Slack is designed to replace your inbox and be the one place where all your communications would happen, keeping you and your team productive and informed at the same time. But like all communication tools, it can also be a distraction. Try to combine every message from everyone on your team—along with notifications from your apps and Slack bots—into one spot, and it’s only a matter of time before things get out of control.
If you’re part of a distributed team working in different time zones, chances are no matter when you start work for the day, there will be conversations that happened while you were gone. Sometimes there will be a lot of them. It’s not that uncommon for me to have 30 mentions or direct messages waiting when I wake up, because I work in the Indochina time zone while most others on the Zapier team don’t.
Combine that with the fear of missing out (FOMO), and you’ll want to not only read your mentions but also might like to catch up on the chitchat in the “#general” channel. That’s fine—but it’s highly unlikely that you’re being paid just to read Slack all day. So how do you stay up to date on what everyone’s talking about, join in on conversations with remote colleagues you’d otherwise miss out on, and stay focused on your real job? Here are five hacks that can help.
When you first open Slack for the day—or after being away from Slack for a while—the first temptation is to tap each channel and catch up on what’s happened. That’s a great way to waste the first part of your day without doing anything actionable.
There’s a better way. “All Unreads,” a Slack feature launched in September 2016, shows all the messages you haven’t read from all your channels in one place. The same features are there—you can react to messages with emoji, start a new thread to continue the conversation (more on that in a minute), or star the message to remember it. You can even click on the message’s time stamp to jump to that moment in the channel’s chat conversation if you want.
The biggest difference is it’s fast. Know how when you’re trying to scroll up to see unread messages in a long channel and sometimes you go too far? That’ll never happen in “All Unreads.”
You can browse unread channels alphabetically or by those with the newest or oldest messages. The best way, though, is to use Slack’s “Scientific” order. That shows the channels in the order Slack thinks they’re most important to you—and it’s pretty good at getting it right.
Some channels won’t matter that much. To hide them—now and in the future—just tap the channel’s name in the list to hide its messages. Then use your left and right arrow keys to jump to the next unread channel in the list, and tap “r” to mark everything as read.
Or just click the “Mark All Messages Read” button at the bottom. Trust me, it feels good.
Now, leave Slack on that All Unread page, and go back to work. When something new comes in, Slack will update the page to show how many messages you have to read. Tap your return key, read the message, press “r” to clear it, and go back to work again.
All Unreads still has the information overload problem: You’ll get every random conversation that happened while you were away. For a more actionable unread list, open Slack’s “Activity” pane by clicking the @ button in the top right. That’ll show all of your mentions, along with emoji reactions from others to things you posted—something you’d miss out on otherwise.
Once you’re done with that, and have replied to all of your direct messages, “tap CMD+esc” to clear out all of your unread messages at once. You’ll lose the random conversations, but you’ll quickly catch up on everything that directly involves you.
Ask the Zapier team for tips on how they manage Slack—and other productivity apps—and keyboard shortcuts come up in almost every reply. They’re the quickest way to clear through unread messages, switch between channels, edit your last message, and more.
Here are some of the best time-saving shortcuts—or check Slack’s Keyboard Shortcut list for the rest:
- Clear unread messages in a channel: Esc
- Clear all unread messages: Shift+Esc
- Go to previous channel or DM: CMD+[ or Ctrl+[
- Go to next unread channel or DM: Alt+Shift+up arrow
- Open All Unreads: CMD+Shift+A or Ctrl+Shift+A
- Open starred messages: CMD+Shift+S or Ctrl+Shift+S
- Open All Threads: CMD+Shift+T or Ctrl+Shift+T
- See all of Slack’s keyboard shortcuts: CMD+/ or Ctrl+/
Then there’s the best Slack shortcut: “CMD+T” or “Ctrl+T”. That opens the conversation search box, where you can type the name of a channel or DM and jump to it in seconds. To search through messages themselves, “CMD+F” or “Ctrl+F” will take you to the search box just like in most apps. With Slack’s advanced search filters, you can use it to find pretty much anything—a bit of insurance that you won’t miss out, even if you don’t read everything.
FOMO is hard to kick—but it’s a valid fear when colleagues are discussing something you’re responsible for, and you don’t notice the conversation and thus don’t join in.
You don’t have to read every message in every channel, though. Instead, let Slack help. Whenever someone mentions you in a Slack channel you’re in, it’ll notify you as normal. If they mention you in a channel you’re not in, Slack will tell them you didn’t get notified and ask if they want to notify you. That helps.
For everything else, rely on “Highlight Words.” Open your Notification settings again, and add a list of words that you want to know whenever they’re mentioned. I’m responsible for Zapier’s books and reviews and want to know when someone talks about them because often they’re mentioning something that needs updated. And I’m a photography, writing apps, and information architecture geek, so I could add those terms to find conversations I’d want to be part of.
You could also add variants of your own name; people might mention Matthew or Matt when they’re mentioning something I’ve worked on, so it’d make sense to include both in my highlight words. Add the terms that make sense for you—just don’t make them too broad, or you’ll get notified about everything.
Once you’ve emptied your Slack queue and are back to work, there’s one thing that’s most likely to pull you back in: The red dot. Perhaps the most insidious thing about notifications is that they make you feel like you have to do something about them. That little red notification dot can be useful if you’re urgently waiting on a reply. The rest of the time, it’s just tempting you to check Slack, reminding you that there’s something new you haven’t read yet.
So turn it off. Go to “Slack Preferences” > “Notification Settings” and uncheck the “Show [dot] symbol on icon to indicate unread activity.” And enjoy the peace. You’ll now only see the red dot with a number whenever you get mentions or direct messages.
There are more drastic solutions too. You could ignore mentions by default, as our platform engineer Bruno does, and only read those from your private messages and starred, most important channels. You could even ignore everything that happens in Slack when you’re not around, as our customer champion Paolo does, and rely on search to bring conversations back to life when you need them. Or you could take product marketer Sean’s approach, relying on the “Activity” sidebar plus emoji bookmarks to surface the most important info.
Either way, the important thing is finding what works for you—and being honest with yourself when Slack is taking up too much time. Figure out the balance between using Slack to stay in touch with your team when you need each other, and preventing Slack from getting your work done efficiently. And turn off that red dot—it’s definitely not helping.
A version of this story originally appeared on Zapier. It is adapted and reprinted with permission.