Yesterday, partly by chance, and later by design, I found that I didn’t log into an IM client for nearly the entire day. No Jabber, no Yahoo, no Windows Live or whatever they are calling it now — just me, alone with my machine.
And it was everything that I thought it would be.
Now let me just tell you what a typical day is like for me on IM. I have, quite easily, well over 100 people on my IM client. A small percentage of these are personal (friends and family), but without a doubt, the majority are business related. During a typical work day, I’d say 70 of them or so are online and working in front of a computer. What that means is that quite regularly I’ll get IM messages while working. In fact, it’s rather rare that I go more than 5 or 10 minutes without someone pinging me about something, and the norm that I have multiple conversations going at any one time.
Unfortunately, my job involves heavy use of my brain most of the time. Writing software is actually very mentally challenging since you basically have to plan out the entire solution to a problem before you really get started. Normally, I can put the whole solution in my head for a few days or a few weeks if I’m not interrupted, and manage to pretty much implement it as planned. However, every time I get an IM that requires that I pull myself away from my machine for a long enough time, I find it’s difficult to get back, mentally, to where I was before. If it happens too often, pretty soon you find that at the end of the day, you didn’t really get much accomplished.
I didn’t go into work planning to stay off my IM client, but somehow around 2pm I realized I had been stuck in meetings for most of the morning, and had been helping others for some of the afternoon. So at that point, I basically decided to see what would happen if I didn’t log in the rest of the day. I told my idea to a manager at work, and they sounded interested to see what would happen too.
Now, screwing over my fellow friends and colleagues isn’t what I intented to do — everyone has my email and my cell phone number at work, and everyone knows where I sit, so I figured if anything was really important, they’d use one of the means available or simply walk over and talk to me.
What did I think would happen? Well, I had expected maybe a marginal increase in traffic around my desk during the day. I had thought some people would have problems and ultimately come to my desk to get some advice or to talk about them, and perhaps send me an email with a question. However, for the most part, the traffic to my desk was pretty ordinary.
Extra emails? Not really. Just the standard ones I normally get during a day. However, when I got home at night and finally logged in, there were about 30 messages waiting from me from various people, mostly idle chit chat and a bunch of people trying to get me to solve some problems for them.
Funny thing is that nobody really came to my desk to ask me anything, and nobody sent me emails about what they were IMing about. So I can only conclude that they a) realized I wasn’t around and attempted to solve the problem themselves, b) what they were asking wasn’t really important in the first place, or c) they just gave up and did nothing. I suspect that it was probably some combination of a) and b).
It’s amazing the importance some people seem to place on being able to get in touch with you right away. Out in Ottawa, our managers approached us and asked us to wear pagers during the night in case there were problems with the manufacturing lines. We politely said “shove that idea as far up your ass as it will go,” a sentiment they didn’t really understand since, well, we’d get paid if we’d get called. However, I really don’t want to be on call 24-7, and neither did any of my co-workers out in Ottawa.
Cell phone are another big problem, since most people carry theirs next to their bodies almost everywhere they go. So whenever you can’t get a hold of someone on their cell phone, the immediate assumption for some people is that you are screening their calls. And to some extent, that’s probably true. I don’t do it very often, but sometimes after a long day of work, the last thing I want to do is gab on the phone. In those times, usually I’ll just let me phone ring on the table and check who it was later. But I have had people get really upset with me for not answering, or not returning their calls in a short order of time. I guess I could shut it off, but then it’s obvious you don’t want to talk to anyone (and I don’t know why that seems bad, but for some reason it does).
What about IM clients? How many people actually log in as invisible or away all the time? I’ve done it from time to time, mainly because I don’t like being bothered consistently when I’m working. However, if everyone logs in as invisible, then the whole system breaks down.
One of the main reasons I love going on vacation is that I can turn my cell phone off, close the laptop cover, and take my watch off — three things that remove a pile of stress from my life. It’s an amazing feeling waking up when the sun rises, walking around a village randomly, eating when hungry, sitting on a hammock and not even caring what time of the day it is. It’s unfortunate that everyone’s lives are so busy that cell phones and IM clients and nearly mandatory for most jobs nowadays.
I would be really curious to see what would happen at a company if everyone shut their IM clients off for a week. I would like to think that there would be more informal personal meetings, less pointless chatter going on, more thought going into emails, and definitely more productivity from people trying to get things done. Only one way to find out I guess.