Slack Overload? Regain control with Inbox Zero principles

Get control of your Slack inbox with Inbox Zero principles and enjoy a clutter-free workspace.

Hugo Ferreira
5 min readApr 17, 2023

Note: This post is now quite outdated. See the updated article on my site:

Update 2024–05–08: Finish updating the full setup description according to the new sections format. Also, add a cover image.

Update 2024–04–19: Add illustrative images to the Context section, including info on Rivers, not buckets.

Update 2024–02–13: Introduce headings for easier navigation and highlight the core problem with messaging apps.

Update 2023–10–17: Replace simplistic “Channels/Someday” channel organisation with a MoSCoW-inspired sections structure optimised for fast processing.

“Inbox zero” is a pivotal concept to deal with the constant influx of information we have nowadays. Merlin Mann coined it in 2006, during a series of posts on 43Folders.

That “zero?” It’s not how many mes­sages are in your inbox–it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.

Internet Archive’s Wayback (2011–07–12)

It was not about “perfection” but rather a way for us to take back control of our time and avoid being reactive. To do that, you triage messages to focus on what matters:

  1. Take fixed times in the day to go through your inboxes — close or ignore them outside of those times
  2. Make decisions, not actions — triage fast and act later, so you’re not derailed into a long essays

Once you’re done for the time slot, you can get out of that “new unread” mind space. Go back to doing your actions, according to which criteria you think should do first.

At the time, this concept appeared to deal with the problems of overwhelmed email inboxes. Its core principles expand beyond email though. They are essential to get out of a reactivity loop and quite generic that they apply to other areas or our life:

Accept that almost everything in your life is an inbox

Natasha Bernal on Everything you thought you knew about inbox zero is wrong | WIRED UK

Nowadays work happens on instant message applications, not email.

These types of applications are quite bad in letting us apply these concepts. Their structure is around immediacy and synchronous messages & responses. Slack, in particular, is one of the worst offenders in this matter.

This is how I setup my Slack channels list to make it behave more like an inbox. The goal is to apply the “inbox zero” concepts outlined above and mitigate the pressures to “respond immediately”.

Slack context menu displaying the “Show and sort” details of a sidebar section

🚧 Setup

The sidebar consists of the following sections, in this order:

  1. Starred default section
    • Sorted Alphabetically and showing All channels
    Expanded all the time
    • Contains channels that I want to remain “pinned” on the top of the sidebar for a short time, regardless of read or not
    • Used for ongoing group message or temporary channel with an active conversation for a few days or so
    @Slackbot and my own user @me direct messages are always starred here
  2. Direct messages default section
    • Sorted By most recent and showing channels with Unread messages only
    Expanded all the time
  3. Channels default section
    • Sorted By most recent and showing channels with Unread messages only
    Expanded all the time
    • This section contains only the channels that are essential to my day-to-day work
  4. Someday custom section
    • Sorted By most recent and showing channels with Unread messages only
    Collapsed most of the time
    • All the remaining channels that are less critical end up in this “catch-all” section (e.g. leisure, info, etc.)
  5. Apps default section
    • Sorted Alphabetically and showing All channels
    Collapsed most of the time
    • Easy access to apps I use on occasion but not so often that I remember their name

📨 Processing

With this, my daily process becomes, at specific times during the day:

  1. Check for Threads updates
  2. Deal with Direct messages
  3. Process the updated Channels

When I have some more relaxed time, usually at the end of the day:

  1. Cherry-pick from the Someday channels some that spark my curiosity
  2. Shift-Esc to “mark all as read” and have an clean slate for next day

ℹ️ Tips

With this, channels and conversations disappeared from the sidebar once we read them. There are few options to navigate around and finding previous channels or conversations:

  • Shortcut CMD-K to find and jump to a specific channel
  • History 🕒 view to go back to recent chats and last visited channels
  • Threads view, to see updates on conversations I choose to Get notified about new replies

Also, to keep usage of the sidebar Unread messages aligned with this concept, set it to:

  • Display only the Channels section
  • Sorted from newest to oldest

Does it mean that with this you have Slack under control, almost empty, and you’re very responsive?

Of course not 🙂

Days still go haywire and messages backlog accumulates. and quite often it all becomes chaotic. That’s a consequent of the environments we work in.

With this setup, I’m able to take care of the most urgent and important messages in those chaotic days. Also, it’s easier to recover from a crazy week without the fear of missing out (FOMO) some interesting message.

What about using sections to organise and classify channels? For example, by type, scope, urgency, etc.

Before, I was using different sections to categorise and classify channels. This way I was able to scratch my itch for having everything organised and their “right” places.

I stopped doing it because it was getting hard for me to maintain them and was getting lost on too many places to check. There was no easy way to triage what was recent vs old and important vs secondary.

It was a hard to kill all those sections curated with care, after lots of time invested. This was quite scary 😬) but the benefits from the gained simplicity have made up for it.

What about the mobile app “Newest to oldest” view?

This inbox approach started in the Slack mobile app. I switched my channels list to sort by “Recent activity” (recently renamed to “Newest to oldest”). This lists updated channels under “Today”, “Yesterday”, and “Last 7 days” groupings.

This change was such huge improvement. I found myself switching from desktop to my smartphone to check Slack messages. I could focus only on the “Today” view and keep up-to-date with what was changing (even if there was some past backlog).

The only drawback was that there was no easy way to distinguish between important vs unimportant channels. Triage of what could wait for later in the “Today” section was only visual.

Shortly after, a colleague shared a similar “timeline” setup of their desktop sidebar. Inspired by it, I decided to take the plunge and experiment with this “Slack as an inbox” setup in both desktop and mobile.



Hugo Ferreira

Tech leader. Software engineering. Generalist. Treble dad.