Tech Life A useful set of communication primitives

How I Slack

This is the original version of this post. There’s a brand new one designed how Slack works in 2022. I’m leaving this one as a historical artifact.

Each Slack team I’m on has a different set of humans building their own unique communication culture. I’m actively on six teams: SlackHQ, Leadership, Destiny, two private nerd Slacks, and a private family Slack.

Three out of my six teams have 100+ active humans, 100+ channels, and are high traffic with hundreds to thousands of messages per day. The majority of my interaction centers on these teams and if I’m away from the keyboard for a few hours, my sidebar can be ominously full of unread channels and conversations.


In this piece, I’ll explain how I use the desktop version of Slack to sift quickly through these channels and conversations. If you’re on a Slack team with one channel and 10 humans, much of the following is going to feel like overkill, but there are useful optimization nuggets below. Important to note upfront that I am very lucky to be working at Slack. The following is full of my opinions, quirks, and neuroses and not those of Slack.

A Game of Microseconds

The rule has always been: if my hands leave the keyboard, I’ll screw it up. For years, I’ve written about the maddening imprecision of the mouse. With due respect to illustrators and other deft operators of the mouse, when I am required to use one, I am presented with too much optionality. It is the intrinsic power of a mouse that its defaults workspace is my entire desktop – each and every pixel is available to click whether it’s the right pixel or not.

I understand and appreciate that for novice users, the mouse’s broad optionality is perfect. It allows for curious unhindered exploration, but once a mouse teaches us the virtual landscape, once we understand how to work, a mouse’s utility fades and I need a clearly defined path to moving faster. There is no more important an area where I need to move quickly and efficiently than how I communicate.

Keyboard support is quite good in Slack. This is good news because my ability to quickly and efficiently find, triage, and respond to information within Slack is not a mouse task, it’s a perfect keyboard job. There are a handful of well-defined actions that literally instantly need to be at my fingertips. Let’s start with two related essentials:

Switch to my unread things ( CMD-K / Ctrl-K (Mac / Windows) ) If there is only one keyboard tip I want you to remember, it’s Cmd-K. The Quick Switcher is inspired by LaunchBar, QuickSilver and other handy context switching tools and it’s dead simple: hit Cmd-K and start typing the name of a person or a channel and when you see what you need, you can instantly jump to any context by hitting ENTER. If I’ve been away from Slack for bit, I hit Cmd-K and glance at the list in Quick Switcher. It’s a prioritized list of direct messages and unread messages.

Show me a recent conversation ( CMD-SHIFT-K / Ctrl-SHIFT-T ) Throw a SHIFT into Quick Switcher keyboard combination; CMD-SHIFT-K (or Ctrl-SHIFT-T on Windows) brings up Direct Message Quick Switcher. What I’m looking at here is a history of all of my single and multi-human conversations sorted by time. The more I work with an existing team, the more I find this conversation history useful. As single or multi-human conversations tend to be higher signal since they’re directed at me, this history is full of conversations between individuals and groups that I need at the ready for the next week.

Don’t Read Everything

My current strategy is to aggressively join channels. I don’t join every channel available, but the bar to get me interested in a channel is incredibly low. Any interest at all and I’ll join. With the current default Slack configuration, this can lead to channel sidebar proliferation, but here is my approach:

  1. In Advanced Options on the desktop, I select the option to show only “My unread, along with everything I’ve starred.” This removes all channels with no activity from my side bar. This changes my default sidebar from LEFT to RIGHT.


  1. After a few hours of activity, the unread counts build. So, I merrily Quick Switch my way through this unread activity. If I need to respond and I don’t have time or the answer, I will star the channel or conversation for a future response. This makes my sidebar a draft of my to do list. To date, this strategy has kept my sidebar tidy and under control in even the highest traffic teams.
  2. Currently, there is one exception to my star policy and that is a “channel of importance”. The only channels which are starred are weekly 1:1 channels that I’ve defined as a running conversation of 1:1 discussions, decisions, and next steps.

There are times when I get behind, and when I end up in this state, the keyboard command I use is Ctrl-Esc. This marks everything read, but doesn’t do anything to my starred items. The FOMO inbox zero zealots in the audience just freaked out a bit. What if there something important in those channels? How do I know what’s essential without reading every single message? Wait for it.

My Sidebar is not my Inbox

For a large group of humans in a company using email, we believe that we’re doing each other a favor by making sure the TO: line of this very important email is populated with the correct humans and mailing lists. Also, protocol dictates the proper construction of the CC: line for the humans who are slightly less essential than the humans on the TO: line. We believe we’re doing the right thing because we believe this is the only way they’ll find this essential information.

