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Instant Messaging: An Interruption? Or A Better Way Of Interrupting?

from the depends-on-who-you-ask dept

There are plenty of people who absolutely dislike instant messaging, claiming that it’s distracting and tends to interrupt other important work. However, a new study suggests otherwise, noting that instant messaging conversations may happen more often, but they tend to be quicker and more to the point than other types of interruptions. Thus, if someone can get the useful info they need via IM, it’s likely to take a lot less time and be much less of an interruption than a phone call or a personal visit. So, before condemning instant messaging, perhaps think of how many phone calls or annoying visits it’s helped keep away. The real trick, honestly, is for people to learn to use instant messaging in asynchronous ways: that is, if you’re really busy working on something else, ignore the flashing window until you have an opening and can deal with it.

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Comments on “Instant Messaging: An Interruption? Or A Better Way Of Interrupting?”

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Kirby (profile) says:

Depends on the job

As a computer programmer, I tend to hate it. Programming is inherently about juggling a dozen or so ideas at once, and losing focus can just be devastating. A 2 minute interruption – whether it’s phone or IM or in person – can realistically cost a half-hour of productivity. Or worse, cause you to forget things and introduce bugs. This is why good programmers like to work from home – not so they can slack off, but so they can enter the zone and not be disturbed. It’s the only way to do actually hard work.

Not everything I do requires the hyper focus, of course, and IM is just fine if I’m writing docs or doing research or even for most bug fixing. And it’s hard to really convey to someone who hasn’t ever done a serious coding project exactly what’s going on when you’re getting things done. It’s not entirely unlike writing a term paper, where you’re thinking, “I’ve got to make sure and support this claim in the next section, come back and make this part flow later, I know there’s a good quote to add here…” only more so. You end up holding large portions of code flow in your head that aren’t yet written, necessary to see where you’re going, and this tends to be very hard to sustain while doing something else. So, the IM and Email have to go off, phone off the hook. Door shut would be excellent, if you’re lucky enough to not be in a cube.

Very few jobs are like this, and in fact most days my job isn’t like this, but when it is, I’m really not kidding. And so few non-programmers I’ve worked with, even my own managers, understand this. The correct way to deal with this is “Hey, come get me when you have a minute. This is (urgent|important|somewhat important|by the end of the day|).” And then leave. There _are_ natural breaks, when the mental stack gets emptied out and it’s no big deal to emerge intact, and usually within half an hour.

I imagine there are other jobs that work like this, with the need for periods of intense concentration. A lot of scientists are probably familiar with this.

TheDock22 says:

Re: Depends on the job

Are you kidding me? That is silly to say that your job is so important you must isolate yourself from other people in order to do it. Distractions happen. Deal will them or find a new profession. Good business is about the art of communication and that is important in EVERY job.

As far as IMs go, I agree. The only thing I despise about IMs are the buzz feature. Do away with that and I would rather IM than talk on the phone for quick conversations.

Luke (user link) says:

Re: Re: Depends on the job

TheDock22 then I’d be willing to say your job doesn’t require the amount of concentration akin to programming.

I’m not a programmer, but I found than when doing programmign assignments/projects in college that I’d need a decent amount of time uninterrupted to be able to make sure all of my thoughts came out unhindered into the coding. I can hold a lot of stuff in my mind, but if you introduce something to me at a bad spot then I’ll lose whatever train of thought I had.

This follows into lots of other things. Namily writing (which is very similar to programming) a technical or legal document. You have to be able to focus on the detail and the overal structure of the document while creating it. 75% of the time it doesn’t require that “level” of concentration, but when I’m in the middle of a paragraph that requires me to synthesize a response based on data reviewed over the last 2 days then your interuption is a major set back.

You’re right good business is about the “art” of communication. Part of art is knowing just how much white space is needed so as not to distract from all of the involved pieces.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Depends on the job

Surely you must be joking ,dock22.I am a ( woman ) programmer and have always been able to multitask but simply found that quality of tasks which require concentration suffered when i was interrupted – yes, even by an IM. I can relate to the very specific examples mentioned by Kirby – its not about how important or grandiose the job is , just the nature of the work…..

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Depends on the job

First off, I applaud your ability to handle multiple tasks and stimuli at the same time, it’s a rare and highly usefull ability.

however, because it is a RARE abiltiy, it’s unrealistic to apply the standards of the level of distraction someone like you can handle to everyone else. most people need an uniterrupted period of focus to perform cognitively intensive creative tasks (i.e. computer programming) and even even EXTREAMLY brief (few seconds) interruptions to this focus period can be very costly, possibly adding an hour or more to the completion time.

Saying this should be dealt with by people just willing themselves not to be distracted isn’t a workable solution.

finally, can we please keep the ‘women are from mars, men are from venus’ misogynist/misandrist comments to ourselves please? saying “I can do blah blah blah so freaking well because I’m a man/woman/hermaphrodite” is frankly just crass and inflamatory, especially when it’s off-topic

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Depends on the job

I think a key point, though, is that IM doesn’t have to be invasive. Sometimes it is, with windows popping up and flashing and sounds and stuff, but that’s all just UI and can be done away with. A phone call will always interrupt, and face-to-face meetings can be really inefficient. Getting and returning IMs, when you can get the asynchronicity down, lends itself a lot better to maintaining concentration.

