Does Instant Messaging Hurt or Help Productivity?

Atlanta Professional Organizer, Allison Carter, recently alerted me to an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution entitled "Biz (off)beat: Instant Messaging Among Co-Workers Hikes Productivity" written by Bill Hendrick.

The article describes the results of a research study of 912 people conducted by professor Kelly Garrett of Ohio State and James Danziger of the University of California-Irvine in which they found that instant messaging (IMing) led to fewer interruptions of workers and increased productivity. "The key takeaway is that instant messaging has some benefits where many people had feared it might be harmful," Garrett said. Those in the study who used instant messaging reported being "interrupted less frequently" than colleagues who didn't.

I wonder what each study participant's definition of "interruption" is. Are they referring to the frequency that they received and read emails, answered phone calls, or spoke to a co-worker who stopped by to ask a question? Do they consider each instant message an interruption?

This article reminded me of another that I read called "The Multitasking Generation" in the March, 2006 edition of Time magazine. The piece described the results from studies done by David E. Meyer, director of the Brain, Cognitive, and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. He found that "when people try to perform two or more related tasks either at the same time or alternating rapidly between them, errors go way up, and it takes far longer--often double the time or more--to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially. " Seems to me that answering instant messages while performing other job duties would qualify as "trying to perform two or more related tasks."

As we often see, two different research studies can show two very different results. IMing may reduce the total amount of time a single communication may take, but I question whether it reduces the total quantity of interruptions. Also, the number of in-person interruptions may be decreased by IMing, but does this reduce the number of times per day one's attention is pulled away from the task at hand?

I rarely participate in IMing because I personally enjoy getting absorbed in a task, and I find it a bit difficult to get back into the zone once I'm interrupted. What about you? Do you find IMing helps or hurts your productivity?