How to Make Slack Feel Calm and Productive

communicationJanuary 2, 2022

Slack is one of the most popular communication tools in tech. As a developer, I use it every day to collaborate with my peers. This tool is packed with lots of features and does its job: making communication easy in a company or community. But there's one downside: Slack is designed to be an instant communication tool. And that is a disaster when you want to focus. You get mentioned in channels, you receive many direct messages, you catch up on threads, you see red dots everywhere. In the end, you are addicted to Slack and you end up with the bad habit of clicking on notifications or checking Slack every five minutes.

Don't worry, we've all been there before. There are lots of ways to make Slack calmer and we'll discover them right away. Let's get your focus back.

Get rid of notifications

Yeah, that one is obvious. If you're annoyed by the Slack notification sound, well get rid of notifications. They're a major source of distractions, which we can't afford as knowledge workers. You don't need to have a notification every time someone mentions you or uses a @here though the message is not that important.

Leave or mute useless channels

Maybe you're in of these channels that get lots of messages though you're inactive. Or maybe you joined a channel just for a one-time question or message.

Don't bother staying in these channels if you don't find any important messages and leave them. If leaving them sounds too extreme, you can also just mute them. The goal is to focus on channels that matter to you, not to know everything happening in your Slack workspace.

Quit Slack when focusing

Developers make work happen by building, fixing, or shipping stuff. And this happens mostly during focus, not in Slack. A simple solution to get your focus back is to quit Slack when you need to focus. That way, you're 100% sure you won't get disturbed by notifications or unread messages.

It can be disturbing at first since Slack excels at making you feel FOMO. But you get used to it. If you're too stressed about it, start small. Don't quit Slack for 2 hours, but 15 minutes. Then, increase the duration and adjust it to the amount of time needed to focus. Yes, you won't answer people but they often adjust to your response time to a certain extent.

If you don't feel comfortable quitting Slack, you can turn on Do Not Disturb (DND) mode by clicking on your profile and then Pause notifications. That would work as well. As a personal note, I prefer quitting Slack so I'm not tempted to switch to it during my focus periods.

Make sure the persons you're working with are OK with this, though. We don't all have the chance to work in an environment of trust. If it's impossible for you, use DND.

Customize Slack

Slack has lots of customization options and that's a good thing to reduce the noise you get by default.

Group channels into sections

If there are too many channels and you get lost in them, you can use sections for a better organization. Here are two possible organizations:

  • Group channels by category: team, company, skills (front-end, back-end, product for example)
  • Group channels by priority: high priority, medium priority, low priority.

I like to use the latter organization. I have a section called Priority for all important channels, another section called End of day for channels I want to check at... the end of the day. I don't check often the rest of the channels unless I'm looking for something really specific.

Screenshot of my Slack workspace's organization

Note that you can also show only unread conversations for certain sections. That way, you have a clearer view of channels and messages to catch up with when you come back on Slack after a focus session.

This feature is only for Slack paid subscriptions. You may not be able to use it depending on your workspace.

Change the colors

I find Slack's default UI to be aggressive on the eye. Luckily, it's possible to change the colors by going to the preferences in the theme section:

Screenshot of the themes preferences in Slack

That is perfect, especially for one thing: the mention badge. You see, I'm the kind of person who doesn't like having unread notifications. And this red badge makes me want to click it every time I see it. Reducing the contrast makes them less visible and makes me more OK in not clicking it directly. Here's a comparison:

Screenshot of the default mentions in Slack

Communicate better

Use threads and reactions

Slack's channels are sometimes used as an instant conversation between channel members. That's the perfect recipe to add noise to the channel and make information harder to find. For that reason, it's better to use threads. This makes topics more scannable and people who are not interested in the original message don't have to read unwanted messages. Nice and clean.

Threads are great to reduce channel messages. But when you're mentioned in one, you get notifications for the upcoming replies. Like channels, you can mute threads. Think of it in case of heated discussions.

Slack has another neat feature to reduce noise: reactions. They're great for saving you all kinds of messages and making the workspace calmer. So, instead of saying something like "OK for me", you can just react with a checkmark (āœ…). Another example, instead of saying "Iā€™m taking a look", you can add the eyes emoji (šŸ‘€)

Do you always reach out for the same reactions? It's possible to add them as favorites for better efficiency.

Write longer messages

We've seen so far how to make Slack calm with some of their tools. We can go further. Indeed, a big part of the noise created comes from the way you communicate with your teammates.

It's common to receive messages from people who type as they think, the kind of person who makes your mention badge go from 1 to 9+ in the blink of an eye.

Screenshot of someone spamming messages

We can't blame them after all! Slack has decided to use a one-line input instead of a multiline one for writing messages. No wonder everyone thinks in terms of one-line messages!

Take instead the habit of writing longer, cleaner messages. It doesn't mean that you need to write great walls of text, though. You want to aim for a message that goes straight to the point and gives all the required information to reduce back and forth.

A good technique to write a clean yet detailed message is to use the BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front) approach: put the critical information at the beginning, then follow with the context and details.

Let's take an example. You encounter a bug that you don't know how to fix. So, you write a message asking for help:

Hey everyone! I worked on project X this morning and something surprised me while I was testing stuff. I went to this page, I clicked on this button and I got an error. I don't understand why it happens since I can't reproduce it in my local environment. My guess is that maybe something happens during the build but I'm not entirely sure of that. Can someone help me? It would be greatly appreciated!

As you can see, it's hard to find the message's purpose and details. Let's take the BLUF approach to make it clearer:

Can someone help me with a bug I can't reproduce locally happening on this page?

I worked on project X this morning and I found a bug happening on this page when clicking on that button. I haven't been able to reproduce it in my local environment. I guess something goes wrong during the build, but I'm not entirely sure of that.

I'm available for a pair-programming session this morning from 10 AM to 11 AM if someone's up for the challenge.

Now, we directly get what's the person asking which is better to make a channel more scannable.

Writing better is a large topic. Instead of making this article way longer than it needs to be, here's a resource I highly recommend on how to write better at work: How to Write For the Way Your Coworkers Actually Read.

Record videos

Sometimes, it's hard to explain things by writing them. Maybe you need to support your message with images or demos, or maybe it's just a complex topic that can be hard to deconstruct. In this case, why not send async videos? They're perfect for these use-cases and can even spare you a few meetings. In case you're wondering, Slack has a built-in tool to send videos:

Screenshot of Slack's built-in tool to send videos

You're not limited to Slack only. There are other great apps to do recordings like Loom, CleanShot, or simply your OS's built-in tool.

Use a Slack status

People are more likely to send you messages if you're marked as available. Think of using Slack statuses so that others know what you're up to. This has two benefits:

  1. Maybe, they'll get back to you later when you'll be available for chatting.
  2. They'll know what you're doing and see that you have a good reason for not answering.

A nice integration you can put into Slack is the Google Calendar app if you use it. This app syncs your meetings with your status so that others know when you're in a meeting or not. Handy!

Conclusion

Sure, Slack is an instant messaging tool at its core but it's possible to reduce all the noise you get: by controlling your notifications, customizing Slack, or simply writing with an asynchronous-first mindset. Hopefully, these tips will make your Slack workspace a more focused place.