Working Asynchronously in a World of Instant Gratification

My phone has been in “Do not Disturb” for the past 9 years. You can call me, but I’m not very likely to pick up. When I tell others about my unconventional phone habits the response is pretty much the same: “But what if I really need to reach you?” Luckily the tides have turned in the past years; many others have realized that the neverending stream of notifications has been detrimental to their productivity, mental health and personal relationships.

Not answering my phone on the whim of the caller is part of a larger philosophy that I’ve applied to my way of working: asynchronous communication. This method of communication favors “delayed” communication; emails, texts, IMs and even voice/video recordings. These forms of media leave it up to the receiver as to when to respond. There is no requirement to act right now.

The source of the following statement is unknown, but I once heard cellphones described as the most intrusive technology ever invented; a remote speaker than you carry on you at all times, that can be operated by whoever wants to get hold of you. I only realized later how much truth is in that observation.

Muting this “remote speaker” is as simple as flipping a switch in your settings. You might suffer from severe FOMO or piss some people off at first (sorry mom!), but that’s not all there is to it. If you prefer to modify the way you communicate, it’s not just you that has to change, you actually have to change your (professional) environment.

Maker vs. Manager

So why is it that asynchronous communication is so harmful? A classic essay in the tech community is “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” by Paul Graham, a famous investor from Silicon Valley. He clearly explains how different types of people work in different rhythms. People who actually make things, require time of flow. Time to think. Managers move from one meeting to another. Makers long for a few hours of uninterrupted work to dive deep and crack that problem.

Realizing that different types of people are on different “schedules” makes it extremely clear as to why it is an uphill battle when trying to implement an asynchronous philosophy from the bottom up. It requires you to make the sender see why it’s beneficial to not instantly respond to queries. The premise isn’t too complicated, but requires a long term view in a world which is now used to instant gratification. When you can decide as to when to respond, you are not pulled from the task at hand, allowing you to focus and finish a task quicker. It doesn’t take a genius to see the efficiency gains.

ASAP is poison

The other elephant in the room is — you guessed it — ASAP. “As soon as possible” has been described as poison. It is one of the few things that can derail a well running machine and make it crash in a gazillion pieces. Especially if your boss or client pulls an ASAP on you multiple times a day. It can completely annihilate a productive day of nicely, structured work.

Let’s be honest here. What white-collar work situations require you to respond instantly? Yes, if you’re a trauma surgeon, minutes do count. The only situations that needed my instant and undivided attention was that time when I deleted a production database that was responsible for 80% of a company’s cash flow… The most difficult thing is actually confronting your boss, co-worker or client that their query is quite a bit less important than they make it out to be.

Breaking the trend

You’re not always in the position to make changes to your environment. This gets especially hard when you tell your colleagues and clients you want to stop answering your phone. “So we’re never going to get hold of you on the phone?” or “What if I need something as soon as possible?” are common responses when explaining others how you would like to communicate going forth.

This reaction is natural as asynchronous communication is often misunderstood. It does not mean you will never meet face-to-face. It does not mean you will never talk on the phone. There is inherit value in these types of interactions and possibily essential for high-quality relationships. The shift to asynchronous communication simply corrects the bias that is present in synchronous communication; only the sender decides as to when to engage. There is simply no optionality for the receiver.

Is the sender’s time is more important than that of the receiver? In your productivity more imports than mine? It’s hard to find rational arguments against asynchronous communication in most environments. Luckily this isn’t a zero-sum game. Simply stop replying instantly to every e-mail and start muting your phone for a few hours. You will quickly be able to share the benefits with your co-workers and finally regain some of your sanity in the process.