How to use Slack without destroying your productivity

Written on 
April 20, 2020

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Communication tools like Slack have revolutionized the way we work. Now more people are going remote, more of us are coming into contact with instant messengers for work. We’re getting used to them becoming the main site for daily company communication, and compared to the old “reply all” email threads, tools like Slack are a joy to use. By documenting every conversation, they allow business-wide communication to stay accessible and searchable to everyone – ideal for staying transparent and enabling asynchronous working.

But unfortunately, Slack also has a dark side. It’s latent with distraction and if it’s not managed properly, it can completely derail your focus and priorities. To keep Slack productive, it’s super important to set boundaries for how you use it. Here’s how to go about it.

Slack’s huge disruptive potential

The trouble with using Slack for the majority of work communication is that it can create an ever-present sense of urgency. Just like the damaging quest for inbox zero, it can be scarily easy to get sucked into checking every single Slack alert – and for a tool that uses notifications, phone pushes, sound effects and vibration, this can lead to an “always-on” attitude that can be harmful, not just to your productivity but to your work-life balance too.

Though Slack works well as an asynchronous communication tool, many of us have started using it synchronously, replying instantly to alerts and chatting in real-time – but this immediacy can lead to chronic interruption. Regardless of their content and urgency, Slack notifications all arrive with the same level of importance, and because it’s so easy to use (and, often, fun!), deciding to quickly check a “harmless” ping can see you sucked into solving a much heftier problem.

And in this case, ignorance definitely isn’t bliss; even if you haven’t got Slack open, choosing to try to get on with some deep work instead, you know it could be quietly updating in the background with every moment. Without boundaries or “off” buttons, we develop a kind of communications anxiety, stressed by potential alerts and notifications piling up.

For all its ease and simplicity, Slack is also rife with miscommunication and confusion. People use the wrong channel, they tag the wrong people (or forget to tag them altogether), they don’t use threads. Slack is also used inappropriately: just as email isn’t the right tool for quick queries, Slack isn’t right for lengthy discussion or project organisation. When Slack is misused, communications get lost, updates become hard to follow and information must be hunted down. As anyone who’s used Slack’s painfully underdeveloped “search” feature knows, this is often far more arduous than it sounds.

8 winning Slack guidelines

So how do you keep Slack productive? First, you must set a company code for how you all use it. While different companies might use Slack in different ways, the following guidelines are a good place to start:

1. Use threads when possible

While channels are great for keeping all communication public, they can easily get confusing, and important info can get lost in a sea of ideas and opinions. Use threads whenever you can to minimize the time spent reading through superfluous comments and keep topic-based discussions grouped together.

2. Use @ if you want someone to read a message

When writing in a public channel, it’s always the sender’s responsibility to ensure their message is read. Don’t expect people to read every single message – if you want someone specific to read a comment, @ them.

3. Communicate your availability

Your status exists so people know when they can expect to hear from you. If you’re sick, on vacation or don’t want to be disturbed, make sure your Slack status reflects that.

4. Use @here whenever possible

To avoid messages building up, use @here whenever a channel update isn’t urgent. @here only notifies team mates who are online at that moment – otherwise people offline will receive push notifications.

5. Acknowledge people’s messages

If someone has sent you a message, Slack etiquette means you should reply by the end of that day (where possible). If someone’s asked you something, don’t see it as an email, which you might star and return to later – always reply to the person, even if it’s just to say you’ll get to it later.

6. Give requests context

If you’re asking a colleague to do something, make sure you provide the necessary info: what you need, why you need it, when you need it by. If you don’t need a response, let the other person know.

7. Know when to use email or hold a meeting instead

Slack is great for questions and requests that need a swift response. It’s also great for having real-time conversations with people who are online. It’s not the place to have high-level discussions, make big decisions, give detailed feedback or share in-depth knowledge.  

8. Don’t share photos of your food

Slack isn’t Instagram. The lines between our personal and professional lives can be hazy, but Slack was designed to make things easier and keep work communication intentional. Don’t muddy the waters with unnecessary personal info (unless, of course, there’s a specific channel for it!).

Define your own boundaries

Following these guidelines is a good place to start, but this alone won’t stop Slack from encroaching into your productive time and disrupting your attention. You need to define your own personal boundaries for how Slack fits into your work day, to ensure it doesn’t sap your productive focus. Consider doing the following to get the most from Slack:

  • Set availability hours for checking it
    Rather than continuously checking Slack throughout the day, set a specific time-boxed moment to manage it. This helps you contain the time you spend on Slack an ensure you use it asynchronously, instead of being pulled into lengthy synchronous conversations.

  • Use Dewo
    This app helps you stay productive by minimizing distractions – and Slack alerts are one of its biggest targets. Dewo recognizes when you enter a deep work flow state and automatically mutes Slack notifications, so you don’t get interrupted. It also automatically updates your Slack status, so people know not to disturb you.
  • Communicate better
    Every communication on Slack should be clear and self-contained, detailing all relevant information, actions and requirements. Over-communicate and approach communication like you’re speaking to someone in another time zone: you need to provide all the right context so they don’t have to work on assumptions or ask follow-up questions.

  • Be considerate with your digital volume
    Don’t send five messages when one would do. Try to group queries into one message, provide links to any resources you mention, qualify the urgency of requests and avoid using multiple channels for the same message.

  • Use the right channel
    Before sending a Slack message, always consider whether it’s the right platform to communicate. Some conversations could benefit from rich media, like video or audio calls.

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