By Keith

I want to thank everyone who shared their experiences with Instant Messaging. The results weren’t all that surprising, but I find it interesting to read how others use IM.

h3. IM and productivity rarely mix

I’ve been experimenting on my own over the last few weeks, and that–combined with your feedback–leads me to the conclusion that IM might be a real problem for people trying to be productive. There is no doubt that it’s a useful tool–under the right circumstances.

For personal communication it’s pretty cool and there is no doubt there are times when it can be just the thing.

Unfortunately it seems that more than anything else it’s a constant distraction that eats time. The biggest issue, that I can see anyway, is that there is almost no way to triage incoming messages. Sure you can block people, or set your status, but if you have it open and are receiving incoming IMs you have no way to keep from dealing with things that come in.

With a phone you can let it go to voice mail. With e-mail you can respond at your leisure. Not so with IM. Even if you’re ok with leaving people hanging there is almost a pressure to respond. It’s like bees in your head.

The only true way to avoid this problem is to turn it off.

My advice for those who use IM and are having problems getting things done — don’t use it anymore. If you do use it, only use it when you choose to use it and keep it off when you’re trying to focus. My feeling is that the disadvantages of IM far outweigh it’s advantages, at least when it comes to work.

I do think it can be a great tool if used sparingly and under “controlled” circumstances, but as an open communication channel it’s really not good unless you’re wanting to chat or have time to kill.

21 Comments on Instant Messaging: Risky To Productivity

  1. So you are saying you can let the call on your phone to go to voice mail, but you cannot ignore a tiny icon on the task bar? I agree that a typical IM client could use a better attention management technique. But to say that IM is a bigger distraction than a phone, come on!!! Tell your IM not to display any message when you’re in Away or DND mode – that’s all it takes to avoid distraction.

  2. You know what, I take it back. I just remembered that a couple of my friends alway maximize their windows or use a full screen mode if available to avoid distraction. I guess some people are just a bit easier to distract than others.

  3. IM vs. Email for Productivity and Teamwork

    Keith Robinson over at To-done has come to the same conclusion as I have about using Instant Messaging at work. He writes:
    Unfortunately it seems that more than anything else it’s a constant distraction that eats time. The biggest issue, that I ca…

  4. elv says:

    One of my clients even turns off new mail notification in his Outlook, so he’s not tempted to stop focusing on his current task.

  5. Jeff Yamada says:

    This became a major problem for me at my last job. As soon as I learned how effective it is to simply turn it off, I proceeded to do the same with outlook. Though some people had to wait for things, I could actually just tackle task after task uninterrupted…and isn’t that what actually gets things done?

  6. Keith says:

    George — Yep, that is exactly what I’m saying. See, with the phone, it stops ringing and goes to voice mail. With IM it just sits there, waiting to be ignored or dealt with. If IM had voice mail, maybe it’d be different. ;0) And, yes, I’m easily distracted.

    elv — I do that too. Or I close my mail program.

    Jeff – Yes. It is. ;0)

  7. PJ Hyett says:

    If I’m in the mood to be distracted, I’ll check the IM, otherwise I’ll let it sit. It’s as simple as that, really.

  8. I work for an Architectural/Engineering firm and IM is a major concern to the higher-ups. Not only is it distracting (to me atleast), it is also a major concern when it comes to leaking sensitive material. We do most of our work for government agencies, and in our “risk management” training we were pretty much told to not use IM at all. There is no easy way to document conversations on IM. In the future I do see it being a viable way of communicating at a professional level though. My girlfried works for CGI as a programmer, and IM is their main way of communicating throughout the office.

  9. Peter says:

    I believe they need to add a new disorder to the DSM-4 cause I swear there are days I will check the same six peoples away messages every 15 seconds as if it were a bloody competition.

    Long live the silence!

  10. Is instant messaging good or bad for productivity?

    Instant messaging can be distracting and make it hard to focus on what you are working on, but it can also be an efficient communication tool.

  11. I’m trying to implement a policy for IM where I work (also an A/E firm) in order to clarify how it can be useful. IM was actually “banned” several years ago due to a harassment incident, and I’m trying to show how it can be useful in specific situations.

  12. Dave says:

    I use trillian (a multi-messenger application), it’s usefull because it display all of the messages you’ve missed (the last 100 messages in total) and if you turn off the notifications (i generally can’t hear them over the blare of my stereo anyway) then you can continue with you work undistracted. And then afterwards, see what sladerous comments you have been receiving in the mean-time.

  13. Ville says:

    RSS readers and well.. porn can distract me quite a bit too. I try to use them only when i need ‘em.

  14. MW says:

    Dave: I have a hard time imagining that working next to a blaring stereo is allowing anyone to work undistracted, regardless of IM software. Maybe it scares off unwelcome visitors? :)

    However, it seems to me that it’s not as much the IM software in itself, as much as the habits we create around them that is the problem. Maybe an IM client with some kind of Inbox would be a solution, e-mail creates the same kind of distraction for those who react to it instantaneously.

    Keith: Do you have any ideas on what requirements an IM client should have in order to be a useful tool without being destructive to productivity?

  15. Joe says:

    I used to work for a very large and well known software firm where Yahoo! IM was actually the PREFERRED communication tool of choice for internal communication. The phone was a close second, and actually getting up and walking over to someone’s desk a distant third.

    In fact, on my very first day on the job, my new manager told me to make sure I have a Yahoo! account, because that is how “we all talk around here.”

    I found that to be odd, but I must say that the messaging software was used for both business/productivity purposes as well as leisure.

  16. Brad Isaac says:

    I tell every person I who is on my IM list that there WILL be certain times when they message me and I won’t answer. These times are times when I am at the computer and a client is in the office too, when I’ve just stepped away or when I am deep in work and can’t get to the message.

    Everybody seems fine with it that way, at least nobody has complained.

    I think it’s easier to ignore the blinking IM symbol when you know the other person understands your policy.

  17. Garrett says:

    My solution for this problem lately has been meebo.com. It keeps your whole IM session (or sessions) in a browser window and is minimally interruptive. Whenever I get a free moment, I can click over and check on my IM windows…

  18. Fernando says:

    The problem I had with IM was exactly that one. I was constantly getting interrupted, even when using a “AWAY” status, in iChat / AIM. People seem to ignore that, and it gets me really mad. So I took your advice and shut it down for 3 days. It was probably one of the best things I ever did.

    The big issue is that as an icon designer I work with developers all the time, and they keep sending me new software versions like every 30 minutes, and between sending one or other file, they explain me what icons or graphics they would like. So while I’m available strictly for clients, I have to be to everyone else too :-/

  19. Amit says:

    I used to have problems with this a few years back as a first year college student. Clearly removing the distraction that is IM isn’t the solution. So you have to learn to manage it. I sometimes use the 10+2 hack where that 2 min is used for IM. Either that or I make sure all my studying is done before I jump onto IM. I’m a college student after all, where distractions exist all around me. Worst comes to worst, I study elsewhere.

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