This first appeared in GSABusiness.
Each year this time, I decide to sacrifice some part of my daily routine in observance of Lent. It isn’t religious for me. It is about getting my appetites under control. Every year I discover activities that have become so ingrained in my daily behavior I don’t even think about them before I do them. It is only with careful introspection that I realize how firm their grip has become. Then, I rebel.
This year I am thinking about giving up instant messaging. MSN Messenger and Yahoo messaging have become a regular part of my Windows desktop. I think they arrived as something fun to do, but I kept them because they promised to enhance my productivity. Sure, I use MSN Messenger to communicate with coworkers. It can be very useful to get a short answer to a quick question. What was that file name again? Click, open, click, type question, press send. Pop! The question is sent and an answer is only seconds away.
More often than not someone else is asking the question of me, and that doesn’t seem nearly as productive. They always send questions when I am in the middle of developing a website or writing an article, and pop! Bleep! What? The name of a friend pops up on my screen with a question like “What kind of dog does George Bush have?” What?!? Huh? The questions aren’t always that frivolous, but they NEVER have anything to do with what I am working on. Being the friendly sort myself, I like to oblige with an answer if possible. I answer the question, “Dunno, a Scottie?” and then a few more pleasantries are exchanged before I realize that 15 minutes have elapsed and there is absolutely no hope of remembering what I was about to do next. Getting rid of IM could return several hours a week of productivity. Now that’s a thought.
If I weren’t willing to give up Instant Messaging altogether, perhaps I could just give up using emoticons and IM abbreviations like TTYL (Talk to you later) and IMHO (In My Humble Opinion.) The ones I use most often are CYA (See ya) and GM (Good morning) but not in that order. If I am feeling especially nice, I might open an IM session with GM2U (Good Morning To You.) Knowing all of these abbreviations makes me feel really hip and cool. Surely some TV ad for skateboards, MP3 players, or cell phones will toss one of these on the screen and I will be the one 40 something in the room that is able to decipher the code. I will think it is cool, everyone else will once again complain that I have too much time on my hands.
What gripes me the most about these emoticons and IM abbreviations is that I find them creeping into my everyday writing. If I want to make extra sure that someone knows that what I wrote is funny, I sometimes wink with the emoticon that looks like this -- ;), Now that might be acceptable in a VERY informal email, but in anything other than a lunch request to a dear friend, the use of an emoticon is just a cheap laugh. If the writing is good, I probably won’t need to tell people when to laugh. They’ll know what to do. The wink is a flashing applause sign to help the humor impaired. If the audience really needs that kind of help, then I am either writing for the wrong group, or the writing isn’t actually working. So, if I give up the cheap laughs of emoticons and IM abbreviations, I will seem more sophisticated. Again that will be a win for me.
The problem with my giving anything up for any reason is that it is so hard to change my behavior. IM is cool. IM abbreviations are hip. Emoticons are cutely animated. These activities are fun, but they are not much help. It is a struggle between doing something fun and something useful. It will be a challenge. I am up for it, however. For the next 40 days I think I’ll give them up and see what meaningful activities I might accomplish with the time I get back.