7 ways I use Slack without losing my mind

We were an early adopter of Slack at Polar. We started to use it 2 years ago and the adoption within our 40-person team has been so strong, we now have no internal email at the company. Imagine that?

When I share my passion for Slack as our internal collaboration platform with peers and friends in the industry, it’s rarely met with the same excitement. The most common objection I hear is feelings of being overwhelmed by the firehose of information. I can understand how left to its own, Slack can be overwhelming as it exposes far more information at a pace of communication that is not seen within a professional environment.

Here is a memo I recently wrote for my team on how I use Slack and still feel good about it.

How I manage Slack (versus getting managed by Slack)

While adopting Slack has solved for the email overload issue most companies face, another issue can get introduced: Slack overload. It is easy to get overwhelmed and feel anxious with our use of Slack, especially because we use it a lot. We have a culture of awareness at Polar, making a strong effort to help make everyone aware of absolutely everything. An equally strong effort is needed to balance the amount of information we make available.

Every conversation someone has with a customer (partner), prospect, press or busdev partner is captured and brief meeting notes are shared in Slack, available to the entire team. Every support ticket received from a partner, every project that is being worked on, every Jira ticket change, our outstanding accounts receivables, they are all shared within Slack. We have even built a Slack bot called Newsbot that filters relevant industry news into a single feed into Slack (so no more industry email newsletters for our team).

So how does one keep up and thrive in this environment? Slack at Polar is a microcosm of the internet. And now 2 years into this, I’ve adopted a few practices along the way that support me greatly and keep me a strong believer in Slack (over email) as an internal collaboration and communication tool.

Here is a look inside how I use Slack at Polar.

1. Notifications are evil

They really are. I’m going to pen a separate post soon on my passionate hate for notifications, but in summary, if you have notifications (for Slack, email or anything), it’s not your fault.

They are designed into the user experience by these products that have an economic model that hinges on stealing your attention. Slack, Facebook, Gmail, Snapchat and others have all commercialized stealing your attention. If you stopped checking these sites, apps and services, they would make less money.

My advice is to be fearless and try it for a day. Turn off your Slack notifications for 1 day and see what happens.

Feeling fearless? Click this link and turn everything to off.

(And I’m going to be unapologetic about pointing this out to our team now, as I’ve noticed that I get distracted by your notifications on your laptop while you are presenting something to me).

2. Mobile use: none-to-little

Although I have the Slack app on my phone, I do not use it. The rare occasions when I have to look something up while running around New York, I’ll reference the app. Those are few and far between, I feel grateful to not have the habit of checking Slack on my phone.

This is related to why I took email off on my phone (and if you have not at least tried this practice yet, give it a try!).

3. Turn off email notifications

Similar to notifications, these are not needed. To be fair, I turned this off before even giving it a try, but we use Slack to get away and reduce the burden of internal email, having more email makes no sense to me. If I’m going to take the time to read an email about all the internal Slack activity, I may as well just open Slack and read it there, that way I can click on relevant links and provide replies (or emojis) right then and there.

Here is a link to turn off your email notifications.

Btw, how is “send me email notifications once every 15 minutes” even an option from Slack? That’s terrible!

4. Star messages as my to do list

Often I will read a message, acknowledge it in my head that I need to do something about it (respond, or tell someone else, or read a link) but do not feel ready to take that action right away. What I do is star the message (by hovering over the time stamp, a star icon appears that you simply click on).

The starred messages become my to do list or backlog. And once or twice a week, I’ll take some time to work through things on this list (which is always a fun feeling to “uncheck the star”, the equivalent of crossing things off on a list).

All of my starred messages are available by clicking the star icon in the top right hand corner of the app. Here is a snapshot of what the starred messages backlog looks like in the top right corner of the app (it has 17 messages).

5. Star channels

Staring channels prioritizes them on my sidebar, which influences where my attention goes.

I’ve stared 7 channels, 4 of them public, 3 of them private, and they probably represent 80% of my Slack usage. These are the channels I will look at daily and prioritize. Having them at the top helps keep me focused and bring my attention to what’s needed.

All of the other channels are below the starred list, and I do use them but do not feel the need to go into them constantly! Even if something is bolded as unread, I don’t have to go into it right away.

Convinced? To star a channel, open it, go near the top to the channel name and click the star icon that appears once you hover over the channel name.

Here is my sidebar:

6. Mute channels

This is really simple, yet powerful.

I mute channels that have more activity but the chance of it being directly related to me is low. The high-volume and high-activity channels are muted. The channels where I am the defacto leader or actively drive from a day-to-day perspective are generally unmuted. The channels that I’m a contributor to but may not be necessarily leading are muted.

If someone @kunal my name or even mentions my name ‘kunal’ in a muted channel, the channel name will still get highlighted in my sidebar, so don’t worry, I’m seeing messages you direct at me.

You can see in the previous screenshot I have a combination of muted and unmuted channels (note: even some channels that I’ve ‘starred’ I still have muted, because I know I will go into them on a frequent basis and don’t need to be notified).

Convinced you want to mute more channels? It’s really simple. Type ‘/mute’ in the message bar of that channel (public or private), and it’s not muted. And to unmute, type ‘/unmute’.

7. Only open the app when I need it

This is a recent experiment that I’m really enjoying (maybe because it’s new?).

My default behaviour now is to keep the Slack app on my Macbook closed, and only open it when I need it. It’s hard initially to change your behaviour here, but well worth the effort.

Pro tip: close the Slack app when you’re in a meeting, especially if you’re calling into a meeting remotely (from one of our global offices or if you’re working from home). You will be far more focused and attentive, which everyone else will appreciate.

Bonus tip: keyboard shortcut to find a channel

To quickly go into a channel, I use the keyboard shortcut ‘⌘’ + ‘K’ (‘⌘’ + ‘T’ also works) which brings up the channel finder where you can type in the channel. This is very helpful!

Here is a fancy gif I found online that I thought I’d include.

In close

Make Slack work for you versus feeling you work for Slack.

Some of my advice you may or may not agree with, that does not matter. My key message is to make Slack your own. Take the initiative to learn how you work best and stay focused. It will not automatically help you focus, quite the opposite. These tools are designed to steal your attention.

I’d love to hear your suggestions and feedback on how you make Slack work for you (versus feeling that you’re working for Slack) at Polar.


Kunal Gupta is the Founder & CEO of Polar. He leads a talented team transforming the media publishing industry with technology. He is passionate about leadership and finding focus in a modern era, read more on his personal leadership blog on Medium or connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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