Is instant messaging good or bad for productivity?

In Instant Messaging - Your Take?, D. Keith Robinson asked the readers of To-Done whether they felt instant messaging to be a potential productivity reducer or not. The result is that most find it detrimental to productivity. Keith talks a bit about that in Instant Messaging: Risky To Productivity.

I can’t say I’m very surprised. All too often IM will take my focus away from what I’m working on, so I don’t always keep my copy of Adium X running. Most of the people on my contact list have learned that most of the time I’m not very chatty over IM. At least not while I’m at the office trying to get things done.

That said, there are situations where IM actually can help increase productivity. I’m currently working on a large project with a tight deadline, and the client is based in another city. IM lets me communicate with their designers and developers almost as efficiently as if we were in the same office, which makes discussing ideas and solutions and transferring design mockups a lot more seamless than if we were to use email.

What’s your opinion on the use of instant messaging? Do you use it to increase your productivity, or does it just focus your attention away from what you are working on?

Posted on November 17, 2005 in Productivity, Quicklinks


  1. IM is the best thing to come along since toilet paper.

  2. bad, but fun

  3. The CMS I’m learning has an IM support channel that I use - provided the right people are logged in, its way faster than posting on the forum. Great for my productivity, not so great for those answering my queries I guess.

    That said, I’m sure idle chat on IM costs billions per year in lost working time.

  4. I decided about a year ago to uninstall my IM software and forget that it existed. It got to the point where every time I’d get into a good working groove, a little window would pop up:

    “I’m SOOOOOO bored… ROFL!!!1”

    To make matters worse, I couldn’t just pretend I wasn’t there, because the window invariably pops up in the middle of typing a word, so now I’m typing into the little IM box, and they see it say “your buddy is typing”.

    To be honest, in the year since I abandoned my screen name, there have been two or three occasions where I honestly thought to myself, “IM would be good for this.” But at the end of the day, IM does more harm than good.

  5. IM is not inherently bad or good. It is a technology that can be used productively or not. I use it extensively when I am working on projects with a team spread out over the country and it facilitates true productivity. However, if I am just spinning wheels at work chatting with friends it is no different that chatting on the phone on the company dime. They both enable productivity when used appropriately.

  6. I find it to be a plus. I mean, I work with a team of, maybe, 15 people — but since we’re distributed across a 7 story building and on both coasts of the US, it saves a great deal of time moving back and forth.

    As to this point:

    the biggest issue, that I can see anyway, is that there is almost no way to triage incoming messages.

    Complete B.S. Try a real IM client like Trillian or Miranda. There are plenty of options to make IM clients non-intrusive: away modes, non-focus stealing window pop methods, disabled sounds, etc.

    Also, I have NO problem being told “too busy to chat” or telling others the same. If it is truely urgent: call. If it can wait an hour or two: email. If it’s something inbetween: IM.

    Simple answer: IM is a help, not a hinderance, to my productivity.

  7. I like it. I tend to have a window open to an IRC channel full of other web professionals, and while it sometimes ends up being fairly bizzare discussion, it is more often a useful quick reference tool, which can then develop into more focussed private chats which get a problem sorted quickly. I don’t use IM for talking to clients. Clients never want contact at times that suit my work patterns, so giving them an extra way to disrupt me wouldn’t be sensible. For my service providers (server admins, designers, specialist programmers), however, it saves time.

  8. IM is like a mobile phone - vital if you need it, useful if you know when to turn it off.

    Becuase everyone can turn it off, it’s all OK.

  9. Ah.. the ever lasting talk about whether or not to allow employees to use AIM at work.

    Personally I use trillian and do find it extremely more productive at times than lets say emailing and waiting for a response. I can contact friends in the industry quickly if I were looking for a certain resource or needed an opinion on something. Sending files has never been quicker. The list goes on really.

    However, I do not allow my younger programers to use IM’s anymore as of last week as everytime we’d go talk to them, there would be more than one window open at all times. So now we’ve kind of outlawed it here except for myself in mgmt because I use it correctly and same with my friends - they all know where I spend all day every day.

    Bottom line is - you have to be smart and use it as a tool. It makes you have a need to trust your employees with thier proper use of time, and if they can’t figure out that when at work - you must work and not talk to friends all day - then it’s time to pull the plug.

  10. The entire Y! network is on Y! messenger. without, I think we might actually get some excersize. Other than that, here are my thoughts:

    1) It ‘can’ produce productivity for short messages and file transfers.

    2) The ignore feature was a great invention.

