More Evidence That Slacking Off on the Web Is Good for Work

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Go ahead and watch that funny cat video your co-worker sent. Chances are you’ll both be more productive afterward.

A new study found that browsing the Internet refreshes tired workers, more so than checking e-mail, sending text messages or making phone calls. Don J.Q. Chen and Vivien K.G Lim, of the National University of Singapore, presented their findings last week at a meeting of management scholars in San Antonio, Texas, the Wall Street Journal reports.

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Chen and Lim assigned 96 undergraduate students the task of highlighting letter e’s in sample text. A third of the students worked for 30 minutes with no break. Another third worked for 20 minutes, then took a 10-minute break that allowed any activity except browsing the web, then worked for another 10 minutes. The last group used its 10-minute break only to browse the web.

Turns out, the group that spent a quarter of its time on the Internet was better at its job overall than the other two groups. They also reported lower levels of boredom and exhaustion. A second study that surveyed 191 adults found similar results.

Lim told the Wall Street Journal that when people browse the web, they tend to visit websites that they like (duh). Like taking a break for coffee or a snack, using the Internet is a pleasurable experience, whereas checking e-mail or making a phone call can be mentally taxing. In other words, the Internet acts like a digital water cooler.

This isn’t the first study linking Internet work breaks with higher productivity. In April, I wrote about a study that let half of its participants watch a funny Internet video before getting to work on a random task, while the other half had to go straight to work within earshot of the other group’s laughter. Not surprisingly, the group that watched the funny video made fewer mistakes. The study attempted to prove that people have finite willpower, so withholding them from distractions such as the Internet only makes them more distracted.

The problem, of course, is getting people to restrict their Internet use to small, controlled breaks. If you’re like me, your eyes probably wander over to Twitter or Facebook far too often to advocate the web as a fountain of productivity.

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