The best way to be productive with instant messaging (or chat)? Don’t do it.
Seriously, IM can take up your entire day if you let it. Those who stay away from it can get a lot more done.
However, if done right, IM can be a great tool for connecting with others, networking, getting things done quickly, and being productive. I’ve been experimenting with different methods recently, and I’d like to share some of the best tips.
1. Limit your time. If you do IM all day long, it’ll be a constant interruption. If you find that people are constantly pinging you, put your status as “busy”. It’s best to have a certain time of day when you make yourself available for IM … and let your friends know this as well, so they can reach you at that time if needed. I suggest an hour a day.
2. Have a purpose. Unless you have time to kill, don’t chat just to chat. Start a chat session with someone if you have a purpose in mind (that purpose could be just to check in with a friend you haven’t talked to in awhile, but I suggest you limit these kinds of chat). If you know your purpose, you can avoid getting sidetracked and avoid idle talk.
3. Get to the point. While it may seem friendlier to start out by asking about the person’s day, and their family, and their job, and their cat … it wastes a lot of time if you do this many times a day. Instead, say hi, but then get straight to the point … ask a question, state a proposal, ask a favor, etc. To limit small talk from others, immediately ask them, “What can I do for you today?” or something along those lines that prompts them to get to the point.
4. Be concise. While it’s important to be concise in email, in IM it’s even more important. Sure, you’re in the moment, typing away, and don’t have time to edit, but if you’re verbose in chat, people will stop wanting to talk to you.
5. Know when to use IM. There are times when IM is best, when email is best, when the phone is best, etc. Get to know when IM is the best way to communicate. Most times, it’s not, but if you just need a quick response, or if there will be many back-and-forth emails (more than twice), use chat.
6. Stay with one chat service. I know people who jump from one chat service to another, going back and forth. That’s way too much trouble, and stressful. I know others who use Gaim and the like, so they can chat with many many people on multiple services. Better, but still too overloaded. If you can help it, stick with one service that your key friends are on. If not, go with an all-in-one service like Gaim (now known as Pidgin).
7. Limit your friends. Even if you can have a million friends on IM (especially if you combine services), that doesn’t mean you should. I recommend sticking to just a core group of friends you need or want to chat with on a daily basis. Trim your friends list down to those who need to be on there.
8. Block unproductive friends. This tip may sound harsh, but there are many people who just want to chat with you all the time, with no real purpose. These are not good chat friends — they might be good friends in real life, but they waste your time on chat. Block them (if you need to, send them a polite message explaining that you’re cutting back on using chat because you’re trying to get more done).
9. Respect others’ time. Conversely, you don’t want to be a chat friend who wastes your friends’ time. Realize that your friends are likely to be busy people (who isn’t?) and if you chat with them, keep it brief and show that you are considerate of their time.
10. Be friendly. On the other hand, being brief and respecting others’ time doesn’t mean you have to be rude. Chat is a particularly social medium (as opposed to email), and as such, you need to be at least a little friendly, especially if you’re friends with the person. Don’t eschew all greetings and politeness, but don’t overdo it either.
11. Say thank you or congrats. Sometimes, a great way to use chat is just to get in touch with someone to say thank you for something they’ve done for you, or to congratulate them on something that they’ve done or that has happened to them. It’s a fast way to show you care, and to stay in touch. And people appreciate a kind word now and then.
12. Bounce ideas off people. One of the best and most productive ways to use chat. Got an idea? Bounce it off a friend to get instant feedback. Much better than implementing the idea and getting the feedback afterwards.
13. Ask for quick favors. Another productive use of chat … need something real quick? Just ask.
14. Switch to email. If chat turns into a discussion that would be better if you could give it some thought, take the discussion to email. Tell the person you’d like to think about it, and that you’ll email them. Be sure to follow through!
15. Use group chat. If you need to discuss something with a group of people, where questions are asked, ideas are bounced off everyone in the group, etc … consider using a group chat instead. See tips on using group chat.
16. End it quickly. Once you’re done with what you came to do (your purpose), don’t dilly dally. Thank the person, let them know you need to go (no reason is necessary), and end it.
17. Think action. Chat can devolve into a lot of small talk if you aren’t clear on what you’re talking about. Crystallize your conversation by focusing on actions … what you need to do, what you’d like the other person to do, what actions are next, after the chat is over.