    3) Technical discussions often waste time when done over messaging. Code review and language syntax is just a waste of time over messaging. Especially when pasting in characters like semi-colon + paranthesis turn into a smiley face.

  11. It really depends on what one’s purpose for IM’ing is.

    If you have a “business” name and chat with clients or office co-workers in order to relay information faster then - in my opinion - it is a good tool.

    If you are using it at work but with your “regular” name with all of your regular buddies it, then, becomes a distraction.

    Just my two cents.

  12. Long live misuse of the “Away” option. ;) No seriously, as long as you make sure sound, blinks or flashes are off when users enters/quits, it can be a Good Thing to have access to during your working day. That is, as long as your chatting about work related stuff in some way. Chatting only for fun is always a time stealer, IMO.

  13. To me it often depends on the current phase of ongoing projects. IM is excellent for quick answers to simple questions and shorter comments/feedback, but tends to be distracting if people won’t respect your “busy”-sign. Due to the latter issue, I seldom keep IMs running unless I really have to. It’s a shame, really, since it’s such a great tool when used in a proper manner.

  14. We use IM (jabber) everyday, we host our own server, and to me it helps allot since I don’t have to get up from my desk and go ask things if I need to know. A few words and the problem is usually solved.

    And #4: If your IM pops a window that takes away focus you should seriously change your IM settings cause thats just bad UI design.

  15. November 18, 2005 by hostyle

    IM is probably the most useless communication medium I have ever come across. For some reason it encourages people to use TXTSPK, makes people forget that you might be busy or at work, and is highly invasive and distracting (as you already pointed out). I haven’t used IM in about 4 years - IRC is much better, and so easy to ignore.

    I have also noticed that emails I get from certain customers who have previously asked “could we contact you via IM?” often contain “u” instead of “you”, “4” instead of “for”, “2moro” instead of “tomorrow”, “l8r” instead of “later” and various other unhelpful TXTSPK abbreviations. SMS and IM are taking away from the English language and making it harder to communicate intelligently. I can already read English quite well, why should I have to take a few extra seconds to figure out what the latest inane abbreviation means?

  16. November 18, 2005 by Martin Smales

    IM rocks, its way better than email.

    Email = slow reply

    IM = fast reply

  17. I think it is great - but also has to be watched carefully for timewasting. I have set up a company with a friend of mine. We use skype to chat back and forth and send files whilst we are working. However I find if we are working together (physically in the same place!) then I set skype to ‘do not disturb’ - people get the message. Also it doesn’t pop up a notification. Suits me fine.

    To sum up, great potential for good - but careful or waffling will waste 4 hours!

    Re: what “hostyle” said.. I have to agree with you. I dislike the text speak as well. It’s ugly and kills the etyology of the language, which is something I have always loved (same goes for Americanisations of words!).

    And, Roger, you continue to offer an amazing site. Thank you so much.


  18. Instant messaging is great but ever since the new inclusion of the handwriting thing in msn all i do is draw willies all day and msn them to people. Therefore - its detrimental to productivity. (for me al least).

  19. IM is much like any other technology in that it’s all in how you use it. There are days when I use IM in a completely professional manner - getting immediate responses to requirement questions and such. Then there are days when I chat all day long with friends of mine about the Red Sox. Most of the time it’s somewhere in between.

    No technology, by itself, is a deteriment or a boon to productivity. It’s all in how you make use of the technology.

  20. As a lot have said it depends how you use it. For example, at work we use Mediasurface and their new Windows tool has messaging built in to enable logged chats between people when working on a particular project.

    At my old place it got banned solely on the basis they couldn’t keep track of what was going on in the conversations and decided it was a security risk.

    Personally I just use it at home for chatting to friends.

  21. I am almost incapable of using IM professionally. The problem is that I’m self-employed, but my friends work for crappy corporations. They’re always looking for ways to kill their time while at work, while I’m usually looking to get things done. It’s a conflict of interest for me, and that pretty much renders it useless…AIM, at least…

  22. If I didn’t use IM, my phone would ring off the hook with my wife on the other end. IM gives others the impression that I am being productive.

  23. Personally I love IM. It’s the easiest way for me to get feedback and help others with their designing. My alternative would be to post on a message board - where I will probably get people I don’t want posting. It’s fairly easy to make it so people who IM you for silly reasons don’t IM you anymore, so I see no reason why IM could hurt productivity.

    Also, IRC is much better then IM, but there are less people who use it actively.

  24. It’s hard to balance… It may help or cause trouble.

  25. Is true IM is so useful but takes your time. You can work and talking at the sametime. Especially if you have a person that demands a lot if you are there.

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