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How to Use IM Without Ruining Your Productivity

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In a previous post about communication tools, WWD reader Melanie made an accurate observation that having an instant messaging client open while you’re working is like having the phone ring constantly.  Despite this, IM is useful for instantaneous back-and-forth exchanges with clients.

How can we reconcile its usefulness as a communication tool with the fact that it can be downright annoying?

Using one interface

Having MSN messenger, Yahoo!Messenger, and GTalk open all at the same time can be a bit confusing, or even a complete eyesore (as you can see from the image below).  If you don’t like having too many windows open, you’ll benefit from having just one interface for all your IM accounts.  Programs such as Trillian, Pidgin, and Miranda accomplish this simply.  The one-interface approach can also make archiving conversations much easier.

Tweak your IM client’s settings

Being available via instant messaging is like having the phone ring constantly – just like Melanie said – but only if you don’t change your IM client’s settings.  Find the settings or options menu of your chosen IM program and be ruthless about how you’re notified of incoming messages.  This, of course, will depend on your own preferences.  Personally, I prefer to have no audio notifications, no blinking, and incoming messages don’t launch on top of other windows.  If I want to check for IM messages, I just glance at the Windows taskbar when I welcome such distractions.  But that approach is just for me.  Find what works for you.

One other thing I do is customize my visibility.  Many IM programs will allow you to be “invisible” to different contacts or contact groups when you come online.   You can also be invisible to clients who rarely IM you anyway, and leave yourself visible for a few clients whose projects are more urgent.  Taking advantage of your visibility settings can also come in handy if you use the same IM accounts for both personal and business contacts.

Know your sacred working hours

There are some online tasks you can do that allow for a bit of distraction, such as writing a short email to your mom, commenting on other blogs, or reading your feeds.  There are also tasks that require nothing less than your full attention, especially when you’re doing The Work.  You know, the thing you are mostly paid to do.  It’s often the descriptive text under your name on your business card.

When you’re doing The Work, the rule is simple: don’t be available for IM.  Block out your working hours and let your clients know about it.  It’s likely that they’ll appreciate that you’re taking their projects seriously enough to block out sacred time for them.

Having maximum IM hours

It’s also very important to let clients know that they have a maximum number IM consultation hours with you.  Since I have few clients who need me for back and forth IM, I put a maximum of 4 hours a week for clients with heavy projects (complete web design and web content) and 2 hours a week for clients with lighter projects.

The funny thing is, when I implemented these maximum hours, the clients who used to take up several hours of my day chatting with me changed their behavior.  They didn’t even reach their weekly limit.  In fact, they seemed to have a preference for email when they realized how non-urgent most of their requests were in the first place.  I guess putting a limit in place allowed them to also prioritize their time as much as I did mine.  I was very satisfied with how things changed because of this system that I added a clause for the maximum IM hours in my new contracts, so that clients are aware of it in the beginning.

Getting someone else to do the talking

If you happen to be a web working rockstar and you really can’t handle all the IM requests, you can hire someone else to do it.  Of course, this option is complex and requires a lot of time, money, and effort to implement.  Plus, your clients might not welcome the idea of talking to someone else, especially if they’re so used to communicating with you.  Consider this method only when you’re more of a big business owner rather than a freelancer.

Instant messaging doesn’t have to be a pain, you just need to know how to use it well within your working style.  After all, we should adjust our web working tools to fit into our own work processes, and not the other way around.

Do you have any IM tips and tricks?  What do you do to prevent it from interfering with your workflow?

Photo Credit: Image by Celine Roque

25 Responses to “How to Use IM Without Ruining Your Productivity”

  1. One tip for custom invisibility on gtalk, is to block a person. the blocked id stays in your settings, so its not like you’ll lose it. but that’s closest to being invisible to certain ppl when you need. though i believe the gmail chat has the custom invisibility feature already.

  2. mwildam

    IM can be very efficient if you need important bi-directional communication. If there is some problem to be discussed using e-mail (or forums or other collaboration web-applications) can be very inefficient because of the response times. My experience with IM is either that missunderstandings are discovered faster and save you from a lot of unnecessary writing.

    > Many IM programs will allow you to be
    > “invisible” to different contacts or
    > contact groups when you come online.”

    Managing status for different groups can have unproductive side effects as you have to juggle with status setting. I prefer a single status which I also use to indicate power hour for myself and for my collegues.

    > Having maximum IM hours

    I do use IM in general only if really needed – so I use it only where it makes a real difference and is an advantage in the situation. There is also education/introduction needed to let your clients (especially those who often IM you) know in which cases you want to use IM and in what cases it should be avoided. They understand and so I do not have the problem that I get disturbed too much by IM.

  3. I would agree that it is better not to log in at all. All measures turn out to be not very effective.
    If you need to communicate with the client concerning the product or service it is better to use on-line management service, e.g. It allows to talk to a client concerning each project or task. The talk in this case is very efficient and just to the point.

  4. “Many IM programs will allow you to be “invisible” to different contacts or contact groups when you come online”

    Which ones?? as far as I Know only yahoo does that. unfortunatly no one I know uses yahoo messinger.

  5. I leave my “available” status on at all times. This provides me the opportunity to ignore any particular IM (since people are never quite sure if I’m really there or not). Unfortunately, when I work at the office this technique doesn’t work so well–since they can see me at my desk. In those cases I simply feign unconsciousness. :-)

  6. Great post! For better or for worse, I don’t even give out my IM to clients (I am a translator working out of Las Vegas), so all my IMs (I use Trillian) are of personal nature, which is, of course, distracting, but I can feel free to ignore them when I am super busy, as they are not from a client. I like your tip about changing the visibility settings, I might try that. Many times, an IM is actually a welcome distraction for me, analogous to the trip to the water cooler which is no longer necessary now that I work for myself!

  7. I tried to use IM effectively. First I limited IM usage to work-ralted topics only. Then I stopped using all protocols except Jabber (either GoogleTalk or local Jabber servers). Then I limited it to only a few hours per week. Even with all those measures, IM usage remained extremely unproductive.
    So now I’m in the process of quitting IM altogether. Replaced it with Twitter and social networks’ inner messages.