Staying on Top of Slack

Slack and similar group chat tools like Discord, MS Teams, and Google Meet share some similarities but differ from email in several ways. For example, in Slack:

  • Messages are automatically segregated into channels/topics (like mailing lists), and you have direct messages (like email)
  • You can’t recategorise/move a message into another channel (but you can copy a reference/link)
  • Slack includes many ways to send a notification like using @everyone, @channel, @here or @name
  • People expect that some chats are more “real-time” than email
  • Each Slack group have their own set of customs, rules, automated bots, conventions, and expectations, such as using emoticons or animated GIFs to respond
  • You might be part of many Slack groups

A combination of these differences makes Slack more interruptive and makes it even harder to manage communication. In this article, I’ll share how I manage Slack.

Use principles for staying on top of email

I use many of the same principles from staying on top of email to Slack, such as separating reviewing messages from responding, reserving dedicated time to review and respond, batch reviewing, using keyboard shortcuts, and turning off notifications. Although many of these principles translate, how I approach them looks different because of Slack’s implementation.

For example, I use unread in email to indicate that I need to either prioritise/review new messages or do something else. Slack doesn’t have an “inbox”, but they do have an “Unreads” (CTRL-SHIFT-A) that I use to prioritise/review messages. When I review Slack, I will use this as my main view, either leaving messages unread or marking them as read. As much as I can, I mark everything as read, putting work on my to-do list or reading/replying immediately.

For messages that need a response/action in the future, I might mark it as read (indicating nothing needs doing now), use the “Remind me about this” feature, setting the reminder before the due date to ensure I follow up. I aim to only have “unread messages” as new things to process or things that need immediate action. I know there is a “Save for Later” feature but I haven’t found much use for it.

Use clear naming conventions for channels

If you’re part of a larger organisation, you may not be able to enforce or choose how channels are named, but if you can, you should influence these to make channels meaningful from their names. Many of the conventions you use in administering/naming mailing lists can be applied when naming Slack groups.

For example, you might have channels that are project, or team-related, like:

  • project-usa-launch – For those interested or working on a project to do with a launch in the USA
  • team-customeronboarding-public – For a team focused on customer onboarding and sharing or responding to valuable information for the entire company
  • company-townhall – For topics that are related to the entire company

Like with mailing lists, see if you can agree on what type of messages should (and should not) be shared via channels. The Slack channel description field is a very useful one to review if things are unclear.

Classify channels into priority groups

If you’ve ever returned to Slack after a long holiday, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sea of unread messages. It’s hard to know where to start because the “Unreads” (my inbox) is so full. If possible, I find it useful for each Slack group to have a priority order for processing messages, guided by the Eisenhower Matrix (Important/Not Important, Urgent/Not Urgent)

These priorities typically translate to these approximations:

  • Review DMs – Depending on the person/role and my relationship with them
  • Review immediately – Channels that are immediately related to my day-to-day work that offer up-to-date information so I can prioritise my attention and make more informed decisions.
  • Review at some point – Channels that might impact my day-to-day work in the future or provide helpful context about topics in the broader organisation.
  • Don’t review (or review much, much later) – Channels that I wasn’t reading very frequently, have a low signal-to-noise ratio or are about a less relevant topic, I might quickly skim (2-3 minutes) or mark all messages as read (ESC), or reserve a time next week or the week after to review all of the less urgent/less important topics.

For example, imagine I am the tech lead for a customer onboarding product team, and I just returned from a two-week holiday. Here is how I would prioritise my reading time:

  • Review DMs First, I look to see if my manager (or other upper managers) sent me messages. Then, I look at messages from the team, like my product manager counterpart or team members. If I have other direct messages from other people, I might choose to read them later if I don’t have a strong relationship or reason to immediately respond, as my thinking is that their topic is less urgent or less important.
  • Review immediately – I want to know what I have missed related to my team. So this would include reviewing channels like product-customeronboarding-internal and product-customer-onboarding-incidents first to see any internal discussions or emergencies and then product-customeronboarding-public to see any discussions or questions other teams/departments have for my team. If I’m also working on a specific project, I would also review those channels related to the project work.
  • Review at some point – As a tech lead, I’m part of a community of tech leads that might be called guild-tech-leads (often called a Community of Practice or Guild). While these channels are valuable, most of the discussions are non-urgent, so as long as I catch up on the discussions, I don’t feel pressured to read this on the first day back at work. I will review this at least by the end of the first week but will permit myself not to read it immediately.
  • Don’t review – As a tech lead, I might also participate in channels like discussion-swdev, discussion-ai, and discussion-security, where people discuss and share articles/links related to each discipline. If there are a few messages, I might still scan them, but if I’m trying to get back on top of Slack quickly, I’ll simply mark all of these as read. Similarly, related channels include company-townhall or’ random`.

Because I’m part of different Slack groups, I might have different priorities per group. For example, I’m a member of Rands’ leadership Slack group, which is very active with 32K+ members and 750+ channels, of which ~30-40 channels are where I’m a member. Given that this is more of an interest group, I have different priorities connected to what’s most interesting to me at the time. 

For example:

  • Review most frequently (every 1-2 days) – Channels that I feel require more real-time interaction or connect to my current interests, such as announcements, ama, help-and-advice and introductions and then (depends) interest-based, executives, leadofleads and i-wrote-something
  • Review less frequently (once a week) – Channels that I am pretty interested in but don’t feel like I want to keep too much up to date, such as diversity, podcasts, security
  • Review rarely (once every couple of months) – For fun or curiosity, such as cooking, emergencycute or quotes

If I notice I’m part of a channel I haven’t read for a long time, I either mark everything as read or remove myself from the channel. If I find regular value in the channel, then I should have read something valuable more regularly. 

Turn off notifications (selectively)

Unlike email, Slack interrupts you by default with its notifications. One of the first things I do when I join a new Slack group is turn these off by default. Disabling notifications reduces interruptions when someone uses @channel, @here and similar tags. While small groups or channels might tolerate interruptions, in large groups, this causes a lot of noise.

For example, here’s someone accidentally sending notifications to thousands of people (and other people’s reactions as a result):

To prevent constant interruptions and having to remind someone else, I focus on what I can control and turn off my client notifications. I do this in the app and on my computer operating system. Here’s an article to show how to turn off the red dot that interrupts and pulls attention.

Settings to turn off notifications

You can also do this at a channel level (such as with the screenshot below), but this is a lot more fiddly. I prefer to turn off all notifications (the default) and then turn on notifications for specific channels that interest me.

Per channel notification settings

A notification should only interrupt you if it is a true emergency. Since what constitutes an emergency depends on context, you must adjust the settings according to your definition. Everything else can and should wait until the review time.

Slack doesn’t have to be overwhelming

Although group chat tools like Slack feel even more overwhelming because of their more real-time nature, it doesn’t have to be. Like email, staying on top of Slack requires you to build a system that prioritises your attention, establishes shared expectations of response and topic use and takes practice to refine a way that will work for you. I hope some of my tips above help you provide your approach to Slack.

What tips do you have that I missed? Leave a comment below and share it with others.

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