Alimas says:

Re: Re: Depends on the job

Its not that the job is so important, its that the job doesn’t require lots of social contact to get completed.
In my job I do a lot of data entry, unless someone made a mistake or reference I can’t understand, I don’t generally need to talk to anyone to get my work done. The rest of the office has more socially involved work and I spend the majority of my time in my cubicle forgetting everyone else is their while I get my work done. (today I am ahead of the curve on the workload)
Ironically, it is the reason I like IMs so much. Like the blog post says “quicker and more to the point”. I need to talk to someone I can get it done faster than other means, even going and finding them to talk.

snowburn14 says:

Re: Re: Depends on the job

Seems to me, shutting distractions out IS dealing with them. I agree with Kirby’s attitude toward interruptions, though personally I think it’s more the rule than the exception as far as how many occupations involve times where a five minute interruption costs half an hour (or more) of productivity. The only difference your particular job makes is really the degree to which you can get away with ignoring people, or more to the point, how important what you’re working on is relative to the reason someone would interrupt you.
However, while I don’t really use IM clients anymore, I’ve always found they can be quite a time saver in the long run, if you treat them as a little less “instant” than they traditionally are. When I’m actually trying to get something done, I treat IMs the way I treat emails – I get to them when I’m no longer in the middle of something, unless there’s reason to think it pertains specifically to the task at hand. So unlike drop-ins or, for the most part, phone calls, IMs and emails let you keep your focus where it belongs until those “natural breaks” come along, without seeming exceptionally rude. Provided of course you have the self-discipline to ignore them when you should, and you adjust your settings so they’re as unobtrusive as possible.
As far as “the art of communication” goes, since when does communication mean you have to respond to someone immediately? Part of effective communication is (or should be) knowing that the person with whom you would like to communicate doesn’t always have time to talk to you on YOUR schedule.
Of course, if you’re the guy’s boss, he might want to make time every now and then or he’ll find himself without that pesky job to get in the way of a nice chat 😉

Colonel Nikolai (user link) says:

Re: Re: Programming and Working from Home

I write software for a living, too. And I agree with you about the art of communication. In 15 years of experience, I find that teams that work face to face 40 hours a week deliver more valuable functionality sooner and therefore at less cost than “virtual” teams where programmers insist on “being alone to concentrate on hard things”.

The reason is simple: there are fewer barriers to communication face to face. People tend to focus on winning as a team and that’s reflected in the code. Simpler code that’s solves immediate need, not complex frameworks where someone off in their ivory tower codes castles in the air.

Troy (profile) says:

Re: Depends on the job

Um, setting or preferences anyone? I am a software developer for a company that makes custom software for the advertising and cable industries and all of us developers use IM to stay connected. I set my status to busy/away when I don’t want bothered and I turn the sound settings off. You can also turn off the pop-up option on most IMs.

Learn to use the tools properly instead of complaining about them. I bet you have your development software tweaked to make your job easier.

hyphen (user link) says:

Re: Re:

My thoughts exactly! We use an enterprise instant messaging solution at work. It makes collaborating with my team members at other facilities seamless. My team members are scattered over 30 locations in 20 different states. If they don’t want to be bothered they set their status to……. DO NOT DISTURB….. which will prevent me from sending them a message. Novel concept I know.

Mike says:

If you don't understand don't pretend you do..

I am also a coder by profession, and I could not agree more with Kirby. When I’m coding at work, I need to concentrate, so I’ll turn my phone off and do my best to ignore everything else by shutting the door etc..

I’m sure you have read the odd book right Dock? Now imagine enjoying a wonderful.. ah Stephen King novel and every 8 minutes or so your phone goes off or a co-worker 10 feet away from you starts up random conversations.

When I’m doing graphic work, interface design, most debugging etc.. no worries. But when I’m writing new code of any importance with any complexity the odd interruption can cripple a work day.

Currently I’m writing a new Invoice and Quality control system, after days of meetings, I quite bluntly told my boss to “leave me alone for a couple weeks”, and he knows excactly what I mean.

Communication comes in many forms, and being unavailable for anything but the most critical of interruptions is NOT a lack of communication by any means. If I communicate to you that I need to concentrate for a few hours and you fail to understand my message, well that is your lack of communication skills not mine.

chris (profile) says:

text is better for multitasking but...

when i was a lead on a helpdesk i would carry on 5 or more conversations at once via IM, often with agents that needed help but didn’t want to put their call on hold.

sms is the same way. you can carry on several conversations at once or in sequence because of the nature of text vs. the nature of voice.

on the flipside, there is no tone of voice in text, so subtleties like sarcasm are often lost in translation. if you need an answer to a yes/no question, then im/sms is awesome.

also, it’s much easier to log text communication than it is to log voice communication. most im clients have a mechanism for logging and there is always good old copy and paste. logged text has all of the tone of voice issues inherent with all text communication plus the added bonus of being an essentially permanent record. how many scandals have been made public over the years thanks to leaked emails and IM’s?

granted, you can record a phone call as well, but it’s tougher to do and tougher to edit.

