Distracted? The Double-Edged Sword of Browsing at Work

browsing at work
Image: Dave Fayram via Flickr

Conventional wisdom (and your boss, probably) would tell you that browsing on the internet during work hours is a big no-no. But when social media has become a full-time job, and many of us are marketing our own personal brands in addition to those of our employers, the line between work-related and non-work-related tends to get a little fuzzy. And while Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram can be extremely distracting, there’s also a mounting body of research which points to the fact that a small amount of browsing can actually make you more productive, happy, and creative.

One of the first studies to indicate the use of browsing to create more productive workers was released in 2009, when researchers found that “Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing,” or WILB (an actual acronym) increased the output of those who browsed for about 20% of the day or less were 9% more productive than those who didn’t browse at all.

Why does a quick trip to Facebook (or the CreativeLive blog) help? According to the researchers, “people need to zone out for a bit to get back their concentration.”

“Think back to when you were in class listening to a lecture–after about 20 minutes your concentration probably went right down, yet after a break your concentration was restored,” explained Professor Brent Coker, the study’s author.

Another study, released just two years later, concurred that “cyberloafing” (again: a real word) did, in fact, spur workers to be more productive, because it allowed them to take a small break from the tasks they were expected to perform.

“Browsing the Internet serves an important restorative function,” wrote authors Don J.Q. Chen and Vivien K.G Lim.

But beyond the gratification that comes from watching a YouTube video of a panda sneezing, allowing yourself to hit Command+T also relieves you of the intense willpower it takes not to do that — which, according to a Harvard Business School study, can actually be more distracting.

“Using willpower to delay gratification can negatively impact performance in the workplace,” explains Workplace Psychology’s Steve Nguyen, PhD. “Researchers found that subjects exhibited a decrease in productivity when they were tempted to watch a funny video but then told not to do so. Comparatively, subjects who were allowed to watch the video were more productive.”

Idleness and disengagement, as we know from more recent research, can help you collect your thoughts and spark creative brain activity. And trying too hard to stay on task can actually hinder your ability to come up with alternative solutions to problems. Plus, if what you’re being distracted by is something cute, research has shown that you may even get a surge of endorphins that make you feel happier and more positive. So it makes sense that 45 seconds of watching puppies rolling around would generally make your workflow a little easier. However, there are limits to the amount of time you really can waste without losing ground.

If you’re spending, say, half of your day taking BuzzFeed quizzes, it’s mathematically difficult to get anything done. And, if you’re a person who has a hard time turning away from Facebook and back to your real work, the temptation may just be too much for you. In that case, it’s advised that you allow yourself a very strict amount of time before and after work to browse, while limiting your access if possible during the day. Or, try setting an alarm for yourself, wherein you get exactly 10 minutes to browse in the middle of the day.

And if your boss still gives you the side-eye? Let her know that you’ve got science on your side — and you agree to work for at least 80% of the work day.

Hanna Brooks Olsen FOLLOW >

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.