Abey Koshy Itty

Asynchronous (also referred to as “async”) communication should be the norm in the modern workplace, especially in tech.

For context, let’s not get confused between ‘remote’ and ‘async’. While remote work allows you to work from anywhere without having to be at the office, async communication lets one communicate in their own time without the expectation of responding immediately to others.

In an async culture, employees are not expected to be online, and responsive during set hours. They can work on their priority tasks and answer colleagues when it’s convenient for them and within a reasonable timeframe, like 24 hours, for instance.

There are no set work hours in an async environment. With trust and independence being the core value of an async culture, employees have more control over how they structure their workdays depending on when they are most productive.

After all, people are hired to get productive work done that moves the needle. Not answering Slack messages and emails all day long.

The need for async communication

The way most teams communicate is messed up.

According to research from RescueTime, knowledge workers spend 40% of their day context switching between communication and productive work. On average, this leaves employees with 1 hour and 12 minutes of productive time that’s not interrupted by communication tools.

An average knowledge worker’s schedule is designed around multiple meetings with the remaining time spent doing work in a half-distracted state with an eye on Slack and email notifications.

Image source: Doist blog

The underlying problem is that most workplaces have no concrete guidelines on how communication should happen. Hardly any effort is being made to protect an individual’s schedule, making it hard to produce meaningful progress on core tasks.

Guide to async communication

Communicating asynchronously starts with intentionality.

If you feel like you lack control of your time due to the constant back and forth on Slack and never-ending meetings, here’s what you can do to evangelize the philosophy of async communication internally.

Plan ahead

Planning ahead is a great way to avoid surprises and keep your team informed. With async, people learn to plan their collaborations way ahead of time since ASAP requests are not an option.

If you prefer writing, you can keep a notebook to chart out your tasks for the week in advance and see how much focused time you need to complete them. If you prefer digital, you can use a tool like Sunsama, Amie, Routine or Kosmotime for planning.

Preparing for a vacation or planned day off? Use your status or calendar to let your teammates know a week or two in advance about your absence. This helps them to act accordingly and ensure that they don’t disturb you during your time away. Range, Pause and Nook are some tools that can serve this purpose.

Block your calendar, update your status

Time blocking your calendar for deep work is a great exercise to control your schedule. Coding, writing, designing and strategizing are all cognitively demanding activities that require long periods of deep focus. Your most productive hours should be used to accomplish such tasks.

And more importantly, make sure that your teammates can see your calendar so that they know what your day looks like.

Added to that, updating your Slack status to DND with a customized status mentioning that you’re working on an important task is a great way to let your teammates know that they should not be expecting quick replies.

Make thoughtful communication

Learn to differentiate between urgent and non-urgent communication. Your urgent question may be interrupting your teammate from an important task. 90% of things are not urgent and don’t need a quick response.

Dig deeper to see if you can find the answer to the question yourself.

If you do need to ask, formulate your message in a way that gives context and links to relevant documents with a clear CTA of what exactly you need from them. If it’s a time-sensitive task, let them know when your deadline is.

Say yes to fewer meetings

Having more meetings or jumping on an impromptu meeting should not be the default.

Meetings tend to eat into the best hours of a maker’s day. The majority of the workforce in a company are individual contributors who operate on the maker’s schedule.

As Paul Graham mentions in his essay, “When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. But in addition, there's sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I'm slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning. I know this may sound oversensitive, but if you're a maker, think of your own case. Don't your spirits rise at the thought of having an entire day free to work, with no appointments at all? Well, that means your spirits are correspondingly depressed when you don't.”

Studies show that it takes a person 23 minutes to get back on track once they are interrupted. So, think twice before you send your teammate that message next time.

Proper written communication is the way to go for async. Default to writing whenever possible and schedule meetings if and only if it is absolutely necessary.

Document everything

Having a central knowledge base for internal documentation that everyone on the team has access to is a must for successful async communication. It also makes it easier to reference past discussions and decisions since it’s all available in writing. Notion is a great tool to document everything and get knowledge out of silos.

A central knowledge hub would include details about the product, processes, guides, culture and anything and everything the team should be well informed about. GitLab’s Handbook is probably the best resource out there that encompasses everything that should be documented.

Closing thoughts

Embracing async communication at work requires transparency and proper communication and it doesn’t happen overnight. It is a philosophy that needs to be adopted gradually and constantly improved upon.

If your organization currently has a synchronous style of working, you don’t have to look further to discover why your employee productivity is a mess.

Transitioning to async does come with its challenges but the most successful companies are making the shift to allow teams to produce their best possible work.

It’s time we embrace productivity over constant communication.

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Thank you for taking the time to read. Until next time! ✌️

It's been a year since I switched from Chrome to Sidekick. The aesthetics and user experience is the best I've seen and it's everything you could ask for in a browser. Heck, it even solves problems that I knew I had but didn't think could be resolved!

