How Instant Messaging Can Make You More Productive


Web Worker Daily writer Leo Babauta suggested recently that the best way to be productive with instant messaging may be just not to use it. Yet many web workers find that instead of decreasing their productivity, instant messaging enhances it.

Researchers R. Kelly Garrett and James N. Danziger argue that far from making interruptions more frequent and disruptive, IM can be used to manage interruptions:

Based on the evidence, we argue that, contrary to prevailing concerns, IM generally does not contribute to higher levels of workplace interruption. While the technology makes certain types of interruption easier, it can also allow users greater control over when to communicate, with minimal disruption to their ongoing work, and can afford them the opportunity to create new patterns of communication that sustain necessary linkages while reducing off-task distractions.

Garrett and Danziger surveyed 1200 computer-using workers about their experience with workplace communications and communications tools. They found that IM users reported lower levels of interruption than those who didn’t use IM. The researchers conclude, “instant messaging in the workplace simultaneously promotes more frequent communications and reduces interruptions.”

How can instant messaging do that? By allowing for:

  • Quick exchanges that aren’t perceived as disruptive
  • Negotiations over when to communicate (as in “let’s talk on the phone in 15 minutes”)
  • Plausible deniability of availability allowing workers to ignore interruptions when they’re focused on something else
  • Personal communications with friends and family throughout the day that can replace phone calls that could be more disruptive

What’s your experience with instant messaging — is it a productivity help or hit?



Some comments:

– The study has one problem: it is based on user perceptions, not actual productivity measures. IMO, perception of IM is skewed to the positive by getting answers fast, which will boost your productivity at the cost of someone else’s.

– IM is interruptive. Plenty of studies show that.

– The difference versus walk-ups is that there is more control over timing and duration.
Also, multitasking conversations is possible, at the cost of deeper interruptiveness.

– The difference between modern email clients and modern IM clients as far as productivity is concerned is minimal. Both are about as interruptive. Lots of people reduce the “interruptiveness” of IM clients by making them more “emailish”, such as disabling alert mechanisms. Vice versa, people make email clients more “IM-ish” sometimes, such as POPing for email every three minutes in Outlook 2003, with the slider turned on.

I think that IM has a place in the workplace, but only if it is properly addressed with staff.

IMO, the nutshell version is that IM is useful for supporting live, collaborative, interactive and/or real-time work, but bad for anything else in the workplace. (And, all types of interruptions should be minimized!) For example, it’s good for meeting replacements, brainstorming sessions (if your IM supports more interactive whiteboards or video), inetractive project work, etc. Especially if it helps control loss of time due to travel, room setup, etc. It’s bad when you are in the middle of understanding/sorting/collating a big data report, etc.

Volodymyr Sergeyev

IM greatly helps me in everyday work. I may talk at same time with a lot of people. On the other hand – I stay working on project. My hands do one work – pressing buttons and my mind is concentrated at work. It’s nothing cost to me to ignore IM messages from noncoworkers. Their messages stay in queue until I will have spare time.

Michael fitzGerald

IM is more efficient than email.
For a developing subject a chat history gives a better view of who said what and when they said it rather than the tangled nested emails of Re:Re:Re……
Consolidated communication using voice/video, chat and file transfer has to be the most efficient – why doesn’t everybody use Skype

Leo Babauta

I should clarify: I actually said that, “if done right, IM can be a great tool for connecting with others, networking, getting things done quickly, and being productive.”

The other statement was an attempt at humor that fell flat. :)


I run a completely virtual staff. IM is the life blood of not stepping on each other when working the queue’s and is also a must to keep us all informed.

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