Why I Don’t Like Instant Messaging

I’m beginning to despise instant messaging platforms.

While I used to consider them a wonderful productivity tool, the last year has convinced me that they’re just another time-suck.

I’ll defend my point with an analogy.

When I managed a software development team, one of my most important jobs was to prevent interruptions. You see, interruptions kill productivity. The cost of interrupting a developer is quite high.

As Derek Johnson explained quite well in his article for The Tomorrow Lab, development is a very cerebral task. It typically takes 10 to 15 minutes for a developer to get back on track after being interrupted with a phone call, drive-by, instant message conversation, etc.

Because my own development team was always on a tight schedule, interruptions often jeopardized our ability to deliver on time.

By using the example of an arcade game, Georgetown University professor (and the man who coined the term “FOMO”) Cal Newport showed that task switching “reduces cognitive performance.”

How does this apply to authors?

Writing at its core is a creative process. And once you get into it, into flow, you need to keep writing until the river of words slows to a trickle.

That’s why writing coaches recommend you use any number of methods to avoid interruptions, such as writing when nobody’s home, using headphones, disabling Facebook, silencing your phone, etc.

Being able to work without distraction isn’t just important for writers and developers. It’s important for everyone engaged in knowledge work. Cal Newport makes a convincing argument with his new book Deep Work that “focus is the new I.Q. in the knowledge economy.”

If you work in a traditional corporate environment, this might resonate with you. How many times have you been rushing to meet a deadline when an IM pops up and throws you off?

I’ve personally consulted at organizations where workers were actually required to “be available by instant messenger.”

Unfortunately, I think it’s going to take a few more years before the message that this type of “always on, always available” practice is harming productivity and, by extension, the bottom line.

My recommendation is to do whatever you can to protect your deep work time. If you work a traditional job, do so within the parameters of your office rules, of course. Set your instant messenger on “do not disturb” during periods of deep work, or take a walk outside for more thoughtful exercises.

What do you think? Is “always on, always available” good or bad?

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