Is Instant Communication Making Us More Or Less Productive?

Larry Alton

If you had asked an executive 30 years ago if they thought instant communication would improve or decrease productivity, the answer probably would have been a resounding “improve.” On the surface, it seems like facilitating faster, more immediate conversation is universally good for everyone’s efficiency. But the reality is a bit more complex.

Jevons paradox

Jevons paradox is a concept typically applied to resource consumption. It states that when technological progress makes it more efficient to use a given resource, we end up using more of that resource overall—not less. For example, back in the 19th Century, when we started mastering the efficient use of coal, coal consumption actually increased. That’s because the increased efficiency led to more economic opportunities and more incentives for using the resource.

We can look at instant communication the same way. It’s more efficient to exchange messages now than it was 25 years ago, so as a result, we send more messages. We schedule more video calls, send more texts, and spend all day emailing and discussing things over instant messenger. As a result, we’re spending more time than ever on communication—and less time on the tasks and projects most important for our long-term goals.

Immediacy, expectations, and stress

The immediacy of communication also leads to heightened expectations. It’s now normal for American workers to check their email late into the night, over the weekend, and during vacation time, especially at the executive level. That’s because an email could come in at any time, and we know the other party might be expecting a response within an hour.

This perpetual need to stay on top of your messages makes email an incredibly stressful communication medium when not managed properly. It can turn your vacation hours and personal time into work time, which can ultimately sabotage your productivity (and even your health). The only saving grace here is that this isn’t an inherent feature of instant communication—it’s only a result of the way we’ve come to use it.

The distraction factor

We also need to consider the distraction feature. Most executives have notifications turned on at all times, so they never miss an incoming email or instant message, but this approach is self-defeating. Every time you get a notification and check your messages, you get distracted from whatever you were working on, and research shows it could take 23 minutes or longer to fully recover from each of those distractions. It’s true that those messages might contain important information, but be honest—how often do you get distracted checking an email only to realize it was a waste of time?

There are definitely benefits to instant communication. We get answers faster, simplify our conversations, and even have tools to stay better organized. But the way we’re currently using it, those benefits are matched—and sometimes outweighed—by the consequences of the system. Start treating instant communication as a curse as much as it is a gift, and take proactive action to stop it from taking over your life.

For more on workplace efficiency, see 4 Employee Applications To Improve Employee Productivity.

About Larry Alton

Larry is a freelance marketing & technology consultant with a background in IT. Follow him on Twitter @LarryAlton3.