DIY Slack Busy Light

My adventure of recreating this DIY Raspberry Pi Busy Light by @eliostruyf for Slack.

A few months back, after listening to Deep Work and trying it out, I was hooked. I found I could accomplish the most difficult and daunting of tasks with absolute understanding and concentration. Though working from a small home with a young family and a couple of pets, needing to communicate at work, and my own personality traits, the absolute best I can do is 90 minute spans. 90 minutes of head down, no notifications, no distractions, no Slack, concentrated work – followed by a bit of a break, then another session. (I realize this is likely more Pomodoro technique than off-to-a-cabin-for-a-week true deep work, however the high level premise is the same, I get into a state of flow).

Setting up less notifications in my life, filtering all input, building timers, blocking out time for sessions, remembering to do it, and sticking to it, was all the easy stuff. Avoiding my family’s interruptions, was impossible. My wife, three year old daughter, and eleven month old son are all living their lives in our small home, feet away from me at any given time. They would randomly pop in, yell, knock, throw things, cry, text, ask, poke, question, hug etc. Breaking the session. Not only demotivating as it scratches the record on my focus that I just mentally committed too, but it would take around ten or more minutes to refocus and realign after they had left, leaving me a bit scrambled and a bit behind. Best illustrated in this comic:

My wife sympathized with me, and we both knew we needed some sort of way to indicate I was in these sessions, or on a call. The classic ‘door open/close’ or ‘headphones on/off’ wouldn’t work in our family, and shooting a text seemed unideal as that may backfire, ignite a conversation or trigger some reminder that may fill the brain with life instead of work. We both agreed that some sort of red light outside the door would be best.

I was thinking just a single LED light. I’d drill a hole in the door jam, and run some wires from a Raspberry Pi or other small computer or bluetooth device to turn the light on or off. This was the plan.

Then searching “DIY Busy Light” to see what else others have done, returned an amazing post by the very impressive @estruyf (which to my surprise, had only been posted days earlier) that took me away. It amazed me how good it looked and sounded. The code written for the project was minimal and well done. The parts looks awesome. I had never played with a Raspberry PI, or any DIY hardware, but this all excited me a great deal. I quickly ordered up everything.

I won’t go into detail on the hardware side as @estruyf’s post explains it all, but after a lengthy international shipping wait, it was easy enough put together.

I opted to not get the Pibow case and picked my own, but I was unable to put everything together because of the way my case and the holes of the board aligned the same, opposed to the Pibow that is wider and doesn’t use the Pis back two holes. Having no long tiny screws around to makeshift something myself, I ended up purchasing some legitimate standoffs and they worked well to pinch the whole thing together while giving the correct amount of even space between. Overall I was happy with how it turned out and I liked the darker backing and bolts:

On the software side, I use Slack for my work instead of Microsoft Teams as the tutorial guides for. And despite how my family will see only green or red, I recognized that I have more than just two states, each state needing to reflect differently in both Slack and on the Busy Light.

I began by defining those states in a JSON file, now hosted on Gist:

Life is complicated, so to me it was understandable to have this many different states. Basically, there are times I don’t want to be interrupted by work, other times family, sometimes both, and sometimes I welcome interruptions, and am open to new chats. Additionally, at my job communication is oxygen, so I do like to be explicit about why I’m not responsive during my normal work hours, and what state I’m in instead of just online or offline. (The rainbow status is just for fun, it’s available in the API so we’ve made it a signal that I want a hug from my daughter).

I next needed a consistent and quick method to reference and set these statuses. I didn’t want to memorize this table, or second guess myself on which version of an emoji to use. Even with knowing the keyboard shortcuts, I find the Slack UI a bit clunky for status setting – so I wrote a small Alfred workflow in PHP:

This Alfred Workflow pulls down, caches, and parses that JSON file of my statuses, displays them for quick selection, then when selected fires off a simple CURL to the Slack API, which sets my emoji status and online/offline presence. (I’ve opted to not share this code as it uses Slack Legacy Tokens, which are now unavailable).