This is incorrect. We’re lazy.

It’s not deliberate laziness; it’s tool induced laziness where we feel the need to blast every possible human with this essential piece of data because we’ve come to believe that email is the only source of truth. This makes our inbox a sacred place because it is our connection to our fellow workers. Conversely, we feel that if information is in our inbox, we have a deep compulsion to read it.

Three questions: How much time have you spent constructing mail filters for mails sent TO YOU that YOU REQUESTED that end up in folders that you NEVER EVER READ? For all of those emails actually in your inbox, how many did you read? Finally, how many days of your life have you lost simply worrying about your inbox?

My working and perhaps incorrect assumption in a Slack team is that if a piece of information needs to get to me, a qualified human will make sure I get it by either using the @name convention, sending me a DM, or creating a channel for us to have a longer running discussion of this essential information. Ctrl-Esc doesn’t delete a thing; it just marks it read.

Three More Keyboard Essentials

Further means by which I avoid the mouse:

Edit ( Up Arrow ) Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that even with the fixed availability of the 78 keys on my keyboard, I excel at making typos. All the time. I completely drop entire words during caffeinated keyboard fury, and Slack messages are no exception. Hitting the UP ARROW in Slack allows me to edit messages. It is strange that this feature gives me so much joy.

Forward and Back ( CMD-[, CMD-] / Alt-[, Alt-] ) The defining characteristic of the keyboard that it allows me to move fast. Often I’ll blast right past a channel with an important piece of information that won’t be relevant until I’ve visited a few more channels. What was that channel again? Like a web browser, CMD-[ and CMD-] allow me to page through my channel viewing history. Handy for that piece of information that just zipped by but suddenly becomes important five seconds later.

Emoji reaction ( CMD-SHIFT-\ / Ctrl-SHIFT-\ ) I’ve resisted emoji for years. My opinion has been the same as my opinion of all messaging abbreviations. If you want to say something, take the time to write the words. Slack has changed my opinion about emoji, and the reason is, again, efficiency. There is a type of communication where all I need from you is the smallest of acknowledgments. I don’t need commentary or an opinion. All I need to know from you is: yes, I received this. Emoji reactions are the perfect low-friction way to deliver this acknowledgment. Here are my current top three Emoji and my internal mental translations.

  • 👍 – Got it.
  • 🙏 – Thank you.
  • dancing-penguin – This… is awesome.

Emoji usage can quickly lead to emoji madness, but when I think about the cumbersome alternative: reading mail, hitting respond to generate another mail, typing “Got it!” and hitting send, well, I’m ok with dancing penguins.

The Right Tool for the Right Job

When did I send my first email? Wow, I think it was during the 80s. It was a pre-Internet email on a forgotten Silicon Valley BBS which means I’ve been using email as a means of communication for around three decades. Sometime during the 90s, it became my primary means of written digital communication. While messaging, Twitter and Facebook have certainly provided new forms of connective tissue; email has remained a constant tax on my life.

Slack has given me the opportunity to rethink a means of communication that hasn’t fundamentally changed in decades. Slack provides me with a useful set of communication primitives that has me experimenting. I’m trying new approaches to communication paths I thought were forever fixed and that deserves a…


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10 Responses

  1. Keith Stevenson 8 years ago

    Emoji reactions: type `+:` and then a popup appears and you can type the emoji title or select with cursor keys.

  2. Brandon 8 years ago

    Very nice post. Thanks—I’ll be referring back to it in the future. One point of correction, though: there is no “CMD” key on Apple keyboards. They say “command”, spelled out, in all lower case.

  3. on my macbook, CMD-K works identical to CMD-T. am i missing something?

  4. Rob Allen 8 years ago

    @ron wilson, CMD+T shows all channels you are a member of, CMD+K shows those channels in which there are unread mentions, @s, etc.

    Thanks Rands. The timing for this article was right when I was returning from vacation. I was able to page through the relevant conversations much more quickly without having to declare Slack Bankruptcy (Shift+ESC)

  5. Alex Bauer 8 years ago

    I love this approach. Very similar to what I have stumbled on myself. Only one problem…why is there no keyboard shortcut for starring conversations?

  6. Two quick comments, six years after this was first published:

    * I use this system daily and have shared it with probably hundreds of people in my org as a way to manage channel fatigue. It’s a wonderful way to manage slack IMO. Thank you for writing it.
    * The slack UI has changed a fair amount over the years, and the instructions on how to configure showing only unread could be updated (now in Preferences->Sidebar or context menu on each section.) Keyboard shortcut for Mark All Read is also outdated (it’s now Shift-Esc).

    Thanks a bunch for sharing this knowledge!