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Getting Things Done in a Post-Slack World

Your Slack workspace is glittering like a Christmas tree. The twenty or so channels you have on there are shiny and bold, showing you just how much you’ve failed to keep up with. And if that wasn’t enough, you’ve got a few unread mentions, too. And let’s not even get started on your email inbox. 

If that’s you, then you’re probably feeling a little cheated. Wasn’t Slack supposed to make you more productive?

The promise of Slack

Slack claims that it powers productivity in three ways: 

1. Reducing context switching

Slack’s built-in features and integration with popular tools means that users can view documents, make video calls, and more without leaving their workspace. According to Slack, this saves users time.

There’s truth to this statement, but not in the obvious sense. Slack isn’t trying to save users the one minute it takes them to open another app, but rather the 25 minutes on average they lose when they get sidetracked or interrupted

By staying in context, app users are, at least in theory, less at risk of losing focus and getting out of their flow

But not everyone agrees that this actually works. Rani Molla, reporter at tech news website Recode, says that reducing context switching in apps helps people stay in them for longer, but it doesn’t make them more productive. 

“The idea is that if you’re able to do more of your tasks under one roof, you’ll waste less time clicking in and out of different programs. But if the platforms themselves are riddled with distractions, these efforts are moot,” she wrote.

2. “Eclipsing” email

Although Slack did not succeed in killing email, it did reduce the number of emails we receive (by 32%) and meetings we have (by 23%), according to research by the International Data Corporation (IDC).

The problem is that it didn’t reduce the number of messages we send. For some, the influx of Slack messages and notifications can be distracting and even anxiety-inducing, especially since there’s no reaching inbox zero on Slack.

3. Enabling focus

Slack lets you choose which channels to join, turn off notifications, and mark conversations as important by “starring” them. For most of us, using these features is the difference between using Slack as a work tool and letting it take over our lives.

For some users, these settings may not be enough. Samuel Hulick, who belongs to 10 different Slack teams, argues that you can leave Slack, but it doesn’t leave you. 

“People are very used to messaging me (directly or publicly) whether I’m online or not, so there’s a heavy social expectation for me to keep those conversational plates spinning on an ongoing basis, even if I’m signed out,” he wrote.

Rani agrees that Slack makes it hard to focus. “If you’re getting on average 45 Slack messages in an eight-hour workday, it’s impossible to have that much extended time for concentration,” she wrote.

Is Slack really keeping us from getting things done?

But is Slack really to blame for our inability to focus?

Nir Eyal, the author of a book on how to stay focused, doesn’t think so. “Technology itself gets blamed for the problem a lot,” he wrote. “It’s not the technology itself, it’s the environment.”

History corroborates that. A 2011 study shows that, long before Slack existed, professionals worldwide were blaming email for not getting things done.

The study also shows how the asynchrony of email, which was supposed to free people to reply at their convenience, didn’t fulfill its promise. Study participants described keeping others waiting as a major source of anxiety. 

Getting things done in a post-Slack world

Like email, Slack can become overwhelming—but only if you let it. 

“A lot of time people can get sucked into this idea of reading every chat room and scanning things and reading around, but that’s just distraction,” Michael Pryor, CEO of Trello and Slack user, told Time. “You might as well be on Reddit.” 

Similarly, people sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that they need to be online at all times or to reply to messages instantly—an issue that says less about Slack than those who are using it.

“We don’t have a technology problem, we have a boundary problem,” Sarah Peck, a startup founder, told Recode. 

You might not need to break up with Slack to get things done, after all. Here’s how to use Slack’s options to take back control:

1. Pause notifications with Do Not Disturb (DND)

Pause notifications manually whenever you need to concentrate, or set a notification schedule to ensure you never receive a notification when you’re not working. 

When you use DND, a “Do Not Disturb” icon shows up next to your name, and you stop receiving mentions and notifications. 

2. Reduce noise in Slack

Star important channels by clicking the star next to their names—they’ll appear at the top of your list of channels on the sidebar.

Slack recommends leaving channels you don’t care about, but you can also mute them if leaving isn’t an option.  

3. Adjust your notification triggers

Explore Slack notification settings to let Slack know which notifications you want to get, where you want to get them, when or how often, and what you want them to sound and look like. (You can also choose to mute all sounds from Slack.)

4. Use your Slack status and availability to communicate

Set a Slack status and your availability to share your whereabouts and give others an idea of when you’re likely to respond. 

When you post a status message, a status icon appears next to your name, prompting teammates to hover over it or click to view it on your profile.

Tech writer Chris Hoffman uses his Slack status to let teammates know he’s on vacation, when he’ll be back, and who they should contact instead. 

You can also set yourself as Active or Away. 

What tips do you have for staying productive while using Slack?

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