Watching every YouTube video sent your way, while keeping up on personal email, Twitter, Facebook and SMS — it's all too much. But pretending you can't do anything online is futile, too. How does one balance the opposing forces? Recent studies suggest treating your internet indulgences as "coffee breaks" to get satisfaction and get things done.
Image via Dennis Wong.
In a look at recent science on internet distractions, James Surowiecki of the New Yorker finds a directly related study, in which workers were asked to watch a video of a ball being passed and count the number of passes. Some participants saw a funny video first, while others were given a screen noting that they could watch a video if they pressed a button but were asked not to do so. Those who were brow-beaten about the option of a funny video made significantly more mistakes then those who could watch a video and, in a way, get it out of the way first.
Why such sub-standard performance from those with demonstrable willpower? Look to the classic "Marshmallow Tests" — personal willpower is something like a muscle, one that can become overused and ineffective if it's never given a break. And a break is just what Surowiecki suggests.
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.
Do you give yourself "internet coffee breaks" at work? How often could you fit them in, and would they be more effective than your current balancing act?
March Madness and the Cost of Distraction [The New Yorker]