OPINION

How instant messaging makes my life miserable

The pros and cons of always-on instant messaging

I recently read Is group chat making you sweat? — Signal v Noise, and it resonated with me so much that I re-read it specifically so that I could post and comment on the relevant sections.

Preface

I should comment that at my day job , we use Jabber for internal IM. This lets staff see who’s online, what their status is (available, busy, etc), and quickly get in touch. The great benefit is the ability to quickly communicate with a colleague who is working in a different city to you. The great price, I’m learning, is the fact that you are always vulnerable to interruption.

Comments and highlights below:

What we’ve learned is that group chat used sparingly in a few very specific situations makes a lot of sense. What makes a lot less sense is chat as the primary, default method of communication inside an organization. A slice, yes. The whole pie, no. All sorts of eventual bad happens when a company begins thinking one-line-at-a-time most of the time.

​Use the appropriate tools for the job.

We’ve also seen strong evidence that the method and manner in which you choose to communicate has a major influence on how people feel at work. Frazzled, exhausted, and anxious? Or calm, cool, and collected? These aren’t just states of mind, they are conditions caused by the kinds of tools we use, and the kinds of behaviors those tools encourage.

I can personally certainly attest to the anxiety and fragmentation caused by the ever-present possibility that I’ll be interrupted at work at any moment by IM or phone.

Talking on the phone (even hands free) while driving is more dangerous than talking to a passenger while driving. A passenger can sense the context - they can see the road, your body language, and can pause the conversation or even direct your attention to a danger. Likewise, a colleague in the same room as you is aware of your distraction, or can see that you’re taking a phone call. Someone on the remote end of an IM window has no idea of how busy, distracted or stressed you are, and so likely their message brings more stress and distraction.

What IM is good for

Group chat is great for…

  1. Hashing things out quickly. When you need to toss an idea back and forth between a few people, there’s nothing better than chat. Toss in some words, drag in a picture, get some quick feedback, and move on (just get out quick before you get sucked back in).

Actually, in my experience, not at all. It’s much faster to “hash things out” on the phone or a video call than it is to take turns typing into a text interface. And the results are of a much higher quality.

there’s a crisis that truly demands a group’s immediate attention.

Agreed, IM (or group text, in the case of emergencies) is good for getting lots of attention, quickly. We use an “incident management” chat room to deal with inflight incidents. This lets staff take phone calls and deal with issues, but keeps everyone working on the incident up-to-date. It also provides a useful history of what was done, when, and by whom, which later informs our post-incident analysis.

  1. A sense of belonging. This is particularly important for people who work remotely. Having a chat room where you can just say good morning, let people know you’re out for lunch, and generally just feel part of something is a powerful counter to cabin fever.

I agree that’s a benefit of a group chat. One-on-one IMs, not-so-much.

What IM is bad for

  1. An ASAP culture. Now! At its very core, group chat and real-time communication is all about now. That’s why in some select circumstances it really shines. But chat conditions us to believe everything’s worth discussing quickly right now, except that hardly anything is. Turns out, very few things require ASAP attention. Further, ASAP is inflationary — it devalues any request that doesn’t say ASAP. Before you know it, the only way to get anything done is by throwing it in front of people and asking for their immediate feedback. It’s like you’re constantly tapping everyone’s shoulder — or pulling on everyone’s shirt — to get them to stop what they’re doing and turn around to address what’s on your mind. It’s not a sustainable practice.

This is my biggest issue with IM. Simply because we have the means to reach out and grab the attention of our colleagues, we feel that we’re entitled to. In fact, we are incentivised to do so, because we are often rewarded with a quick response. Why spend the effort framing your question / request in an email, and then waiting for a response, when you could IM it and have a response almost instantly? As a result, everything becomes urgent and our ability to focus on prioritised, planned, thoughtful tasks is impaired.

… black hole for your attention — constantly pulling your gaze, constantly chipping away at your focus. Playing whack-a-mole with unread indicators across dozens of rooms/channels causes manic context-shifting. Context-shifting robs you of uninterrupted stretches of time to concentrate on the work you’re supposed to be doing. Further, like your muscles remember repetitive tasks (muscle memory), your mind does too — and jumping around rapidly between conversations all day creates “attention residue” that makes it hard to clear your mind of the previous conversation before starting the next conversation.

