If you're reading this at work in between things you should be doing, or if you like to kill time at the office by heading over to Facebook, Twitter or one of your favourite blogs, good news: that idle time — in moderation — actually makes you more productive by giving your brain a chance to reset. Here's why.
Photo by jill.
Essentially, the rule is that if you give yourself 20 per cent of your time to be flexible, reset your brain, take a break and surf the web, that other 80 per cent is even more productive than it would be otherwise. Essentially, you make up for your slacking because you feel re-energised instead of heavy under the weight of your work. This 2011 piece from The Atlantic explains:
According to a 2009 study out of the University of Melbourne, while workers might spend paid minutes watching a YouTube video of a panda sneezing, or what have you, they more than make up for that time later in the day. "People need to zone out for a bit to get back their concentration," researcher Dr. Brent Coker told Ars Technica's Jacqui Cheng. "Short and unobtrusive breaks, such as a quick surf of the internet, enables the mind to rest itself, leading to a higher total net concentration for a day's work, and as a result, increased productivity." The research found that those who spent less than 20 per cent of their time perusing the Internet's silly offerings were 9 per cent more productive than those who resist going online.
Not only does a brain reset help you get through the day, but resisting the urge to go online negatively impacts your work, according a Harvard Business School study. The researchers suggested that energy spent resisting the Internet's allure takes attention away from other tasks.
That 2009 study, referenced here, was published in the October 2011 edition of the journal New Technology, Work, and Development, and is available here (login required). The Harvard Business School study was in 2011, and is available here. In both cases, they tell us something you may already know anecdotally (but will be happy to have backed up experimentally). Short breaks and regular downtime — as long as it's within reason — actually gives you a sense of freedom and can re-energise you to come back to your work with renewed attention and focus.
However, the picture isn't perfect. Many businesses see downtime as wasted productivity — that is, they see their employees are machines, and when they're not actively working, they're costing them money. Hit the link below, but they reference a number of studies that point to lost profits due to internet and email abuse. Still, the researchers also point out that it's important to keep to that 20 per cent number, and that most people are good enough at learning to moderate their own time that they can be trusted, so there may be hope for us yet. At the very least, there's more proof in the pot that taking breaks helps us get more done.