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28 February 2024

Communication Overload

by Željko Filipin

Introduction

Having a powerful computer in your pocket all the time is as much a curse as it is a blessing. Especially when the computer is constantly connected to multiple communication applications. (I won’t even mention entertainment.)

Communication Overload

Most of my conversations recently start with: “After reading too much Cal Newport…” Of course it’s a joke. You can never read too much Cal Newport. Even if you’ve read all of his books. Then you preordered one that’s not published yet. While waiting for the preordered book to arrive, you listen to his podcast. Even if you’ve read his books on how to study long after you’ve finished school. My excuse is that I have kids that are still in school.

For years, I didn’t have much trouble keeping up with all the communications channels I used privately or for work. I’ve added them one by one, as needed. I have just assumed the increasing number of communication channels is the way things are.

Last year I went on parental leave for a few months. After I returned, I could not catch up. I went on long vacations before. (By long I mean a few weeks. Two or three weeks of vacation during summer is something I do almost every year.) I remember struggling to catch up with all the things after a few weeks of being away. This time, after a few months, I have realized it’s a lost battle. There’s more stuff coming in than you can process.

So, what’s all the things coming in? Good question. Let’s just list work related things.

  1. A big one is email. To be fair, a lot of tools generate mail, so it all ends up there.
  2. Slack. It used to generate email. I think its life goal is to replace email. Slack is a beast of a special kind. I aggressively remove myself from channels, and yet at the moment I’m in 15 channels.
  3. One of the things generating mail is mailing lists. After aggressively unsubscribing from everything I could (without losing my job) I’m down to four lists. There’s a couple more I could remove myself from. Only if I could figure out how.
  4. One more thing generating mail is Google Groups. To my big surprise, I’m in 10 groups. I didn’t even know some of those groups existed. I don’t know what some of those groups are used for. I don’t think I got any mail from several of those groups. I surely didn’t subscribe to most of them. Yet, I’m reluctant to remove myself from them. See the part about losing my job.
  5. Phabricator. Task tracking. Generates email. Well, it used to, until I disabled all notifications.
  6. Gerrit. Source code hosting and review. Similar to Phabricator, it used to generate email. Try to guess if it still does.
  7. GitLab. Source code hosting and review. We are slowly moving from Gerrit to GitLab. I don’t use it much. It generates so little email that I don’t think I’ve bothered to disable it. Yet.
  8. GitHub. Source code hosting and review. I mostly use it for personal projects, but there are a few work-related things there. Generates a small (hence reasonable) amount of email. I didn’t disable it. Yet.
  9. Calendar. Very important tool. Generates some email. Good thing is that there’s usually nothing to do with it, so I just delete it. The problem with the calendar is that it tracks meetings. Meetings sometimes generate a lot of notes. Things should be done with notes. That does not happen every time.
  10. Telegram. This one is not sending email. Yet. I use it rarely, only during the Wikimedia Hackathon.
  11. Libera.Chat. I used to use IRC a lot for work. Over the years, we have slowly but surely moved to Slack. No email from there. I almost never use it. While working on this blog post I have noticed that I’m still in eight channels. Guess if I removed myself from none of them, some of them or all of them.
  12. Zulip. Slack-like communication tool. I use it exclusively during internships. It used to generate mail. Guess how much mail it generates now. I’ll give you a hint. So little that I forgot about it while writing this post. I’m not sure how I remembered that it existed. The fun part is that there are two instances of it that I use. Wikimedia one and Outreachy one.

What Do I Do to Keep My Sanity?

I don’t install apps on my desktop. I only use the communication tools from a browser.

I don’t have tools that I don’t use opened. If I need email or slack, I’ll only have it open for the shortest possible time.

I don’t have almost any notifications enabled. Both on my desktop and phone. (There are a few exceptions. People that might need to reach me in an emergency know how to do that.)

Conclusion

Decreasing communication is not the goal. The goal is having enough uninterrupted time to do your job. My job is to write code. My job is not to communicate constantly. Twenty years ago, when I started my career, the problem was that it was hard to communicate. Today, the problem is that it’s too easy to communicate. The tricky part is finding the right balance. At the moment, I think we err on the side of communicating too much. I’ll see how my experiment with reducing communication channels works out.

tags: productivity - wikimedia