Why Flight Mode Has Been My Best Productivity-Enhancing Intervention to Date
And I Think That Synchronous Communication Platforms Like WhatsApp And Slack Are Today’s Destroyers of Focus
(This blog was originally posted this to /r/productivity, the main productivity-related subreddit. I have lightly edited that post here for clarity. It summarizes the ideas I presented in a post I wrote on the topic of responsiveness, and the beginnings of my movement against it, a few months ago.)
I wanted to share the very best change I have made towards enhancing my productivity and focus to date (and happiness — because when I get into long focus periods I tend to be happier; there’s a good Medium post by Elle Kaplan summarizing the theory and mechanics of that here).
And that’s this:
For about the past three months, I’ve been keeping my phone in flight mode for the majority of the day …. 7 days a week.
I know we all know what flight mode is and what it’s intended for… but for a long time I never thought about using it when not in an airplane!
The inspiration came when one day I went into a meditation store asking for a physical meditation timer.
The lady behind the counter couldn’t understand why I didn’t just use an Android app like anybody else living in modern times.
My rationale for wanting a physical timer device was that the possibility of notifications would prevent me from getting into focus properly … and I didn’t want to have to turn my phone off and on every time I meditated.
Without pausing for breath she presented the solution: “flight mode”.
And that got me thinking!
Why This (Currently) Works For Me
How can I (currently) get away with — effectively — being disconnected from phone calls for most of the work week, you might be wondering?
I think it’s important to explain the ‘how’ because these circumstances don’t apply to a lot of people.
I work from home at least half the week.
I do have calls with clients and family but nowadays those mostly take place over Zoom.
If I get a random call out of the blue there’s a very high to overwhelmingly high chance that it’s either a telesales person or something else that I could live without.
If they are sufficiently determined to reach me they can leave a voicemail, which I automatically receive by email which I continue to check at regular — but not overly regular — intervals.
If it were something truly catastrophically urgent I figure that they would be trying to reach me through other channels too. Although thankfully total catastrophes are relatively rare occurrences.
I communicate professionally by email and encourage clients to summarize and sent all their feedback there, wherever possible. And if a call makes more sense Calendly has made fixing a mutually convenient time trivially easy.
I opt out of SMS messages (and avoid 2FA by SMS whenever possible — because it’s anachronistic and dependent upon having a connection to your carrier’s network rather than simply the internet.
And for friends, etc, I have email, Facebook, or can pick up the phone and call them (or WhatsApp them) after I’ve finished my work for the day and I emerge from flight mode.
As you might be guessing, it has caused very occasional problems receiving deliveries and stuff ….. but just once or twice.
Nowadays, because of the health situation that has so deranged normal life for us, delivery people have gone from being receptive to the idea of leaving packages unattended to actually insisting on it per national health protocols. If there’s food delivery scheduled I can simply keep an ear out for the doorbell to ring. But even before that I just stuck up a sign by the door saying please leave stuff here! So irate delivery people demanding to know why I missed their call are thankfully few and far between.
My Key Belief To Date: Synchronous Communication Platforms Are The Most Damaging Of All To Productivity!
My transition towards spending most of my week in flight mode is just one component of my overall strategy to get better at focusing (the other is limiting email / Facebook / Reddit / Twitter / LinkedIn checks to a certain number of times per day).
But I would say that not being distracted by a constant barrage of WhatsApp messages and a lesser peppering of phone calls has made the biggest favorable difference to my productivity, focus, and happiness compared to any other intervention with which I’ve experimented to date. By a long shot.
Rather than switching to flight mode overnight, I’ve been on a sort of gradual transition.
Firstly, I would just pop into flight mode when I was working on something that needed a lot of focus … like an important piece of writing for a client.
I find it extremely hard to write well when distractions abound, which is probably why — for me, at least — open offices are comparable, in terms of productivity, to trying to hammer out a white paper from the back of a bus.
Then I started dropping into flight mode for whole mornings and afternoons at a time.
Then, one day (probably two weeks ago) I misplaced my phone somewhere at home, failed to locate it for an entire day, and happened to have the most productive day in probably six months.
The rest, as they say, is history.
So how do I make sense out of all this and join up the dots between less frequent interruptions and greater periods of focus time?
My theory — and I would be surprised if it has not already been proven true — is that the more synchronous/real-time the communication platform the more detrimental it is to one’s productivity.
Therefore I would class as very high risk, distracting, and productivity-eroding:
- Facebook Messenger
- Phone calls
- Random people barging into your office showing up at your door!Prod
Slack is a particular nemesis of mine because — under the guise of purporting to improve upon a perfectly good system (email) — it, in fact, simply sets as an enforced expectation that internal communications all merit instantaneous responses rather than those deemed sufficient over email.
Email’s vestigial merit — though fast eroding — is that people’s expectations remain at least somewhat tempered by the platform’s perceived rigidity. (This is, I believe, actually an unconscious hangover from the days when the send/receive function would run at an irregular interval, like every ten minutes, making responding to emails sooner than that period technically impossible.)
And these are the modes of communication — fundamentally asynchronous in nature — that I believe can be managed carefully to yield optimal results and a healthy balance between ‘responsiveness’ and mental health:
- Post! (Yes, as in snail mail!)
So for my WhatsApp, to begin a move away from the platform, I recently changed my status to:
“I don’t check WhatsApp that often. Consider emailing [myemail]”
In fact I continue to poll my WhatsApp for messages once or twice a day and remain in touch with people through it. However, I have tried to avoid the expectation that I will get back through it “right now”.
Besides being interested in enhancing productivity and finding ways to stem the erosion of focus time that society seems intent upon grafting upon curmudgeons like me that feel an innate need to resist the trend, I’m also a big fan of the kaizen (continuous improvement) methodology.
So I’m actually thinking about ways to disconnect even more thoroughly from WhatsApp.
Ie, the strategies I have presented here are mere works in progress and could well take on an even more extremist dynamic in the future.
But this is what has helped so far.
I Get That This Couldn’t Work For Many (Most?) People
That’s about all I have to share in this little update on the subject — although the few interventions I have instituted so far have thoroughly improved my day-to-day workflow, so I feel a strong desire to share them with anybody else interested.
Remember that I’m self-employed and have the luxury (!?) of working from home almost any time I feel the need or desire. So I’m totally aware that this wouldn’t be viable for many occupations and industries.
I can imagine that there is no way that an ER doc could pull this off.
Or even a salesperson for that matter.
But I believe that for at least some people — and probably more people than we think if can find ways, societally, to be a bit more flexible about what we consider acceptable ‘responsiveness’ — this methodology can yield substantial benefits in terms of enhanced focus, productivity, and, consequentially, happiness and fulfillment.
Any feedback (what else I could be doing, how I could make this better, flaws, etc) greatly appreciated!
Thank you for reading.