And switching from Chrome was a breeze. Since Sidekick is built on top of the open-source Chromium framework, migrating my Google account, bookmarks and extensions was a super easy and quick process.

There are a couple of things that make Sidekick a major upgrade from Chrome or any other browser out there.

But first, let me give you an idea of what's wrong with Chrome.

Chrome: The flawed market leader

There's no doubt that Chrome is certainly a crowd favourite. The way it displaced Internet Explorer and Firefox in the span of a few years to become the market leader is nothing short of phenomenal.

Back in 2008, Chrome sure was a fresh take on the browser. More people were spending their time working inside a browser and Google had the vision to develop it with rich, interactive web applications in mind.

However, Chrome does have its flaws.

Chrome has been in the news for all the wrong reasons when it comes to privacy. Last year, when the Apple Store app privacy labels came out, all eyes turned to the advertising giant to see what data is being collected and they didn't disappoint.

It was found that Chrome's data harvesting practices were quite out of the ordinary. Chrome collects data fields like location, identifiers, search & browsing history, and a lot more and links all of them to a user's identity. This is a genuine threat to a user's privacy and a serious reason why you should consider quitting Chrome. You can read more about the privacy concerns here.

Secondly, it eats up a lot of memory and makes it really difficult to work on your PC if you're running multiple apps at the same time. Tab suspender extensions can solve this problem up to an extent but it's still scrappy.

And finally, tab clutter! Ever find yourself getting lost in all the open tabs in your browser?

I've seen folks running north of 50+ tabs and multiple Chrome windows to keep hold of all the tabs they need for pending tasks.

Well, if you're someone who takes privacy seriously and resonate with the issues I mentioned above, you'll fall in love with Sidekick.

Let me explain what makes Sidekick a Chrome killer.

Built-in ad blocker & fingerprinting defense

The one thing I absolutely love about Sidekick is its commitment to user privacy. They are not in the advertising business and have all the necessary features built into the browser to safeguard a user's privacy.

This includes a built-in ad blocker to block trackers from following you around the web and for removing ads from websites. The browser also comes with a fingerprinting defense to block third parties from identifying details about you like the browser you use, computer hardware & software information, etc.

A user's private data such as browsing history, cookies and passwords are all stored locally and with a subscription-based model (includes a free plan), Sidekick has a clear business model that's not reliant on harvesting user data for monetary benefits like Chrome.

Work in apps instead of tabs

The average number of apps used by a modern worker is 9 and most of these run inside the browser. But Chrome is not designed to make your life easier to work with apps. When everything has to be a tab, staying organised gets a bit difficult. Especially if you use a lot of web apps, 5 tabs can quickly become 10 or 15 in no time.

With Sidekick, you have a workspace to add all the apps you use and pin the most frequently used apps in your sidebar. This means that you can switch between them easily without needing any open tabs. Time to say goodbye to tab clutter!

Sidekick also features an AI tab suspender to free memory by automatically suspending unused tabs.

Another interesting feature is that you can be logged into different accounts for an app even if it is not natively supported.

For example, if you're on multiple Slack workspaces, you can be logged into all accounts at the same time and switch between them easily. On a Chrome browser, you'll need to log out from an account and log in to the next one or have multiple incognito tabs to manage multiple accounts for an app.

Save your sessions for later

The most practical feature that was missing in a browser. Period.

Sessions in Sidekick allow you to save all your open tabs for later use. This feature is super helpful when you have pending tasks that you want to come back to or if you need to use certain tabs throughout the week for certain tasks. With a single click, you can restore all the tabs in a session and switch between sessions whenever you want to.

Happens to be my favourite feature on Sidekick. When I was using Chrome, this was something I constantly struggled with.

A lightning-fast search function

Having all your apps inside the Sidekick browser gives you one incredible superpower – a lightning-fast global search function.

Just hit Alt + S and search across your history, tabs, documents, apps and quickly find what you're looking for. It really makes everything accessible and saves a lot of time when you want to pull something up.

Wrapping up

I cannot emphasise enough the impact Sidekick has had on my day to day workflow. It's wild that something like this didn't exist before!

When Sidekick launched in December 2020, it felt like a Christmas present as I went playing around with it. There are many subtle features in Sidekick that I haven't touched upon. I'll let you discover them on your own ;)

You should probably give it a try and say goodbye to the data sucking giant called Google Chrome. Sign up for Sidekick – it's free to get started!

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That's all folks! If you liked this article, consider sharing it with a friend. That would really mean the world to me! :)

Thanks to Allen for reviewing the draft of this article.

YouTube has grown to become the home for videos on the internet.

