You're working. A chat window pops open. It's your mom. "How are you today?" Another window fires; your roommate. "Bro, check this video!" Oh, here's one from your boss, he wants to know if you've seen his pen. Goodbye, productivity.
For many of us, chat is an essential evil. You have to be on there to communicate with colleagues—both at your own business and those you interact with at other companies. But perversely, no matter what the platform—Skype, Gchat, AIM—that chat client that helps you stay on top of things is often the ultimate productivity killer.
Don't sweat! Here's how to wrangle it in without being the kind of dick who just doesn't answer.
Get a Work-Only Account
This is the easiest and most effective method. Sign up for an account that only your co-workers know. Problem solved! Unless you're freelance. Or need to work with outside offices. Or need people to be able to find you. Okay, maybe this one isn't so great for most people. But if you're only chatting with a well-defined set of co-workers, this is the way to go.
Put Up a Velvet Rope
Why should any asshole be able to talk to you just because you're online? All the major chat clients offer ways to let you screen who can drop by and take up your screen space. AIM, Ghat and Skype all have functions that let you whitelist contacts, so only pre-approved chatters can see your availabliity. The problem with this? You don't know exactly who needs to get in touch with you. If you need to be accessible, you've got to let the mob past the rope.
Work That Status
If Jack Dorsey can launch an entire business around status messages, the least you can do is make yours useul. "Working" is good, but nobody will notice it. Now, sadly, is the time to shout. Bust out the allcaps. Don't want people bugging you unless it's about your job? "WORK ONLY PLEASE." Want to keep your work cronies at bay too? "URGENT MESSAGES ONLY" lets them know it better be important. Conversely an open-if-gnarly invitation like "ASK ME ABOUT MY ECZEMA" keeps just about everyone out of your grill.
This may be the best trick of all. Just because you're online, you don't have to let everyone know it. Setting your status to invisible, or just away, is a great way to let you ping others without them bothering you. You can even let everyone who needs to know that you're around, but hiding. It means you'll get a lot more messages that simply say "you there?" which you can freely ignore without insulting anyone. Because how can they know?
Who says you need to be always on? Yes, IM will keep your email deluge down, but really, if a question needs to be asked and answered faster than an email message travels, it's time to pick up the phone.
You can keep up with Mat Honan, the author of this post, on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.