If you work in an office, there’s a good chance you use, or at least know of Slack.
More than 50,000 teams around the world use Slack for real-time communication, collaboration, sharing docs, and video calls. As a remote team, Slack is our watercooler—a place where we can talk about more than just projects and create real connections among teammates.
In short, Slack is an amazing tool. It’s also a terrible one.
Slack’s stated goal is “to make people’s working lives simpler, more pleasant, and more productive.” Yet, like any digital tool, it’s just as easy for it to do the opposite.
Opening Slack can feel like putting a giant “open” sign around your neck. When abused, it’s one of the worst contributors to the “always on” culture that plagues companies and leads to burnout.
A huge part of this comes down to Slack’s default settings.
In this guide, we’re going to explore how to set up Slack for focused work as well as changes you can make today to help your whole team build a healthier culture around Slack communication.
Jump to a section:
- Optimizing Slack’s appearance to be less distracting
- Creating and leaving channels (the right way)
- Stopping the constant stream of notifications
- Best practices for not annoying your teammates
- How to create a shared knowledge base in Slack
- Using Slack analytics to discover where you’re going wrong
Why we wrote this guide
At RescueTime, our mission is to help you do more meaningful work by understanding and controlling where your time goes. As regular Slack users, we found that while the app helped us stay in touch, it quickly took up too much of our attention (and time) when left unchecked.
With this guide, we’re trying to apply the values of RescueTime to Slack—helping you to reduce noise and distractions, and take back control over how and when you communicate during the workday.
How to set up Slack for focus: The technical guide
According to our own research, the average Slack user spends 10% of their day in the app, with many people clocking in 50-60% or more of their time. Even small changes to the way you use it can free up more time for meaningful work.
However, most people don’t think to ever change their initial Slack settings. Which isn’t an issue if you’re on a single, small team, but piles up when you start dealing with multiple teams, channels, and projects.
For basic setup instructions, the best place to start is with Slack’s own help guides. However, what we’re going to be focusing on here are specific ways to set up Slack for less interruptions, more focused work, and cleaner organization.
Getting organized: Optimizing Slack’s appearance to be less distracting
Out of the gates, Slack is designed to keep you up-to-speed with everything that’s going on with your team. In short, it’s designed to disrupt you.
However, there are some quick changes that will make Slack less distracting without sacrificing visibility.
Switch to Slack’s compact theme to get rid of message noise
By default, Slack sets you up with their “clean” theme, which includes lots of whitespace and user avatars. By switching to their “compact” theme, you remove much of the noise and don’t need to scroll as much to catch up on conversations.
To do this, click Preferences > Messages & Media and select Compact under the Theme choices.
Keep track of important channels and messages by starring them
Every Slack workspace starts with just 2 channels, but can quickly get out of hand. Pretty soon, your sidebar is slammed with Channels, Group chats, and DMs.
You can use starring to keep your most important channels, messages, and files organized and separate from the rest of the noise. Here’s how:
Star important channels, groups, and DMs to quickly access them
On desktop, navigate to the channel or conversation you want to star and click on the star below the channel name.
Your starred conversations are taken out of their usual position and moved to the top of your sidebar and out of the noise.
Star specific messages or files within a channel/group/DM to create a “follow up on” list
If you need to respond to a message but don’t have an answer off the top of your head, starring is a great way to keep track of it, even as you get a flood of new posts.
Hover over the message or file and click the star that appears on the right hand side.
To view your starred items, just click on the star in the top right hand corner.
Change sidebar settings to only see starred channels and unread messages
Once your most important and regular channels are starred, you can remove all other unnecessary conversations from your sidebar under:
Preferences > Sidebar > Unreads and starred conversations
This removes all channels with no activity from your sidebar.
When someone messages you or a channel you’re a part of, it will then appear in your sidebar. If you need to message someone who you haven’t starred, just click on “Channels” or “Direct messages” in your sidebar to view them all.
Or, use the keyboard shortcut (⌘+K on Mac and Ctrl+K on Windows) to open the channel picker.
Less is more: Creating and leaving channels (the right way)
As your company grows, you’ll want to start creating more channels to make sure conversations are happening in the right places. The more targeted your channels, the easier it is to find the right information. But, the more you have, the more potential noise.
Here’s how to find the right balance with your Slack channels.
Set different notification settings for different channels
You can set different notifications for each channel, depending on how important or urgent they are to you. Simply go to the channel and click the gear button in the top right corner and select Notification preferences.
You can then select how you’d like to receive notifications. You can even set different preferences for mobile and desktop.
Purposefully reduce your involvement by muting or leaving channels that aren’t relevant to you
In those same settings, you can mute or leave channels that aren’t relevant to you. Both are good options for when you want to purposefully reduce the amount of noise around a certain topic. So what’s the difference?
