Inundated by ‘quick questions’ that prevent you from carrying out your main role? Slack has made it very easy to invade your focus time and before slack people would turn up at your desk in the office and say “can I borrow you for a sec…?”
The big problem, especially for software engineers and deep knowledge workers, is that these “quick questions” and just being borrowed comes with context switching cost. The person who asked it may not realise that their 2 minute question just cost you half an hour of work time because you need to get back into the zone (or a nerdier analogy – you need to page the contents of your brain out to disk and loading it back into memory is slow work…)
Here are a few suggestions and anecdotes for dealing with these quick questions from my personal experience.
Document Frequently Asked Questions
If you are an individual contributor and you’re good at your job you likely have a reputation as an expert at X and people will want to ask you about that thing. In one way that’s flattering but when it takes up a lot of time it obviously becomes disruptive. Have a think about what you’re being asked on a regular basis and consider writing up answers to common questions and either blogging about them or putting them somewhere appropriate within your workplace (a notion or confluence page or a Google doc or something). Then next time someone asks you that question send them a link to you FAQ. Rather than just sending the link without any context (which could potentially come across passive aggressive) have a pre-canned “polite” response about how you get asked that a lot and how you took the time to write up a detailed answer and hope that it’s helpful. If you put all your answers in the same place people will start to check there first and share the answer amongst themselves.
Set Some Boundaries for Yourself
I hope this next one doesn’t come across too patronising because it might sound obvious but many thirty-somethings or even forty-somethings that I work with hadn’t really thought about it.
We all want to be helpful and please our colleagues but does answering their quick question the moment it arrives in slack actually unblock them there and then? Some people, particularly those that juggle a lot of to-dos, like to dump questions straight into slack as a way to offload – once its in your inbox it no longer has to be in theirs. What’s more, IM apps like Slack are designed to make us alert and stressed and want to get rid of that little red indicator and drive the number of unread messages down to zero.
So what can you do? Set yourself some boundaries and be disciplined about them. Block out an hour of “focus time” in your calendar to just get on with your main day job and turn off slack. Just right click -> exit! It’s ok! You can do it! The world is not going to stop spinning and if it really is “that urgent” they probably have your phone number. Make a habit of “batch replying” to all your quick questions at once – this reduces the context switching required.
Set Some Boundaries for Others
If you already had an inkling about the above or you took my advice and people switched from slacking to calling it’s time to lay down some boundaries.
My favourite approach here is to schedule “AMA sessions” or “office hours” – put in a recurring meeting at a time when you’re not at your most productive (I’m a morning person so mid-afternoon works well for me). Tell everyone that you will no longer be responding to ad-hoc questions and to bring the questions to your office hours session.
You can assume that people will bring urgent questions to you as soon as they pop up so don’t say the quiet part out loud. If you do, people will likely assume everything they care about is urgent and bombard you anyway. A tiny bit of friction here goes a long way
Ideally your line manager will be on board with this but regardless, give yourself permission to do it and ask for forgiveness rather than permission. After all, this is easily defensible to the wider business (the question askers) as a necessary process change to improve your productivity.
Normally this has the effect of condensing down all your ad-hoc question answering (good for context switching) and often has another pleasant side effect. Two or more people might join with the same question and they both get it answered simultaneously. Not quite as good as having an FAQ written up but certainly more efficient than parroting the same thing to different people)
An important step is to follow through and actually ignore people who message you outside of office hours (again -probably using your professional judgement to decide whether it really is urgent).
In the modern work environment, juggling tasks is particularly painful without being bombarded with questions constantly. Whilst you might feel the need to be helpful, if you’re not setting boundaries you could end up burning out trying to find time to do everything. Start by setting yourself some intrinsic boundaries and habits and then consider going radical and using tools like “office hours” to cut down wasted time. Give yourself permission to do your job without distractions – your manager will almost certainly be onboard!
Appendix: Getting Your Manager On Board
If you’re an individual contributor you, hopefully, have a pretty well defined day job and core set of deliverables and goals. If answering questions all day is getting in the way of that and your manager is actually decent at their job, they are going to care and want to help you find ways to make things work. If the office hours/AMA idea sounds a bit radical to them, gather some data. Start to time how long you are spending answering questions over time and show your manager in your next 1:1. Good managers should be horrified and want to help to facilitate you getting more time to do your core job.