If it’s not important for you to write it well, I guess it’s not important for me to read it. Right?

12 min readApr 21, 2021

I have 32 opened tabs as we speak, 16 threads in Slack that I still need to checkout, 64 emails to go through… Do you really think I remember the “document you’ve sent me” ?

With all due respect, but what bloody document?

Frustrated email reader
Foto de Yan Krukov en Pexels

The other day I talked to a friend of mine who is a senior PM in a startup and guess what… by default under a lot of pressure. At the same time you’re reviewing analytics, preparing a presentation for OKRs, reviewing some ready to production things and receiving messages all over the place.

One thing that caught my attention was when he told me that few days before our conversation he received a message in Slack from a colleague that made him snap. I got all curious and thought about the possible content of the message. Maybe the person complained about something such as the coffee maker or the new seating arrangement in the office — problems that should be the priority number one ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

The truth is, to your disappointment, much less interesting. As is sometimes* the case, the message simply lacked context and/or structure for a reader to understand it and since this was not the first time this happened he lost his patience and responded with some sarcasm mixed with irony.

*sometimes — as in way too often

He told me that he was sorry he reacted that way, but I could also feel that he wasn’t that sorry… I could feel that he needed this to happen to blow off some steam within.

I’m sure that nobody likes receiving a message that looks like as if someone deleted a few paragraphs from it; or message that came from nowhere and to a wrong recipient. While I’m at it… messages that lack all the context, come without links or even lack some basic grammar structure… Not cool guys, not cool.

Still, some people keep sending them… Why the hell is that?

I’d argue that those messages are a result of pure laziness or, to give them the benefit of a doubt, a result of a wrong premise that people can read each other’s minds (remotely).

I’m being sarcastic here only because that’s the only instrument that I have left before using some wording that is frowned upon. To say the least.

We humans are single threaded machines and our brains are designed to be lazy

Don’t be fooled by the fact that we can drive and talk at the same time, ride a bicycle and chat on Whatsapp, play a guitar while communicating with our dog. We’re still single threaded creatures.

When you switch your brain to a new “thread,” a whole complicated mess of neural activity begins to activate the proper sub-networks and suppress others. This takes time. When you then rapidly switch to another “thread,” that work doesn’t clear instantaneously like electrons emptying from a circuit, but instead lingers, causing conflict with the new task. — calnewport.com

All these operations are automatic operations managed by what Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and slow calls the System 1 — our brain activity that is fast, intuitive and cheap in terms of our effort and concentration. Also, it’t the system that usually gets to a problem and solution first.

It’ really unbelievable how much of what we do during each day gets done by the System 1. Most of our actions during each day are managed by this system. We’re talking about operations such as driving, breathing, walking, drinking and eating, but we also talk about cognitive abilities such as deciding, responding and having an opinion. Still, operations such as counting, writing this post, programming, complex reasoning, even parking a car in a narrow spot require the engagement of the what Kahneman calls the System 2 .

This system is the one in charge of more complex cognitive operations. What’s interesting is that we, the humans, are designed to avoid using the System 2 whenever it’s possible. In other words it’s a lazy system that doesn’t want to be activated almost ever. Why? You might ask… One of the plausible explanations could be that it’s because any operation where we actively engage with a problem have to think it through costs us a lot of calories. Remember that, until the ’70 and all the obesity problem, finding calories and a proper intake of those was really rare. When you think about it, from an evolutionary point of view, we were designed to be a bit dumb to survive.

We’re also designed to enter what’s known as fight or flight mode each time we detect danger or are under a lot of stress. When this happens our pupils dilate, our forehead frowns, muscles twitch and our System 1 takes over and does all the work. This is what saved us from lions and dangerous snakes so far. Also, this is what happens when we’re under a lot of stress. We act abruptly our decision making process is limited and we feel overwhelmed.