Muting the channel will stop it from being bolded in your sidebar when there’s new messages. This way you’re still “in” the channel, but won’t be interrupted by new messages. Which is super helpful for focusing and taming FOMO (No, you probably don’t need to urgently check out what’s going on in #Random)
Leaving the channel removes it from your Slack workspace. You can always rejoin later if you need to.
To make either change, go to the Channel preferences by clicking on the gearbox icon and select Mute or Leave Channel.
When creating a new channel, use a shared naming convention and include the purpose and topic
On the opposite end, when you’re creating a new channel, you need to do it in a way that’s easy to find and with a clear purpose for the people in it.
Use a standard naming convention that explains who should be in there and what they should be talking about. Channels are listed in alphabetically order, so using team abbreviations as a prefix will cluster relevant channels together.
For example, marketing might be mktg. So you would have #mktg-displayads, #mktg-content and #mktg-communications. This way, related channels live near each other in the sidebar.
Change your “Mark as Read” settings to skip channel FOMO
When you log-in to Slack or go to a channel with unread messages, Slack will automatically take you to your last read message. This encourages you to read old conversations you might have missed, which is a huge distraction and waste of time. Slack is not meant to be an insane inbox you can’t keep track of.
To change this setting, head to Preferences > Mark as Read and select Start me at the newest message, and mark the channel read.
With the right notifications setup, you’ll never miss out on important conversations, so there’s no need to scan through old conversations.
(And if you ever find yourself overwhelmed with unread notifications, use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + Esc to mark everything as read.)
Automatically collapse gifs and videos in channels
Gifs and videos are great ways to have fun in Slack, but they can quickly be distracting. To automatically collapse all of them so they don’t grab your attention just type /collapse into your text box.
This won’t eliminate the messages. And to bring them back, just type /expand.
Tame the beast: Stopping the constant stream of notifications
As a communication tool, Slack can quickly take over your day with constant notifications from channels, DMs, and groups. Adjusting and customizing your notification settings is the quickest way to make Slack more focus-oriented, and help you not get distracted.
Turn off mobile notifications
If you’re using the Slack mobile app, the last thing you want is notifications coming in on both your phone and your computer.
Mute all notifications from the Slack mobile app by going to Preferences > Notifications > Use different settings for my mobile device.
(As a side note, getting rid of Slack’s mobile app was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made for my own focus. If you can do it—and you probably can—I would highly recommend it.)
Switch desktop notifications to “only for highlighted words and direct messages”
It’s not your responsibility to keep up with every conversation in Slack. However, you do want to make sure anything important doesn’t slip through the cracks. By changing your notification settings, you’ll only be pinged when someone is mentioning you directly.
To do this, go to Preferences > Notifications and change your preferences to Direct messages, mentions & keywords.
Forget Do Not Disturb and use Sign Out From All Sessions instead
When you want to be focused, it could make sense to use Slack’s Do Not Disturb function (which stops all notifications for a set period of time). However, if you’re truly looking for focus, the better bet is to exit Slack entirely.
With “Sign out from all sessions” all your open Slack sessions (on desktop and mobile) will close. Giving you sweet freedom from constant communication.
To do this, head to Account & Profile > Settings > Sign out all other sessions.
If you do need notifications turned on, turn off sounds and animations
If turning off notifications isn’t an option, you can still customize them to be less intrusive and distracting. Go to Preferences > Notifications > Sound & appearance and at a minimum uncheck play a sound when receiving a notification and Bounce Slack’s icon when receiving a notification.
Best practices for using Slack (without annoying your teammates)
Setting up how you interact with Slack for focus is only half the battle. The other, arguably more important aspect is having tech and communication policies and best practices in place.
The problem is, at most companies these conversations never happen. But effective communication isn’t a skill many of us learn. And if you leave it up to your team to simply decide how they’re going to use Slack, it’s going to be a nightmare.
(Check out our interview with behavioral designer Nir Eyal where he describes how to have these conversations with your team.)
If you’re on a Slack team with 1 channel and 10 members, a lot of this might seem like overkill. But putting the right practices in place early on can protect you from common pitfalls as your company grows.
Set default channel settings for new teammates
Coming into a new Slack team is a disorienting experience. So, rather than throw new teammates into the deep end, you can set default channel settings in line with how you want them to use the app.
(Note: You must be a workspace owner or admin to do this.)
Head to Preferences > Administration > Workplace Settings and then select Expand Default Channels. You can now add the set of channels a new member is automatically added to when they join your company’s Slack.
Set expectations around public vs. private channels
Slack offers you two distinct ways to communicate.
