Instant Messaging

The other day, I saw a comment somewhere stating “instant messaging is the devil”. That got me thinking about how I use instant messaging and what it’s good and bad for. What follows is a short list of the key features I think are good and bad:

The Good

  • The instant nature of it
  • Cheaper than making STD phone calls
  • Convenient
The Bad

  • The instant nature of it
  • Impersonal
  • Convenient

What is interesting to me, is that two points show up as both a good and a bad feature.

Instant Delivery

The instant nature of instant messaging is amazing, as soon as you click send – its delivered. There is no lag or delay of any significance and you can undertake an instant message conversation at great pace; it really makes email seem slow and antiquated by comparison. When using my computer, I tend to leave things open. So, in the case of an instant message client – I sign in first thing in the morning and I sign out when I go home. The problem is, people can contact you at all times and the nature of the instant message demands your immediate attention. When at work, this can be a distraction for obvious reasons but more importantly, it leads to breaking concentration.


Instant messaging is convenient, amazingly convenient. If you work with a computer regularly, you can no doubt type at a good pace. At which point, having the ability to instant message someone and hopefully get an immediate response is excellent. The problem, which is related to the instant nature as well, is that often you end up spending more time using it than you need to. You ask someone a direct question, you get an answer and what often follows is another minute or more of quick messages. The time adds up very quickly until your work time is just slipping away from you.

The Real World

At work, it was decided we shouldn’t be using instant messaging or IRC. I initially thought it was a poor decision, as we often gather a lot of fast response, good quality information through it. For instance, the fantastic support in the #postgresql channel on is invaluable at times, so is being able to contact other developers. However at work, you end up being messaged by non-work related contacts – which leads to spending a minute or two talking about something. Across the course of a day or week, all the minutes soon add up and you’re losing hours.

At home, I find it nearly impossible to get any work done when I’m signed in. You’re contact list assumes, since you’re signed in you must be available to chat. The same thing happens, a little chat here and a little chat there – soon enough you’re work hours are running out and your work isn’t getting done.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve found my use of instant messaging has been slowly declining, until now I often don’t sign in at work at all. It isn’t because work colleagues take up too much time, its the distraction and cumulative minutes here and there. A nice solution would involve grouping your contacts (like you can in MSN) and then allow a group to see you during the day. Using a mechanism like that, you’d at least be limiting your distraction to work related contacts – whom generally contact you about work related things.

When I’m using my computer, it is mostly about getting things done. I am fast building the view that free for all instant messaging isn’t conducive to that outcome at all. A similar opinion is close to being drawn about having your mail client open and auto-receiving mail for you; though the final judgment on that is still undecided.

7 thoughts on “Instant Messaging

  1. Interesting, I pretty much operate the opposite way; I leave my IM on at all times, but I generally keep my email client closed, or at the least it is not set up to auto-retrieve emails. I found that I get far more noise from an email client (spam, mailing list traffic, newesletters, etc…) than I do from IM (although I have had an evening sucked away from irc a few times).

  2. This is an interesting post.

    I think perhaps you need to take charge of the technology instead of letting it rule you. Tell your contacts that if you’re flagged “busy” you will not respond. If anyone persists on bugging you while you’re flagged busy, just block them for a while, they’ll get the message.

    ‘Busy’ is a great state. It means “leave me alone” but also allows you to bug others with questions about whatever it is you’re working on.

    There is an allowable detachment with instant messaging which automatically excuses people when they don’t respond. Its not like a telephone where if one side goes silent, its considered very rude. There are a myriad of reasons why someone might delay an instant message conversation whether it be a toilet break, another conversation or simply deep interest in reading a web page.

    Really I liken it to a bunch of people in a college computer lab… you might be talking, but you’re also doing something on the PC, and what you’re doing takes priority, the conversation is a side-issue.

    BTW, I love the idea of selective visibility on a per-group basis. Nice thought. At least some IM clients allow you to speak while invisible (thereby letting you engage only a privileged person while you hide from others). I wish MSN allowed that.

  3. I have actually taken to not being signed into any instant messaging software during the day for over a month now.

    I also close outlook for anything up to an hour or two at a time to complete tasks that require my constant attention, for example programming or churning through standard book keeping / tax shite.

    For a while I took to using Google Talk, not because it was ‘all things google’, but because only my current work collegues are on it. This had an interesting effect – whilst it continued to allow my staff to contact me regarding questions or asking for help with a coding bug, etc – it also allowed them to interupt me.

    During business hours I’m only available through E-mail (several hours before a response could be expected) or on the phone (immidiate response). My staff know this and my clients understand this – so far its working a treat.

    If I’m in the middle of performing a billable task and I’m interupted, I have to stop the clock for not only the time I’m talking to my “interuptor”, but the time it takes me to get back into a productive state on the task I’m billing for. This can be an additional 15 minutes if the job is something like coding, or hunting a 3 cent error on my latest BAS.

    We’ve slowed down on ‘hourly rate’ style work these days, as its not as profitable as “packaged” products or services – however the same rings true. If I’ve budgeted for 100 hours programming a new service and I’m interupted for 5 minutes every ‘i’ hours – i lose ‘i’ x 20 minutes and launch date soon slips.

    Since stopping this, I’m still completely contactable however I’m not at everybodies “alt+tab, scroll down, double click, start typing” – meaning they email it and I get to it ASAP oppose to that very second. This has already led to a huge increase in productivity and for no real loss IMO. (except a few mates occasionally calling me to see if I’m still alive :-p)

    My 2 cents worth anyways!!

  4. Adam,

    You raise some interesting points in your article. The one thing you pointed out, which I don’t do and should enforce is the busy status. I found that when I was busy, I was still receiving messages – and by that nature compelled to reply to them. I think had I have not replied, the message would have been clear and the people wouldn’t have bothered messaging me while in that status. I might give it another whirl and see how it pans out.


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