IM: Instant Mismanagement

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When I first saw my tech-hipster coworkers adopt IM as their preferred means of communicating at work, I explained my curmudgeonly refusal to hop on board thusly: "What the hell is so important that you have to talk to me 'instantly' about it?"

About six years and five IM accounts later, I am asking myself the same question, except more loudly, often more profanely, and now I am my own tormentor.

This morning I had seven IM conversations going on at the same time I was trying to write a quick blog post. Seven.

Don't get me wrong -- I probably started at least half of those exchanges myself. I am the worst at just popping off an IM the moment a random thought crosses my mind about any given issue.

This morning, I'm pretty sure I hassled another VP about when might be the best time to send out a promotional press release in the next week or so. Not an issue on which I needed an instant answer -- in fact, I still don't know. It's 4:17 p.m, and I'm good with that.

I used to be the slot editor at a daily newspaper; for those of you that don't know, that means five to six hours of intense effort, so intense that you literally put yourself behind deadline if you take a restroom break. Some mornings, I feel just as haggard getting through our busy, but manageable, routine here at IT Business Edge. It's not because I have more -- or even half as much -- work to do. It's because of all those IMs.

Back in the newsroom days, people knew not to bother you when you were on deadline. No such etiquette with IMs; the assumption simply is that if you are on, you are available. Sure, you can set a busy status, but what's the point in that? -- might as well log off.

Even worse, because you can send someone a request or question instantly, the assumption is that they will reply instantly. I suppose that's just human nature, but the medium just implies an urgency that so often -- at least when I'm the jerk on the other end of the connection -- is not there.

So, I am undertaking a two-week experiment to bring some sanity back to my IM existence at work. We've covered several helpful tips about how to manage the flood of e-mail everyone seems to be getting these days, but I haven't seen a lot of advice on reining in IM over-dependence. (Honestly, I don't get that much e-mail; I suspect it's because I IM so much.) I've come up with three tactics all on my lonesome:

  1. If I don't really need to know/act in the next hour, I'll send an e-mail. IM is great for production environments, and I can't imagine a better platform (outside of an enterprise-class workflow system) for asking somebody for a sales data point or a quick editing pass. But if my productivity is not going to be noticeably impeded if I don't get an answer in 60 minutes, I'll e-mail.
  2. If I need more than two data points or tasks, I'll send an e-mail. Basically, any request that requires more than, say, six mouse clicks is better served via an e-mail, unless it seriously runs afoul of guideline #1. And if I do need something that badly and quickly, I should probably pick up the phone. (Remember those?)
  3. I'm going to create a status message that reads "On Deadline, Please E-mail." Oh well, it can't hurt, and we'll see if anybody pays attention.

I didn't spend a ton of time dreaming up these three tricks, but I have a hunch that my IM pain could fairly be compared to sticking your hand in a flame: If it hurts, don't do it.


I'll report back on my experiment in two weeks. If any readers have suggestions, I'd be glad to hear them -- please.