Public channels are accessible and searchable by everyone, making them a good way to create a knowledge base.
Private channels are only accessible to people who have been invited, making them better for confidential conversations.
In most cases, it’s better to use public channels as much as possible. This way, information and questions are easily searchable, leading to less confusion and more shared knowledge. And while it might seem counterintuitive to suggest more public chatter in an article about using Slack for focus, if you have your notification settings right, you shouldn’t even notice the added noise.
Know the difference between @channel and @here
@ commands in Slack let you target your message to a specific group or person. Which can quickly become a major distraction if used incorrectly.
@channel notifies everyone online, regardless of status. While @here notifies anyone online and in that channel. Both should be used sparingly. You don’t want to distract your entire team with an issue that could be solved by one direct message.
Especially in your #general channel (Which is the first channel you join in Slack and can’t be deleted), using @channel should be restricted to admins only. This feature is a bit buried, but can be done through Preferences > Workspace settings > Permissions > Messaging > People who can post to #general.
Set automatic reminders when you’re doing focused work
One of the best built-in Slack commands for time management and focus is /remind. You can use this to set a personal reminder, or to remind a teammate about something you need.
For example, if I wanted to make sure I respond to a message from our CEO, Robby, but I’m in the middle of focused work, I could type /remind me in 1 hour to respond to Robby.
Use Emojis as acknowledgement to remove unnecessary noise
Reducing the noise in public Slack channels is everyone’s responsibility. And just like you hate when people use “reply all” on team emails, you don’t need to respond to every message that’s said.
A good alternative is to have teammates use emojis to respond. Some companies will choose specific emoji they use to signify a positive or negative reaction.
This is a low-friction way to give acknowledgement (so the person writing doesn’t have to follow up) and show your response (without clogging up the channel).
Simply hover over the message and click the Add a reaction button that appears. Or use the keyboard shortcut to open the emoji picker (⌘ + Shift + \ on Mac; Ctrl + Shift + \ on Windows).
Building a knowledge base with Search and Pinned items
When you’re using Slack effectively, it becomes more than just a way to communicate. It becomes a place where you can store important messages, files, and documents. But with its real-time nature it’s easy for these things to be lost. Here’s a few helpful tips for keeping your files organized in Slack.
Pin important messages in channels
If you have an important message in a channel that will need to be regularly revisited you can pin it to save it from being buried. For example, you might pin an FAQ, project specs, or updated deadline in a project channel.
To do this, hover over the message or file and select the More actions option on the far right. Then, select Pin to #channel.
Your pinned items can be quickly found by selecting by clicking the pin icon beside the channel or conversation name.
Use Advanced Search to find past conversations and files
If you forgot to pin a message or are looking for something specific, Slack has a powerful search function found in the top right hand corner.
As you start typing, you can narrow down your search by a number of details, like:
- in:[channel] – Search only a specific channel
- in:@[display name] – Search a specific conversation
- To:me – Search all messages sent directly to you
- from:@[display name] – Search messages from a specific person
- has:link/star/pin/reaction – Search messages with a link, star, pin, or reaction
- Before:[date] / after:[date] – Search messages sent before or after a specific date
You can also use multiple modifiers to help narrow it down further. For example, if I was looking for a file, but I couldn’t remember whether Robby or Mark sent it to me, I could search from @robby from @mark and then select the files tab of my search results.
Using Slack Analytics to dig deep and see where you’re going wrong
Lastly, Slack offers built-in analytics that let you dig into just how you’re using it. Everyone has access to these analytics by clicking the arrow beside the workspace name and selecting analytics.
See whether too many private conversations are happening
Your Overview tab gives you insights into how Slack is generally being used. One powerful piece of information you can get here is the split between public and private conversations.
For example, at RescueTime, more than 75% of conversations happen in direct messages. Which could be a problem as that information isn’t being openly shared or made searchable.
Uncover where issues are happening by looking at trending channels/topics
Under the Channels tab, you can see where issues are coming up by filtering channels by Change in Users Posting Messages. This shows you how many people are posting in a specific channel in the last month.
So, for example, we had a 200% increase in our #Python channel over a month, meaning it might be a good area to focus on.
You can also use the channels tab to see channels that aren’t being used and should be archived. As a general rule, any channel that hasn’t been used in 60 days should probably be archived to clear up noise.
See which team members are suffering from communication overload
Lastly, the members channel gives you insights into how individual teammates are using Slack. Filtering by Messages Posted is a good indicator of people who are being inundated with messages and might need help finding time for focused work.
By stripping away as much as possible from Slack, you get all the functionality, without the constant notifications pulling at your attention.
What are your personal Slack settings? Let us know in the comments or Tweet them @RescueTime.