How to Not Suffocate and Drown in a Sea of Slack Channels and Notifications

By Trevor McKendrick 👋 - Have you read my free newsletter?

I’m been told I use Slack well and tend to respond quickly – part of my job is being responsive to the right folks at the right time. While that might not be the right output of a good Slack system for everyone, I still think this organizational setup will help you better know where to spend your attention.

Before we dive in to the actual setting mechanics, let’s talk about the operational philosophy.

Using Slack is like adding an additional loop to your mental processes. This is both powerful and dangerous. If you’re not careful the loop’s cadence can take over other processes that are more important.

The key is to proactively design your loop. You need to consider questions like:

  • Why am I on slack in the first place? (“Because my employer uses it” is not a valid answer by the way)
  • What do I want to get out of Slack?
  • What kind of loop structure supports #1 and #2?

(By the way: some people successfully avoid the entire premise of this article by working on what is the single most important thing for that given moment. These people tend to be called entrepreneurs and are frequently unemployable.)

I designed my loop to be:

1) Read all notifications because they’re only turned on for the most important people & channels in my life

2) Regularly scan the sidebar for my high priority sections to see what I’ve missed

An important philosophical strategy behind all of this is that notifications should be as high signal as possible, i.e. if you get a notification it should be a big deal. Why receive an instant notification of something if it isn't important enough to take immediate action on?

Let’s get into the details of how to implement the above, but first let's go beyond talking about just Slack notifications.

No human being has a right to your attention

How you spend your attention is probably the center-most point of your Circle of Influence and probably dictates your life outcomes more than any other single behavior. Who you choose to give your attention to should almost be considered with the gravitas of, say, what religion to join, because your life is literally made of your attention.

Your attention is yours to allocate and budget as you see fit.

I see how some people can’t say no – to their friends, to their family members, to strangers or randos – and it kills me. I want to go up and shake some people – you can defend yourself. You can do what you want to do. Have courage. Don’t be worried about what other people think of you, especially if you’ll never meet them again.

Everyone talks about “saying no” but we rarely get into the details with specific examples, so here’s one: turning off your notifications for things that don’t deserve your attention is one of the best ways you can say no, and it has the added benefit of being a one-time decision. You don’t have to reconsider it or say no again like you do with a lot of people in real life. Once you turn off the notification, it’s off forever unless you decide to change it.

My point is you get a lot of leverage out of saying no to notifications.

How to Setup your Slack

On the Desktop

Your Sidebar

Step 1: Create Sections first by priority, then by type

If there’s certain people and channels you know you need to read every message for, create a section for them. For me, it’s the exec team at Lambda School. Every person on the exec team goes in there, along w/ a few exec team channels. I want to make sure I read every message here.

Right after that channel I have another called NEs (“Non Execs”). This is where I place other channels or DMs that I know I want to read but aren’t necessarily as urgent as the execs.

After the top 1-2 important sections, I begin to group more by category. I have a section called Meetings which is a bunch of channels that are specific to a meeting (e.g. our monthly operational reviews or a comms meetings)

I also have a “my projects” section, which is the main projects I’m currently a part of.

You might ask: why aren’t your current projects higher up on the list? Don’t you want to read their messages quickly? The answer here is “yes but…”! Yes I do want to read those messages but the ones that are truly urgent and apply to me will tag me and therefore 1) I’ll get notified, and 2) the channel will have a number badge.

Step 2: Click the triangle next to a section so that it shows all the channels and DMs for that section in the sidebar

This sets you up for Step 3.

Step 3: Set Show Unread Conversations for every section to On.

This is critical because then you can look at your sidebar and the only channels you’ll see are ones that have something for you. And since you created sections by priority, you can quickly look at the top of your side bar to know if you’re missing something

Your Channels

You’re probably in way too many channels. And you probably don’t have enough channels muted.

Do an audit of all the channels you’re in and leave channels you don’t need to be in, and mute ones you’re unsure about. If you really need to be there someone will eventually tag you, realize you’re not there, and invite you back.

Your Notifications

I like the Love/Fear Framework[1] to decide who and what deserves to interrupt your attention with a notification. Basically, if it’s someone you love or fear you turn on notifications:

Love

  • Partner
  • Friends
  • People you trust
  • People you want to build social capital with

Fear[1]

  • Your boss
  • Your direct reports
  • Your immediate teammates

Get in the habit of muting every channel and DM that notifies you when something ends up not being worthy of your immediate attention. Aggressively mute channels and people who shouldn’t get your immediate attention.

You can always go back and change this, so give it a shot and see how it changes your day-to-day attention span.

Also – turn off your notification sounds. Do you want to go insane?

On Your Phone

I turn off Lock Screen, Notification Centter, and Banner notifications on my phone.

I keep badges on.

What this does is – when I look at my phone on my own schedule I can see if the Slack app has a badge. Then I can choose to check the app. This is far better for my attention that seeing messages pop up on my phone constantly.

Again, the name of the game is to make notifications as high signal as possible. If you get a notification (or see a number on the app badge) it should be a big deal. Why be notified of something if it isn't important enough to take immediate action on?

I don't use Slack on my phone very much at all. It's only for emergencies so people can get in touch with me. If I'm deep in a conversation that requires many messages, I should be on my desktop.

But what about…

Group DMs?

Group DMs are the abomination of Slack. Ideally you have a culture that creates channels instead of group DMs, or someone can quickly create a channel instead of the group DM. Fight these aggressively, as they are the black whole of Slack.

DMs from people I don't usually message?

This is tricky because it will trigger a notification. My strategy is to quickly see who the DM is from. If it's someone top top important – like the CEO or the exec I roll up to – then obviously I respond. If it's anyone else – they know you're not normally messaging with them, and there should be an implicit cultural assumption that they shouldn't have an expectation of a quick response from you.

When I get added to new channels…?

New channels will be automatically be added to your Channels sidebar. Make a habit of reviewing those channels to 1) move them to the correct sidebar section, and 2) consider muting or leaving them

[1]: (I hope it’s obvious that this is tongue in cheek. I would call the “Fear” category “people who depend on me”, but alas “Love/People who depend on me” isn’t as catchy)


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