Though I never forget to switch a status when I step out for a break or lunch, knowing myself, there was about a 100% chance of me forgetting to set an “In a meeting” status as I prepare and log into one. I automated this status setter with the Google Calendar Slack App. This app reads my meetings calendar and adjusts my Slack Status while in a scheduled meeting.

I furthered this automation to my Pomodoro timer (which I use to block out and keep on track of my 90min deep work sessions) so when my timer starts up, theres a call to an external workflow, triggering the Slack Status Workflow to set to DeepWork and go offline. Once the timer completes it clears the emoji and sets me to Active.

Everything boiled down to Slack being the canonical source of my current state, and defining a small pool of what that could be. Slack allows for easy automation and integration, and my JSON file allowed for easy editing and modifications. With this setup, the Busy Light just needed to read and reflect Slacks state.

To poll Slack, compare the emoji status and online/offline presence to the list of statuses, and determine the colour and send a request for the Busy Light, I thought about running a cron job on the Raspberry Pi itself, a single Python script that’d be under 100 lines, however, for several reasons I explain further below I opted to keep the RPI as a standalone server that only handled request. I only wanted the stable and simple Flask server by @estruyf on it.

So to bridge Slack and the Busy Light, instead I built a widget on my personal Dashboard “Albert”. Albert is an Express app that displays data from a personal PHP data API I have for myself (called ‘Artemis’, which supplies data to the Dashboard from other APIs like Google, current weather, stats on, etc).

The widget I wrote for the Dashboard in my API Service polls every 15 seconds, reading Slack, figuring out the status, and sending off a request to the Busy Light if it differs from the previous state sent. Making the Busy Light responsive within a quarter of a minute.

Besides being easier to debug and work on and writing in PHP instead of Python, another big draw of not writing the script on the Pi itself was that my Dashboard has a UI and a setup that allows for easily creating beautiful views for the data. Here’s some screen shots of the widget in four different sample states:

This Dashboard and widget is open all day on my second monitor, providing me a constant glimpse of Slack (despite the app not being open) and the Busy Light (despite the door being closed), which has proven very helpful for preventing accidental incorrect statuses.

So does it work?

A fair amount of time and energy (both things I don’t have) went into setting this up. It would be funny if for all the investments made that the light was ignored and useless. However, I’ve had the light up for about two weeks now and it’s been great. It works consistently, reliably, without fail, and most importantly the “red” is respected in our household. I’m getting in around 2-3 (uninterrupted) deep work sessions a day.

If I had to do it all over again:

I would opt out of using the Pogo pins. Despite how easy they look in the video on their site, for me I found they had to be tapped every so slightly in just the right angle after they were installed and already snug, nudged just right to get the lights up running. This problem would take about 5 extra minutes every time it was moved. I ended up switching which pins I used for ground and power and that helped a little, but it was just annoying to fix every time I worked on it. Luckily, I won’t be moving it anymore so this is a non-issue now and I will keep it as is, but I’d recommend instead to get a Zero WH and Unicorn HAT Mini so there’s a tight, solid, and reliable connection without all the fussing.

Secondly, when buying standoffs, I’d look for a kit that included longer screws, the small one-size provided in the kit I chose presented some challenges when putting the Pi on the case together, and made a simple task a litter harder and less secure than it ought to be.

Lastly, in my list statuses, there’s a few states that are starting to feel redundant and perhaps not as unique and useful as I had thought, like ‘On a Call’ vs ‘In a Meeting’. If I was starting up, I’d likley make the list as small as possible and grow it based on need instead of starting with a big list. Luckily, Alfred results in workflows order by frequency of use by default, so right about now after weeks of use, it will be evident which states I don’t use, and I can trim them off, refining the list.

Ah, this thing is so cool:

Links to build your own:

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