​I have this problem. Even if I (in desparation) shut down IM, my mind is still fragmented and distracted by all the context-shifting.

An inability to review and reference later. Ever try to go back and find an important conversation in a chat room or channel?

I find this annoying. I use Adium on OSX, which keeps chat history, and has an average search interface, has an UI quirk which means:

  1. Logs are kept by conversation (tab open/closed), not by date. Thus, if I have Adium open from Mon-Fri, and a tab for my chat with my colleague (we both go online/offline during the week) when I review my history, the entire chat content for the week shows up under a single day, without dates in the time stamps.
  2. Now I have to manually scroll through a week’s worth of chat logs to find out what I said to my colleague on Tuesday vs Wednesday.

It’s very hard to say “This conversation is about this document” because that document ultimately lives somewhere else, and the conversation is detached from the original source material. When you look at the document later, it’s unclear if there was a conversation about this document because the conversation lives elsewhere.

​Frequently I’ve had the conversation with someone about which medium I we discussed something in. Was it in IM or was it an email? We then waste time searching for the details of the conversation. (see above for searching issues in Adium!)

That’s called presence, and it’s worse than you might expect. It’s professional pressure to stay logged into chat. It’s saying “if you aren’t green, you aren’t at work”. Quitting chat suggests you aren’t part of the group.

​I feel this at work, rightly or wrongly. If you’re not online, you’re not available to your colleagues, so you’re not fulfilling your job requirements. Part of your role is to be reachable whenever we need you, but the tools don’t provide enough filtering about who can reach you when they need you. My only recourse is to ignore incoming communications, but this doesn’t remove the cognitive load, since I still need to receive the message and then ignore it.

What should we do differently?

I believe attention is one of your most precious resources. If something else controls my attention, that something else controls what I’m capable of.

We should take steps to safe-guard our attention.

What’s even more interesting is that 1-on-1, direct messaging/texting is a lot like email — it’s often used asynchronously. You leave something for someone else and you can be pretty sure they’ll see it when they get back to it.

​So in fairness, most of this article is about group chat, as opposed to 1-on-1. I still personally find it frustrating to have to respond to so much input in realtime, when it could quite reasonably be asynchronous. On the flip side however, I enjoy the ability to reach out and contact team members when I’m the one would would benefit from an immediate answer.

If it’s important, slow down. If it’s an important conversation, it shouldn’t happen in the chat room. Chat should be about quick, ephemeral things. Important topics need time, traction, and separation from the rest of the chatter.

​Yes. If IM is for the quick and transient, then it shouldn’t be for the careful and important. Reserve these for careful emails or actual voice/video calls.

Tell people to “write it up” instead. Stuck in a chat that’s going on way too long? Talking a lot but not making progress? Stop the conversation and ask someone to “write it up” — take it to long-form, make it asynchronous. Let someone make a complete point all at once and then give people time to absorb it and respond in kind, over time.

​I employed this technique recently in response to an open-ended question I received via IM. It forced the sender to think more carefully about the question (instead of having me tease it out of them), and in the end resulted in a much better outcome for us both.

Set expectations that it’s OK to be unavailable. If you can turn off presence, turn it off. If you can’t, make sure people understand that it’s OK to be unavailable. That turning off chat — quitting, closing, snoozing, whatever — should be perfectly acceptable. If someone’s not available it should signal that they’re working, not taking a break.

This last sentence summarizes how I current feel about IM. I’d like to change the default expectation that if you’re “clocked in”, you’re on IM.

There are lots of managers out there who love group chat because they can pop-in-and-out quickly and speak to many people at once, but there are a lot of employees out there sweating all day long trying to keep up appearances of being involved but knowing they have actual work to do. They can’t stop thinking about how they’re going to have to work late. They can’t stop thinking about how the constant distractions during the week days means that Sunday night now belongs to their job. It’s absolutely a real problem.

This contributes to my own anxiety about work. Every interruption, ever refocus means that in order to meet my obligations and internal (and external) expectations, I’m going to have to work late and give up my evenings. Which in turn, means I’m working more than I should, and having less personal time than I should, and as a result every unsolicited communication is at first received negatively by default.


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