Whether it be tutorials on how to go about doing something, content that keeps us entertained, or if we'd like to dig deeper into a specific topic, there's probably a video available for it on YouTube. The possibilities are endless.

If you’re on YouTube on a regular basis, you must be aware of how bizarre YouTube's recommended videos can be.

It often delivers good content that overlaps with our interests and helps us discover new creators, but occasionally, the recommendations are borderline criminal.

YouTube makes all of its money from advertisements, just like Facebook. More ads mean more revenue for YouTube.

So, at the end of the day, they want you to spend as much time as possible on the platform. And to keep people engaged, YouTube utilizes a strong recommendation system powered by AI. According to Neal Mohan, the company’s Chief Product Officer, over 70% of the time people spent on YouTube is spent watching recommended videos.

While what's under the hood of the YouTube recommendation algorithm is largely unknown to the public, there’s information available regarding how it operates on a high level.

If you'd like to learn more about how the algorithm works (from a technical standpoint), I'd suggest you check out this article.

Now, let's take a closer look at the problems with YouTube's recommendation system.

Engaging content ≠ what users want

Guillaume Chaslot, an ex-software engineer at Google used to work on improving YouTube's recommendation algorithm. While working on this project, he was able to witness the dark sides of the algorithm first-hand.

He now heads a non-profit called algotransparency with a mission to expose the impact of the most influential algorithms.

He points out that the motivation behind Youtube's recommendation algorithm is deeply flawed and it's not really aligned with what the user wants.

According to Chaslot, “The AI isn't built to help you get what you want – it's built to get you addicted to YouTube. Recommendations were designed to waste your time.”

The way YouTube achieves this is by optimizing its algorithm for expected watch time. The algorithm tracks and measures the viewing habits of an individual, pools similar users and then finds and recommends other videos that they will engage with.

But, since the AI is told to optimize for watch time, it doesn't necessarily reflect what the user wants.

It might be great for a company trying to generate more revenue via ads. That's why the AI favours longer videos that also return the best watch time. The longer the video length, the more ads YouTube can push to the user in between.

Due to the preference for watch time, on one side we have cat videos, baby videos, etc, ranking up in the algorithm. But at the same time, we also see a lot of shocking and controversial videos- conspiracy theories, hate speech, fake news, etc. spreading on the platform.

Controversial content grabs a user's attention and gets longer watch times, hence gaining priority in the algorithm.

With people relying more and more on YouTube as their single source of information consumption, recommendations can push people further to extremes — whether they want it or not — just because it’s in YouTube’s interest to keep pushing whatever content they deem engaging so that we keep watching for as long as possible.

Controversial content on YouTube

YouTube's recommendation system has been repeatedly accused of being designed to send people down rabbit holes of disinformation and extremism.

The platform has come under scrutiny for promoting terrorist content, foreign state-sponsored propaganda, extreme hatred and a number of conspiracy theories.

Mozilla started a campaign called #YouTubeRegrets, gathering stories from the public about videos that skewed their recommendations and led them down bizarre or dangerous paths.

After watching a video about Vikings, a user was recommended content about white supremacy. Another user shares their experience of starting out watching a boxing match. YouTube then went on to recommend the user videos of street fights, then accidents, and urban violence.

You can read the most alarming stories compiled by Mozilla about people who went down rabbit holes they never meant to go down. It's disturbing and equally eye-opening at the same time.

Mozilla has since come out seeking help from YouTube users to research more about the algorithm.

They developed an add-on called RegretsReporter that allows users to report controversial recommendations.

Mozilla pointed out that the harm that algorithm-driven content enables is not easily seen or understood because all of it happens in private. Insights from the RegretsReporter extension help Mozilla to hold YouTube accountable for the AI developed to power their recommendation systems.

Final thoughts

YouTube continues to leave independent researchers in the dark by not providing meaningful data to study the issue and help them improve the recommendation system. Moreover, users have limited options to control the recommendations they receive on the platform.

Added to that, as a user it's quite difficult to pass on clickbaity borderline content on YouTube. By engaging with such content, we give a positive signal to the algorithm and it gets boosted.

The way in which YouTube is capable of narrowing a user’s content exposure and ultimately shifting their worldview is frightening and something that we should all be aware of while navigating the platform.

One thing that you can do to improve your privacy on YouTube is to pause your YouTube history. By doing so, your recommendations will be less based on your watch history and more dependent on the channels you’re subscribed to.

There’s no reason to let a company profit from selling our attention- by exploiting the basic human desire of wanting to dig deeper into what engages us.

And it comes down to each one of us to be mindful and navigate YouTube responsibly.

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Thanks for making it till the end. If you found this useful, please do consider sharing it with your friends. I spent a few good hours researching the topic and writing this article.

Thanks to Gopika for reviewing the draft of this article.