I’ve never been a big user of chat, but I know many people who are and recently I was cajoled into trying to make myself more available to others via iChat. For the most part I find chat applications to be very useful and I see them as potential time savers if used in the right way. However, as I’m coming to learn, they’re also one of the worst things you can do to yourself if your trying to be productive.

I find that as soon as I make myself “available” I’m flooded with requests to chat. Now, I’m a decent multi-tasker and can handle several conversations at once, but I’d be kidding myself (and lying to y’all) if I said I actually made any headway on other things while chatting.

It’s funny because when I’m at conferences I see all sorts of people with their chat windows up during presentations. I have to wonder why they bother attending, I mean, you can’t get the most out of a presentation while your attention is sucked in by a screen and iChat. I’ve taken to leaving my computer in the bag during presentations I actually want to get something out of, but that’s a different post.

No, chat is a serious threat to your productivity and I think the only way around it is to not use it when you need to focus on the task at hand. Don’t even tempt yourself. I tried putting a clever away message (“Working, I may ignore you”) up, thinking that I’d only have people contact me if it was important. Didn’t work, and even if it was important, as soon as I hear that little “ding” my concentration is shot. Nope, better off not even going there.

The moral? If you are a frequent user of chat, and you are having trouble getting things done, you might try turning it off for extended periods of time. I know it helps me.

17 Comments on Chat: Productivity Kryptonite

  1. Chat is the biggest time-waster there is. I know from experience. One of the best things I did was set my MSM so that it would come on automatically on a Windows bootup. That made a big difference for me.

  2. phil jones says:

    Same for the internet in general, no?

    These days, I have to unplug my laptop and move to the dining-room (where there’s no internet connection) when I really want to get work done.

  3. Instant messaging is the single largest time waster online among teens, and young adults.

  4. Well, I mean to say more – but it was left out – no idea why.

    Anyways, as I was saying – I’m planning on giving it a try – thanks for reminding me that I get nothing done.

  5. Keith says:

    Colin — I know for a fact you get stuff done… ;)

  6. Josue says:

    I know what you mean… by experience! I run a ministry for teens with problems. The site (http://www.justsmile.org) gets thousands of hits every day. I first made myself available via MSN Messenger. My goodness, it was impossible to do anything! There could be 10 people trying to chat with me with problems going from suicidal thoughts to self-injury. So I decided to stop chatting and dedicate some especific time every day helping them via the message board.

    Now I only use MSN with my family and 2 other people a couple of times a week.

  7. Erik says:

    I’ve never been a big fan of chat and i’m always surprised that anyone can get anything accomplished with it up. For work i’ve installed GAIM and it’s largely not really useful, but can be in very specific circumstances; like sharing a file quickly.

    I find that the best practice is to shut off all the sound prompts and be explicit that you were working on something else and weren’t on it to chitchat.

  8. Brian says:

    Instant Messaging is amazingly helpful for me.
    You’re certainly right that a long chat, or several at once, does hamper productivity.

    But if I have a quick question for someone, I get an answer faster if I send it by IM than if I send an e-mail. And it’s not as intrusive an interruption as a phone call or walk to their office, since they don’t have to respond immediately.

    For me, it fits in right between a phone call and an e-mail. Faster than e-mail, usually about the same speed as a phone call, but less intrusive for the recpient.

    Gotta be a quick question, though. Conversations that way take way too long and get easily sidetracked.

    It’s also useful as another channel during a phone call – e.g. for sending URLs or other things you’d otherwise have to speak slowly and the recipient would have to transcribe.

  9. Keith says:

    Brian — you brought up the double-edged sword nature of chat. I find it can be a great productivity tool, under the right circumstances. The problem lies in that, if you’re asking me a question, and I’m focused on something else, while it helps you, it could hurt me.

    As far as how intrusive it is, I’d say I agree that one IM isn’t as intrusive as a phone call. But, with me anyway, it’s never just one IM…and I get easily sidetracked as well.

    But it’s a tool, right? It’s all in how you use it.

  10. Ahh.. the never ending battle between employees and employers…

    Well within the last three years I’ve gone from the employee side to the employer and sometimes it really is a BIG issue with some people. Most of the time employees can handle such a distraction and still get their work done, but with some – it is really getting to be a time-waster and does very much effect productivity.

    On the other hand – I personally use it for support with various vendors and companies for instant support or PO help.

    … and so the debate continues.

  11. I refer to Instant Messaging as Instant Interruption.

    I’ve had numerous people suggest to me that I install it. I tell them that I’m not interested. Read the book “Peopleware” by Timothy Lister and Tom DeMarco. There’s a whole chapter about concentration, productivity, “flow”, and interruptions.

    Basically, you’re most productive when you’re immersed in a task. In a state of flow. It typically takes about 15 minutes to get into this state of concentration. The phone rings, somebody asks you a question, or you get an instant message that you attend to, and you’re OUT of that state. That one minute “chat” got you about 15 minutes of lost productivity… “Now… Where was I… Shoot how many did I do so far? What was that thought that I wanted to include in that section? Doooah!”

    Those of you who are saying, “I can multitask well. It doesn’t slow me down”… well, you’re just kidding yourself, or maybe you have a job that can be done by monkeys.


  12. Janis Gonser says:

    I am not a big fan of chatting, but I think that chatting software can be beneficial. When working in a team environment it can be very helpful and cut down on time when trying to have minor questions answered. I never use a chat app in my private time, but it definitely has a place in my work environment. I would consider that communicating rather than chatting.

    As it is with many tools, it’s up to us what we make out of it. If you don’t like the chatty chat, block them out.


  13. Yannick L. says:

    Keith, you are so correct, it is a huge distraction when trying to be productive. Of late I have been not signing when I am trying to do work.

  14. By “chat”, do you mean instant messaging? I’m not familiar with iChat. To me, “chat” means irc or chat rooms, which I find to be useless and annoying. Instant messaging is great for communication, though, so long as you restrict the number of people who have access to you. It’s great for sending code snippets to colleagues at work (unless you’re trying to send HTML code using AIM, that is).

  15. Keith says:

    Jennifer — Sorry! Yes, by “chat” I mean Instant Messaging.

  16. Josh says:

    I don’t know about you guys, but I think e-mail/blogs are just as intrusive to productivity as instant messaging. I find myself reading blogs or checking my e-mail and actually reading and replying when I should be doing sometime completely different!

  17. Josh,

    If you’re reading blogs and email instead of doing what you feel you should be doing, then it’s not that they’re intrusive, it’s that you’re not being disciplined enough. Perhaps what you’re “supposed to be doing” is boring the heck out of you, or you’re just not interested in doing it.

    On the other hand, IM is intrusive, because it gives your friends and coworkers an easy way to interrupt you and you are at their mercy. Anytime they want to bug you, they can and by having IM up, you’re inviting those interruptions.

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