Real-time messaging is standard practice in any school, friendship, or workplace. But the science is grim. Strained relationships. Heightened anxiety. Flagging productivity. Sleepless nights.
Is our message-addiction wrecking our lives? And if so, can we even imagine an alternative?
The problems of real-time communication are dire: but there is another path for successful attorneys who wish to retake control of their lives.
What the addiction looks like
Last year, the workplace messaging app Slack celebrated their rapid growth. Among the figures they applauded: their users spend an average of two hours every day actively chatting in Slack, and keep the app open for ten hours every day.
Those are spectacular numbers for Slack and its investors. And they’re troubling for the workers and firms that rely on Slack.
“Slack has made work, like the rest of the internet, a passive addiction,” writes Molly Fischer in New York Magazine. Slack “essentially ushered employer-sanctioned social media into the workplace,” she explains. The result is that the cheerful app “induces the same anxious, attention-hungry rhythm in its users, the same need to endlessly refresh.”
But Slack is just one source for the dings, buzzes, and whistles coming from our phones and computers. This mass of notifications from real-time messaging shapes our lives on many levels. It dictates our work culture. It wheedles deep into our psyche.
Real-time interruptions gain ground through a stick-and-carrot approach. First the carrot: we feel a tiny thrill with each ding of an incoming message. It’s the You’ve Got Mail! phenomena, a subdued version of the rush behind online gambling addictions.
And as for the stick: it’s that anxiety in your gut when you’ve gone too many minutes without responding to a message. The sense that someone is growing angry at you for not responding. The worry that others will make a decision without your input.
It’s something we’ve all felt. But now science is uncovering the root of these emotions — and their consequences.
Psychologists are looking into the growing disorder of ‘Nomophobia,’ the intense anxiety resulting from not checking your cell phone (it’s a sort of tacky name derived from NO MObile PHOne phoBIA). Researchers have found the condition in around half of all teens and a growing number of adults.
And it takes a toll. Nomophobia could cause around nine deaths a day through distracted driving — and a few more through distracted walking (watch all the people crossing a street while staring straight down at their phones).
For neurologists, the research is even more dire. Their research suggests constant phone multitasking could kill off gray-matter in your anterior cingulate cortex.
Why should you care about your anterior cingulate cortex? That’s the bit that helps make decisions, control impulses, govern your emotions, and guide your morality and ethics.
The causality of phones and brains is still being figured out (could it also be that people with certain grey matter density problems are more likely to begin multitasking on their phones in the first place?). But the behavioral sciences are making their own inroads in this area.
Researchers have found that using a smartphone at night and in the morning before work “depletes employees’ regulatory resources and impairs their engagement at work.” These “regulatory resources” matter, explain the researchers, because they’re what stop us from “deviant and unethical acts.”
A severely depleted person could explode in anger at their coworkers or defraud the company. But even when the results aren’t a scandal, they can be serious. A lack of self-control feeds into distraction-culture. “Once depleted,” write the study’s authors, “people find subsequent work activities more demanding and become vulnerable to non-task distractions and impulses.”
In other words: it’s a vicious feedback cycle. Using your phone makes you more vulnerable to distractions from your phone, which makes you use it more, which makes you more distracted, etc.
And in the meantime, what happens to your work?
Real-time messaging and productivity
We’re trained to think of the smart and successful people as the ones with the headset always clipped to their ear. That idea is bullshit.
Some of the loudest alarms about our smartphones and their constant stream of messages come from sleep researchers. They find that chronic texters take longer to fall asleep and experience higher stress. That blue light beaming from our screens suppresses our sleep hormone melatonin. And sleep deprivation is one more cause of depleted self-control resources in the workplace.
It’s not just about the bright light (though I’ll pause here while you download a nighttime blue-light blocker app on your phone). It’s the content of messages as well, leading to the stress of ruminating on the latest workplace need. France and Germany have gone so far as to pass ‘right to disconnect’ laws, which ban sending work-related messages after-hours.
But even when the messages come during the work day, they take a toll.
As Cal Newport explains, distractions from real-time messaging inhibit ‘deep work’ and keep us stuck in the intellectual shallows. ‘Shallow work,’ explains Newport, is easy, rich in social interaction, and momentarily satisfying.
But when we close off the stream of distractions and focus on cognitively challenging work, our brain functions differently. Ninety minutes of uninterrupted work puts us in the zone of ‘deep work.’ This work is higher quality, and more satisfying to the worker.
How asynchronous communication can give you your brain back
How can attorneys avoid the real-time communication trap and tap into their deep work resources?
One starting place is in the kinds of messages they send to their clients and staff. ‘Asynchronous’ messages can decrease distractions and let attorneys find their focus again. Instead of causing instant distractions, asynchronous messages wait in a queue, where they can be dealt with on your own time, after you complete your previous task.
This productivity research is why we’ve made asynchronous messaging the default setting for Filevine notes, tasks, and texts. Filevine keeps you up to date on all your cases—but not in real-time interruptions, which disrupt your workflow. Instead, these notifications come into a feed which you access after you’ve completed the task you’re currently working on.
For Filevine users, the latest information is always at your fingertips. But it doesn’t ding and buzz on your phone, knocking you out of your deep work flow.
What does this look like in real life? Let’s take an example from client communication. In a regular firm, when a client texts his attorney the attorney’s phone dings, drawing her attention away from the brief she’s researching. If the attorney pauses to answer, she has destroyed her capacity for deep work for at least another half hour. But if she doesn’t answer right away, she risks losing track of that client’s question, which erodes her client’s trust and patience.
But in a Filevine firm, the client can text directly into his case file. Instead of dinging the attorney’s phone, this will show up in the newsfeed of all the members of the legal team handling the case. Each of those team members will have all the case information right in front of them, in the same file where they’re receiving the text. This allows them to answer the question in a thorough and informed way.
When they complete their current task, they’ll see the notification of the new text. If it’s truly urgent and requires the lead attorney’s instant attention, they can decide to interrupt her. But otherwise, any team member can text back at their earliest convenience. Or they can assign the text response as a task to the necessary expert. Either way, the text is never lost, since it’s securely archived in the case file.
Of course you can alter Filevine’s settings to interrupt you in real time. For each case and kind of update, you can decide what kind of notifications you receive. But we begin with the assumption that attorneys deserve uninterrupted blocks of time to work their magic. Our fundamental desire is that our users have control of incoming information—instead of allowing the tidal wave of information to control them.
Filevine isn’t the only asynchronous communication app out there. Fortunately, a number of tech rebels are bucking the trend of real-time communication, to give their users the gift of uninterrupted work. But to get the most out of your asynchronous apps you can’t do it alone. You need a deep-work culture that includes your entire legal team. This includes reserving real-time messaging and drop-in distractions for truly urgent issues.
The first marathon happened when some poor messenger boy raced to the Athenians to tell them they had won a battle 26 miles away. He then died from the effort.
We’re still sacrificing ourselves to the desire for ever-speedier communication. But more firms and companies are beginning to recognize the unsung values of stillness, silence, and focus.
Will attorneys and legal staff continue to be hounded by shallow-work distractions? Or will they beat the addiction to real-time messaging and dive into deep work?