This might look like a bug, but it’s not. It’s just that modern human beings were not designed for a a modern life in which we’e spending way too much time in a highly stressed situations. It’s like being on a constant watch-out for a lurking lion even though you are safe and sound in the safety of your office, car or even your home :/

Frequent interruptions

To try to illustrate how we function cognitively let’s say we only have a certain amount of cognitive calories (don’t goolge it, I made this term up) to burn each day. Each time we review an Excel file, look into some piece of code, have a phone call or attend a meeting we burn some of those calories. Nonetheless, the same happens each time our Slack, Whatsapp, email, phone call, Zoom, or sms pings us for our attention. Each time we stop what we’re doing and go through those messages to quickly decide whether they’re of our interest and/or if they demand our attention we’re burning those calories and have less left for the rest of the day.

Few decades ago when people had a few phone calls a day, 2 meetings and 3 mails to read, engaging in all those actions was manageable. We’re still that same old primitive Homo Sapiens; it’s just that now we have to juggle with all these interruptions while we’re trying to find some time to think, plan and make some well-informed decisions.

We simply don’t have enough time to go through all those messages and emails we receive each day so they keep piling up, the stress sweeps in and we start loosing it. If all this resonates with you, you’re not alone. Just look what all this did to this guy — three.sentenc.es

Although reducing the number of interruptions is one of the main issues and challenges we face when working / collaborating with more than handful of people, it’s not what this article is about.

This article is about this: If you interrupt someone, please be sure that at least you worked on the quality of the message you’re trying to get across

I only have 10 cognitive dinars to spend on it

Let’s say that we have a limited cognitive budget that we can spend per day. Since this is my article, I’ll call them the cognitive dinars (don’t goolge it either, I made this one up too). Now, imagine every time we receive a phone call, read an email, read a slack message or are asked to take a decision on something we need to spend some of those dinars.

Let’s say a simple Slack message that requires 10 seconds of time to read and understand is around 3 dinars. Nonetheless, if the message is purely written, full of misspellings, lacks interpunction symbols its cost goes up. Moreover, if the latter provides no context or references and the receiver has to stop and build the whole context on their own, think about all those references then it’s safe to assume that the price just went up tenfold.

Unfortunately, many of us deal with hundreds of messages, emails and phone calls a day. We can only dedicate so much time to each of those messages and if they’re purely written and lack the necessary context then these become too costly to deal.

When we receive a message such as “listen regarding the discussion we had in the thread the other day what’s your opinion” this is what happens in our tiny tiny brains:

  1. You read the message (let’s say 1 dinar)
  2. You try to deduct if it’s “listen regarding” or “listen, regarding” (1 dinar)
  3. You try to remember what discussion the sender is referring to (3 dinars). You’re already edgy here
  4. You remember the discussion and that there was a document, you search for it, open and read it (2 dinars). Now, you know what they’re talking about and the context.
  5. You reply with a consistent message providing the link to that document to ask whether that’s the one they’re referring to (2 dinars)
  6. and so on

By the time you are done with this task there are already another 2 Slack messages waiting to make you day

Lazy sender — much lazier recipient

I’m finally getting to a point here.

Each time we send a message that lacks the context and assumes that the receiver knows what we’re talking about we’re either:

A) Being lazy
B)In a hurry
C) We don’t care
D) Don’t know any better

When we send this sort of a messages we’re asking the receiver to do the hard work of deciphering what we meant by “my last email”, “that we talked about earlier”, “that client” etc.

This is the thing… It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that lazy structured messages get little to no attention. Truth be told, why would someone who receives a message want to spend more energy on understanding it than the sender did to make it understandable.

Let’s be honest, if you really want to communicate something that’s really important to you, you will put a lot of effort into it. Right? Unless you want your message to be ignored or misinterpreted.

No matter how important the message is if it’s lazy structured and unclear it intrinsically loses some to all importance.

We need a communication manifesto that we all adhere to

If you think about it, in any situation where there are more than handful of people interacting on a regular basis there comes a moment when we need to define some set of explicit rules to make this N-N interaction viable.

In traffic we have traffic lights, in modern societies we have constitutions while the gyms have some basic rules of usage. I know, rules are boring, but unless the group or a community defines their set of rules everyone it’s totally legit to behave and interact anyway you want — being that wrong or right.

I believe every organisation should create an Effective communication manifesto (or use one that already exists) and make sure that everyone in the organisation has read it. Now, every time someone receives a message that is ambiguous or lacks context a receiver could simply reply with a link to the manifesto instead of reacting like a friend of mine (from the beginning of this article) had reacted.

