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Making Slack go slack-jawed: reducing the mental load around Slack notifications

hoelzro profile image Rob Hoelz Originally published at on ・3 min read

Making Slack go slack-jawed: reducing the mental load around Slack notifications

As I mentioned in a previous post, I use Slack at work, and I find it to be a constant source of distraction. I have taken to shutting it off for much of the day, which has the obvious disadvantage that if people need to reach me, they can't! In that post, I admit my weakness of needing to acknowledge unread badges and proposed a sort of "narrowing" features for Slack. I wanted to follow up on that and discuss some of the solutions I thought of, as well as the one I'm currently using.

Last month, I wrote a program I called "slack-jawed" - it took a list of Slack teams and set you to "do not disturb" for each of those teams, plus it muted a select set of channels for a period of time. That way, I could say slack-jawed 2h and go heads-down for two hours, but I would still get notifications for direct messages or for messages on channels that I should be paying attention to. Unfortunately, Slack's removal of personal access tokens and migration to only using app-based access tokens has sunk any hopes I had of using that - I can't install my slack-jawed app on every Slack team I'm on!

Another thing I tried is making use of Slack's sidebar sections for channels - basically, all of the non-essential work channels go into a "Fun" section. This works pretty well, but the systray icon still has an unread badge on it, and like I said, needing to acknowledge that is a weakness of mine.. Fortunately, I managed to find a solution that is Good Enough™ and took me next to no time to develop!

The recurring theme of my problem with Slack and distraction is that damn systray icon - I see it in the corner of my screen and feel compelled to acknowledge it. While working on focus and discipline is a worthwhile goal, and one that I'm striving towards, I figure why burn willpower if I don't have to - I use a powerful window manager that lets me do pretty much whatever I want! So I dug into Awesome's systray widget a bit, seeing if there's a way I could filter out the Slack systray icon using a little bit of Lua code!

Unfortunately, the freedesktop systray protocol is anything but simple - it actually uses XEmbed to embed application windows in the systray window! - and the logic for Awesome is written in C. If it were in Lua, I could at worst just copy the widget, make some modifications, and just run that - but since it's in C, I would have to fork the Awesome codebase and maintain my own package, and I don't know if that's worth the time. However, skimming over the systray protocol got me thinking - if systray icons are just regular windows, can't I just hide them?

To continue down this road, we need a few more tools in our toolbelt:

  • xwininfo - dumps out attributes (such as size, position, and child windows) about a window or a set of windows
  • xprop - dumps out X properties attached to a window
  • xdotool - conducts various X operations (such as moving, minimizing, and hiding) on windows without needing to write a program using Xlib or XCB

I did a little experiment - first I did xwininfo -root -tree to dump the entire window hierarchy on my desktop and used that to find the Slack systray icon's window ID, which I'll call $slack_icon_id. Then I used xdotool windowunmap $slack_icon_id and voila - it hid the icon! With a little more sleuthing by way of xprop, I was able to find a good set of criteria for identifying the Slack icon (it uses "slack" as its window class and it has the _XEMBED_INFO property), and with that, I have a little script that I run in a while loop that keep that pesky icon hidden:

$ for id in $(xdotool search --class slack); do
xprop -id $id | grep -q _XEMBED_INFO && xdotool windowunmap $id

This works, but honestly I'd rather have a little more diversity in the Slack client application space - especially an open source alternative. I've tried Scudcloud and Rambox in the past, but they both have their shortcomings. If anyone has any recommendations for a third-party Slack client that would help me manage distractions better, please let me know!


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