Tuesday Time-Wasting Tip-Off #9: Kill Your Messenger

Welcome to this week’s instalment of Tuesday’s Time-Wasting Tip-Off, each week, techniques and tips that can optimise your life and make you more productive. This week, the bane of corporate networks and productivity everywhere, instant messaging.

Kill Your Instant Messenger

I used to be a huge instant messaging junkie, and have gone through periods of having dozens of chat windows open simultaneously. Instant messaging, especially the IRC kind, with snippets of conversations flying by and the immediate responsiveness of the participants, appeals to my attention-deficit, constant need to be mentally stimulated, mental make-up

I have gone through various periods of complete abstinence (which is now) to almost complete submersion (around 1995 when the Internet and global, instant chat was still relatively young) with Trillian, or whatever chat application was the client de jeur at the time, constantly open in the background, connected to every chat network and instant messaging system available.

But eventually I came to realise how self-destructive instant messaging, chat, and a myriad other forms of staying constantly in contact was on my real world social life, my career, and my professional and personal productivity and development.

When I use instant messaging now it is as a tool for a specific purpose, and when I am done, I don’t merely just put my messenger client in to "Do Not Disturb" mode but switch the client off completely. No distractions, no interruptions, no quick chats, just peace and quiet for me to work.

00014People love to communicate and stay in touch, and with a desktop instant messenger, it can be exceptionally easy. Making use of instant messaging you can hold multiple simultaneous conversations with several people and the conversation is near instantaneous so that it flows like a natural conversation would, all the while staying in contact with family and friends.

The beauty of instant messaging within a business environment is that it can eliminate long distance phone charges whether you are working with local project team members, vendors, clients or remote employees on the other side of the world. IM is especially useful when you or they just need an answer to a quick question that is plaguing production. Even if the person you want to talk to is just across the office, instant messaging lets you remain at your desk, get your update or answer and continue to work.

Unfortunately, with the convenience of communication comes the inconvenience of constant interruption. Creative work, anything that demands your full concentration, requires large blocks of uninterrupted time, that five second interruption can easily cost 20 minutes of valuable "flow." Instant messaging, with the instant interruptions that it incurs, can be even more distracting than email.

With relative ease you can discipline yourself to stay away from email, but instant messaging is insidious. It is just too easy to begin chatting with friends. The written word consumes large amounts of mental bandwidth and instant messenger clients seem to be programmed to be instantly distracting and scream for attention with cutesy animations, whirling icons and a plethora of productivity predators.

The simplest option, and the piece of advice you will receive from most productivity gurus, is to shut down the instant messenger client, but unfortunately, if you use the technology to stay in contact with team members, unplugging completely is not always an option.

One of the simplest tricks you can employ is to block out time where your instant messenger client is shut down for a fixed period. Just like closing the door to your office, shutting off email and putting your cell phone in "do not disturb" mode, turning off instant messaging for even brief intervals can work wonders and return valuable hours of lost time to you.

A more complex technique, requiring considerably more discipline, is to only use instant messaging for specific needs and purposes. Rather than using it for constant interruptions of your precious time, you only refer to it specifically when you need to. People demanding instant answers to questions have to be politely ignored while you are doing your most creative and demanding work. To keep your instant messenger client available but generally ignored requires self-discipline of steel. Let your attention wander or have a bad day at the office where you just sort of peck away at your tasks and that chat client will beg to be given attention.

Unfortunately, I am just not that disciplined when it comes to making use of instant messaging. I can blame it on ADD, or whatever I want, but for me, my only recourse is to shut down the IM client.

There are other techniques, such as prioritising the people who can interrupt you at specific times so that you are only in "do not disturb" mode to certain individuals, but there is no way (yet) to filter based on importance of message. Everybody believes that what they have to say or ask is usually the most important thing in the world, so it would take a truly smart chat client, one that could impersonate you completely, to even figure out whether what was being said was all that important enough to interrupt you. And if the chat client was that smart, the company could probably just get rid of you and have the software do your job. As some of the engineers at the office have told me, “You can be replaced by a button that doesn’t do anything.” Do not let that happen to you. Kill your instant messenger for your own sake!

Then again, some people take offense if you put them on ignore/do not disturb even for a second, and whilst I might think that those people need to get a little perspective, it can be difficult to take that attitude when the person contacting you is the CEO or Executive Producer of an important client, or even worse, a junior "producer" of a small fry client who demands constant attention because they are, after all, the client.

People become programmed to expect immediate responses to their missives when they are connected 24/7, and I have experienced this first hand with an Assistant Producer at Activision where I used to work. Activision, in their Santa Monica office, has a reasonably sizable building and it takes time to walk from one side of the office complex to the other.

This Assistant Producer, who was constantly bugging the team for status updates or just to chat, via IM, was to be blunt, a complete pain in the rear. One day he asked me to drop by his desk to drop off a package to be shipped out at the end of the day. It took me only a few seconds to respond to his message and state that I would be right over. Now this Assistant Producer, because he didn’t work in our department, sat at the point the furthest you could possibly get from the corner office where I was, down two flights of stairs and through two locked doors that required key card access. We were literally at opposite corners of the building and it was a veritable hike through cubicle farmland, zigzagging through various paths to get to him.

When I finally showed up at his desk he went absolutely ballistic, f’ing and blinding, telling me how he was going places, that I was just an engineer and why had I not shown up immediately when he ordered me to.

“What time is it?” I asked him.

“What’s that got to do with anything. It’s important that you show up when I tell you to.” He responded.

“What time is it?” I asked him again.

“4:12. This package has to be shipped out by 5PM to get there for tomorrow morning. I told you this was important, you should have been here when I asked.”

“Walk with me.” I said, and without looking back, headed off in to the maze of cubicles and corridors. So he did. I took the most direct route all the way back to my office desk.

“What time is it?” I asked again.

“4:19.” he replied looking at my desktop clock.

“Here’s your disc.” I continued, pushing the disc in to his chest. “Close the door behind you on the way out.”

Whichever way you choose to handle the IM interruptions is up to you, but the mere fact that you realise instant messaging is a huge time sink puts you one step ahead of everyone else.

How you handle this very sharp, double-edged tool is your call, just be sure to handle it with care, or you can easily shave hours from your day without even realising it.

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