I’ll risk it everything now and suggest a few basic rules of writing messages that any receiver can easily understand, follow and reply to almost without consulting it with their prefrontal cortex.

1. Assume that the receiver has no idea what you’re talking about

No really, this is the main idea I’d like to get across. You wouldn’t believe how helpful providing the context and over-communicating things might mean to the receiver.

No matter if you’re 99% surte that the person will know what you’re referring to, it’s a good habit to always start with an introduction, provide the context and then get to the point. No worries, all this can be done in a message that’s no longer than a tweet.

What can really help here is imagining that you’re sending a message to a person you haven’t talked about the current topic for at least 3 months.

2. Every noun that you mention make it a link

If you mention an email — provide a link to it.

If you mention a document — provide a link to it

If you mention an event— you guessed it — provide a link to it

3. Logically and visually separate the discussion

Slack or MS Teams are probably the most used communication tools in the last couple of years. They’re great, but if not used with caution, structure and empathy they can cause a communication mayhem.

When sending a message using Slack, always prefer sending one concise message that contains all the info that the receiver might need to understand and reply to it as opposed to sending multiple shorter messages. The only exception to this rule should be when the first message was already sent and now you’re engaging in a real-time conversation regarding the initial message.

Breaking a message into a shorter ones and then sending it piece by piece will cause these problems:

  • each message probably comes either with an irritating ding sound or a floating notification that interrupts a receiver N times even before engaging with it
  • Especially in a channel where there are many participants there is a high chance that someone replies too soon to a partially finished message. This makes it much harder to understand the whole point as a whole and to follow which reply belongs to which message. For the initial sender it’s like being interrupted all the time while presenting or talking.
  • If you break one message into few smaller ones then starting one thread of replies/discussion is impossible, which complicates following the discussion . It’s like breaking one email into various where each email gets replied separately referring to “the other email”

4. Make it easier for me to act on it

Think about what you’re trying to communicate and what the purpose of your message is. I’d say that all messages fall into one of the 2 categories:

A) Asking for an opinion, feedback or explanation
B) Informing the recipient(s) about something

No matter what type of a message you’re sending across make sure that you provide as much context as possible so that anyone can understand at least what? when? where? why?

This could be the basic structure of all your messages:

  1. Introduction
  2. Your point (question, doubt…)
  3. The action you require from the other side

5. When the discussion hits ~15 replies maybe it’s time to have a quick call

This doesn’t need to much explanation… If a discussion is too complex, becomes too broad or is about a topic that’s causing divergence in opinions then consider asking the participants to join a Zoom call where you can discuss it in a medium meant for the discussions — a plane old conversation

When done, it’s a good idea to wrap it all up in a post, message or an email and share it with everyone because if it caused a lot of discussion on Monday it will probably hunt you down again around Thursday :)


Honestly I was thinking about tweeting about all this, but somehow 200 characters became 500, 500 turned into 1000 so I guess I’d better start wrapping it up :|

Communication is the basis of all collaboration and unless you’re working alone on your own project for your own needs then you need to collaborate hence communicate. Apparently the problem of not having a fluid and structured communication is one that really resonates with me. I mean, I wouldn’t have gone through all this writing and I would have probably left my typical rant on twitter.

I honestly consider bad communication a huge hurdle in collaboration with other people and something that can be solved pretty easily if there is will to agree on some basic rules. Being separated from your team members either because of COVID or because your organisation works fully remote enlarges this problem because 90% of all communication happens using messages and emails while the remaining 10% is Zoom.

Don’t ignore the problem! I’m sure that no one enjoys the frustration of receiving and deciphering hundreds of poorly written messages. Get everyone on the same page by writing down some basic rules all together and publishing the rules somewhere accessible by everyone in the team.

Start communicating in an structured, organised and fluid way

Interesting reads

Here are some nice articles I found while researching about the best practices for Slack and remote communication.

Team Guide by meistertask.com

Github ‘s rules of communication

Slack etiquette from Slack

Slack best practices by Mode.com