Instant Messenger Management - Stop Missing Important Messages

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At several workplaces I’ve noticed staff who always seem to miss instant messenger messages, some of these messages are important, others aren’t. When an unimportant message is missed the lack of a response or acknowledgement can be frustrating to the sender, when an important one is missed it can have a tangible impact on the business.

One thing I’ve noticed is that people who miss important messages all seem to use instant messenger applications in one of two ways; either they have a large number of unread messages, or they mark messages as read before reading them.

I’m not going to suggest stopping what you’re doing and reading your IMs every time one arrives, but there are a few simple strategies that can make sure messages are not missed.

Disable notifications where possible

The first strategy is to disable unread notifications where possible. Most instant messenger applications have a concept of channels, if you sometimes checkin on a channel, but the messages aren’t usually of importance for you, then turn off the unread notifications.

Most of these applications also have the ability to notify everyone in the channel, if those notifications aren’t important for you, disable them.

Even with unread and channel notifications disabled, you should still be notified if you’re tagged individually.

Stay on top of your unread messages

Now you’ve reduced the notifications, you should only get notified of messages that are likely to be important to you. When a notification appears, action it next time you have a break in your current task. That could be the 5 minutes before a meeting, or maybe when you return from one; maybe when you get up to make a coffee; or maybe when you get back from lunch.

Set reminders for important messages

Sometimes you read a message and can’t action it straight away. If your IM application doesn’t let you mark it as unread, then add a reminder to your todo list. This can be done with a command in some IM apps, or maybe you use a different todo application, maybe you have a run sheet for the day, just make sure it’s on the list of things to do so you don’t forget it.

Avoid the temptation of marking everything as read

This is the big one for me. When you arrive at work in the morning and see 200 unread messages in a channel it’s tempting to mark them as read, don’t do that. Depending on your language skills, and your ability to skim read, either read them in their entirety, or skim read them, especially if you’ve been tagged in one of them.

My strategy is to action my IMs as soon as I get in the office. I work through one channel at a time, from oldest to newest, and respond (in a thread) as required. Anything I can’t action immediately goes on my todo list. I also have a priority order for the different IM groups and channels to ensure I pay attention to the most important first.

Now what?

Now that you’ve implemented some simple IM strategies, you should find that you don’t miss important messages, and your coworkers trust that when they send you a message it will be received and actioned, even if you don’t respond immediately. It will reduce the times they come to interrupt you to check on it, and will mean you can better segment your day to reduce personal frustration and increase your productivity.