of Instant Messaging is a lie.

  8. I’ve written a separate blog post on the subject of how to use Slack, and you can find it here

  9. Public channels can of course lead to trying to be first with replying and group think in the actual replies. This is a topic for another post, but for delaying showing responses, check out Thinking Time. For more information on biases, consensus, and groupthink, check out the Delphi method.

  10. which hopefully aligns with your departments and your company's priorities.

  11. OK, they might have grumbled a bit at the beginning. But after some time, they have been fine with it.

Heads up!

After over a decade of building apps, teams and companies, I've now started coaching founders and CTOs through something that I call Nyblom-as-a-Service.

If this is something that would be interesting to you feel free to schedule a free discovery call to see if we are a good match for each other.

© 2023 Viktor Nyblom