Mike says:


Off is a feature on my phone. As far as tweaking my IDE to do my job better, no I reinstall the IDE each time I need to use it, avoid copy/paste under every circumstance, and forget loops, I’ll type that shit out BY HAND!! lol

Anyway, ya I text message like crazy at times, but believe it or not a distraction is distracting to some people. If you can read a book and watch TV at the same time and get the full benefit of both, well I envy you.

Pro says:


IM has actually become my preferred method of communication. As the original poster mentioned, it’s asynchronous – thus, if my wife wants to know what I want for dinner, I can answer her when I feel like it. A phone call is almost a rude thing, if you think about it. And when someone leaves me voicemail to tell me they called – oh boy – watch out.

Abdul Koroma says:

IM: The Bane of The WorkPlace???

I’ve to agree with you that IM is a better form of interruptions than phonecall or private visit. I’ve just been using IM for the past couple of weeks and to me it looks fantastic as it eliminates all the irritating talking and walking at the office. Some though may think otherwise but i think IM is the lesser of two evils contrary to the opinions express on this blog:

Myles says:

Depends on the job

I fully support what Kirby said as well as know _many_ other programmers that function this exact same way. It is very true, you cannot just leave while in the process of coding and come back. The mental stack is volatile and is frequently flushed inadvertently. Distractions will only compound this problem.

When I code I often times have some type of background noise such as relaxing music or, if I’m up to it, hard rock. When you literally have one hundred lines, or more, of code in your head and you have the direction you need to go it is not possible to just write this down and pick up where you left off. Many times you will end up writing sloppy code this way and introducing many more bugs than previously may have happened.

Programming is a very different position than many of my other careers I have had. It is also much more intensive than many others that I know the inner-workings of.

Dock, people work differently. This must be accepted, otherwise communication will never fully occur.

Pass by value is VERY different than pass by reference.

Rose M. Welch says:

We used to...

…use the telephone to call each other every half an hour or so bout inventory, computer issues, policy questions, customer details, etc. (Our jewelry store has two locations.) But now we just IM back and forth.

It’s fast, it’s easy, it opens a phone line, our long-distance bill is SOOOOO much less, and we don’t have to drop everything to answer the telephone.

We can simply wait until we’re done helping our customers/talking with vendors on the now-free telephone/dealing with e-mail/dealing with customer details/pricing and organzing inventory/etc…

We love IM.

And when it’s super OMG!!!!!!11!!!!!eleventy-one!!!!!!!! important, we can still pick up the telephone and call.

Rose M. Welch says:

Re: We used to...

Also, it eliminates all of the counter-productive time-consuming small talk…

‘Hey, how are y’all? Staying busy? Yeah, us, too. Really? Well, that’s interesting… Look, I’m calling about ; do you know anything about that? Okay, thanks… Yeah, I got it… Yeah, totally, I’ll call back if I have any questions… Oh, hahah, yeah, that’s funny… Well, okay I’ve got to… No, really, there’s a customer… Yes, I understand but I have to go… Okay, bye.’.

I hate that.

Let me repeat.

We love IM.

another prorammer says:

I’m also a programmer/analyst. But I also help with software and business processes issues as they occur. There is a procedure in place to have people call the help desk and then have a ticket forwarded to us. However, many people try to circumvent the process. I have to turn the thing off. I work for a multi-national Fortune 500 company. So, there are hundreds of people who use the applications that I support. As soon as people see I’m on line, I get bombarded with questions and with people who want to share their screen with me because they have a question about the app. On the one hand, I feel flattered that they want me to look at their issue, so they skip the help desk. The problem is, that I also have lots and lots of development work to do, with deadlines and people who will be asking me questions if I miss them. I used to put in long nights so I could get my development done. But frankly I burnt out. I have told my boss that if he wants me keep the IM on, he’ll have to be OK with me missing project deadlines. He sees the point. Unfortunately, many of the REMFs in upper management don’t. But my boss is pretty good about standing up for me on this one. He actually knows what’s going on in the trenches.

Skeptical says:

Some of the arguments I hear from people who say they have no problems multi-tasking, remind me of what I hear from people who say that they can text and drive without any problems. Scientists have shown that we really process one thread of thought at the time. Even most computers that multi-task, don’t really multi-task. So are you really multi-tasking or are you fooling yourself into thinking you do? When you have too many things going on at the same time, something’s gotta give (i.e. quality, accuracy, appropriateness of action taken, etc.).

Be reasonable says:

Depends on the job

I guess TheDock22 doesn’t get it. Nobody it’s saying that you need to keep your interruptions to a minimum because your job is the most important job in the world. It’s just that most people need to concentrate to do certain things, whether it is mental or physical, writing code or writing a novel, doing surgery or fixing the sink. I would ask TheDock22 to try this: Next time you need to have the plumber come to your house, keep interrupting him every two or three minutes. Then tell us how it went. Specially, after you get the bill. You probably wouldn’t do it to him because it would cost you. But you are perfectly OK with doing it to another person for free. How about a little respect??!!

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