While we all dream working remotely from an island somewhere, some people prefer to keep the job they have, in the place they are, while, at the same time, enjoying the peace of mind that comes with working async.
But what does “working async” really mean?
Asynchronous (async) work is a term used to describe a way of operating that doesn’t require employees to be logged on at a specific time or work simultaneously during given work hours. 1
Async work is focused on goals rather than activity, and contribution rather than presence.
While this should always be the case, too many companies still force people to go the office, pretending to be busy, without realising what actually is important: results.
All right, now that we know what are talking about, let’s understand what we want to gain from it. What is our goal?
Obviously, our first goal is to work at our own pace, taking back control of our time. But to do that, we need to be able to focus on the important things that will actually make an impact on our work.
If we can achieve the second point, the first one will automatically follow.
To make it more concrete and easier to remember, we can say that our goal is to focus on one main task per day, during an interrupted period of time.
If we do it consistently and we’ll see our productivity skyrocket. And if we share our results within the company, people will see how productive we are and they’ll think twice before disturbing us.
Yes, it’s simple as that.
OK, but how do we achieve our goal? There are three main things we want to do on a regular basis:
1. Choose the daily goal
We need to start each day with a clear goal. That goal needs to be defined in advance, ideally the day before2 and add it to our calendar.
2. Schedule every minute of the day
If we want to be able to use our time as it best suits us, it’s better to have a plan for the day. We need to create a detailed plan for our day, including both work and personal events. Don’t worry, it’s not meant to be a cage, we can revisit it and adapt it as things change.
3. Share the results
We want people to notice your improvements, and become a valuable asset for the company. For that we need to share (at least) monthly updates regarding what we worked on and what we will be focusing on next.
While the first two should happen on a daily basis (or at least often enough to have a solid plan every day), sharing our updates can be done less often than that, but we don’t want to wait for the monthly or yearly business updates3.
Now that we know what we need to do, let’s dig into some tips on how to achieve it.
The ones below are just a few of the tactics I have learned and put into practice over the years. I will keep expanding this list, but these should be a great starting point:
Get back control of the calendar
First of all, if we want to be able to define when we want to work, we need to get back the control of our schedule.
- Reject as many meetings as possible. We need to drop out of all the recurring meetings that “could just be an email”. Weekly updates are the first ones that come to mind but we must be ambitious and review also every fortnightly, monthly, and even yearly event.
- Block focus-time periods for the next two weeks. Every Friday, while reviewing our progress, we will block out chunks of uninterrupted focus time. It’s important to understand at which times we’re more productive and schedule these times accordingly4.
- Batch the remaining meetings together. If there are meetings we can’t avoid, we must try and schedule them one after the other, to approach them one after the other and limit interruptions.
Gain piece of mind
Clearly, if we really want to focus, we need not to be disturbed. We already made sure this won’t happen via our calendar, but people can still message or call us.
- Turn off notifications. And I mean almost all of them. My phone rings only if a person I know calls me via phone-line (not using WhatsApp, Teams, or Slack)5.
- Schedule time to check messages. It’s better to book some time whenever needed to check emails and messages6. During these sessions we want to reply to the necessary ones and then get back into isolation model.
- Disable icon badges. You know those small numbers on the top right of your icons, that indicate how many messages you have to read? Get rid of them. They’re only a distraction. We don’t want to react, but proactively engage when we decide to.
Prefer async communication
Following the points above this should already come into practice but it’s good to always keep it as a reminder: people shouldn’t expect an immediate answer after writing us.
- Let people wait. Even if we receive a message while Slack or Teams is open, we shouldn’t feel forced to answer immediately. Let’s just pretend we haven’t seen it during this message-checking session.
- Train our colleagues. How many times do we receive messages like: “Can we have a quick call?”. To avoid this, we must train our colleagues to understand how we work. We should ask them to send us a written explanation of their issue and, if it can’t be solved in writing, ask them to schedule a call in the upcoming days7.
Since we want to prioritise async communication, written word will be more important than ever. We must learn how to get to the point, avoid miscommunication, and preventively avoid possible calls.
- Be detailed but also to the point. This sounds a bit counterintuitive but it’s fundamental to explain everything in writing while making sure our audience doesn’t get lost or bored out of their minds. See the BLUF communication principle .
- Write great documentation. When writing information regarding our projects, we must be detailed, trying to anticipate possible questions, and providing any information that might be relevant for the reader.
Learn to say no
This always sounds harsh and a bit prickly, but it really is a must. People will try and push their priorities on us. Saying no to people simply means that we can focus on our goals. Just don’t be rude and always provide a valuable alternative.
One last note: It’s easier to apply these tactics if you are new in your job. Once people get used to take advantage of your time, it’s difficult to back on them.
Working async in a 9-to-5 is not impossible but it sure isn’t easy. One thing is sure: it’s definitely worth it.
We don’t want to start our day without a defined idea of what we are going to achieve today. It’s better to plan our days in advance, so we can jump straight into focus-mode as soon as we want ↩︎
Otherwise our achievements will be lost between all of those of our other colleagues ↩︎
I noticed I am much more productive early in the morning, which is why I block every single morning until 12:30 ↩︎
While we could use Do Not Disturb mode, I find disabling notification all together to be much more efficient. Having to enable DND every time we want to focus creates friction, which we want to avoid ↩︎
It’s better to start light, and try to book as few of these email sessions as possible. How many urgent emails do we really receive during our days that can’t wait one or two days? ↩︎
We don’t want them schedule a call the same day as they message us, otherwise they will be pushing their priorities on us, disrupting all of our careful planning ↩︎