Do you also surf the web when at work? Now, be honest… Naturally, your company does not want you to do that, but scientists have proven that going online for a little distraction is actually a good thing. Or so reports The New Yorker in the following article:
For many Americans, March Madness has been a time to worry about office pools, busted brackets, and buzzer beaters. For American businesses, though, the N.C.A.A. tournament is just an occasion to worry about distracted and inattentive employees spending more time online than they do working. There have been some outlandish assessments of how much March Madness costs companies in lost productivity: back in 2006, a much hyped (and later debunked) estimate put the cost at an absurd $3.8 billion. But, crazy as such estimates are, there’s no doubt that the Internet has made it much easier—and more entertaining—to slack off at the office. In a widely cited survey from 2005, people said that the Net was their favorite way to waste time at work—and that was before the advent of Twitter. Businesses have responded by trying, in various ways, to restrict access. One study found that half of all companies block access to Facebook and Twitter. Other companies cut off online shopping sites (particularly at Christmas) and YouTube. And many companies have an “acceptable use policy,” making it clear that when you’re supposed to be finishing your T.P.S. reports you should not be watching that excellent new video of a schnoodle howling along to its own piano-playing.
Fair enough, you might say. The catch is that plenty of new research suggests that forcing Internet-addicted employees to go cold turkey may make them less productive, not more. A new study, done at the University of Copenhagen, asked participants to perform a simple task—watch videos of people passing balls and count the number of passes. But first they were presented with a distraction. One group of participants had a funny video come up on their screens; the rest saw a message telling them that a funny video was available if they clicked a button, but they were told not to watch it. After ten minutes, during which people in the second group could hear those in the first laughing at the video, everyone set to the task of counting the number of passes. And the curious result was that those who hadn’t watched the comedy video made significantly more mistakes than those who had. You might have thought that those who had spent the previous ten minutes laughing would become distracted and careless. Instead, it was the act of following company policy and not clicking that button that eroded people’s ability to focus and concentrate.
This study is one of the first to look at the specific impact of the Internet on performance, but there have been many similar studies of the limits of people’s will power. A classic experiment involved chocolate-chip cookies and radishes. The subjects of the experiment were told that they were taking part in a taste test, and were put in rooms with a stack of warm cookies and a bowl of radishes. Some of the people were told to eat the radishes, and not to eat the cookies. (To make this harder, they were told to skip a meal before the experiment.) Others were luckier; they were told to gobble up the cookies. Afterward, both groups were asked to solve a complicated puzzle that, unbeknownst to them, had no solution—the experimenters wanted to measure how long people would persist in a frustrating task. Those who had had to eat the radishes and resist the temptation of cookies showed little will power, and gave up after just nine minutes; the cookie-eaters kept going for twice as long. In other studies, people asked not to think of a white bear were considerably worse at solving anagrams than a control group, and people who were told to suppress their emotions while watching a sad movie ate far more ice cream in a taste test afterward than those who had been allowed to express their feelings.
The basic idea here is that for most people will power is a limited resource: if we spend lots of energy controlling our impulses in one area, it becomes harder to control our impulses in others. Or, as the psychologist Roy Baumeister puts it, will power is like a muscle: overuse temporarily exhausts it. The implication is that asking people to regulate their behavior without interruption (by, say, never going online at work) may very well make them less focussed and less effective.
So what should companies do? They could just remove the temptation entirely and shut down access to most Web sites. After all, if the people in the Copenhagen experiment hadn’t known there was a video they could have been watching, they would presumably have counted the passes just fine. There are companies that try to do this, but it creates a tyrannical work environment, and, besides, the spread of smartphones renders such a policy increasingly unenforceable. A more interesting solution, proposed by the Copenhagen experimenters, would be to create “Internet breaks,” allowing workers to periodically spend a few minutes online. This may sound like a solution straight out of Oscar Wilde, who said, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” But it’s actually a logical evolution of one of the great inventions of the twentieth century: the coffee break. In the nineteenth century, letting wage-earners stand around drinking coffee would have seemed preposterous. But, in the early nineteen-hundreds, a Buffalo company introduced the idea of short breaks in the workday, and by mid-century it had become a hallowed office custom. The basic insight—that giving people some respite from difficult tasks, along with the chance to let their minds wander, will make them more productive—remains true. Sometimes, it turns out, you have to take your eye off the ball in order to hit it.
Food for thought, right?