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Is Cyberloafing Syndrome Keeping You from Reaching Your Goals?

ZenShui/Alix Minde/Getty Images
ZenShui/Alix Minde/Getty Images,

by Sarah Mahoney

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It’s ubiquitous: You’re hard at work and cranking stuff out, when you check your smartphone for a weather update. Then an email from your sister sends you to the funniest dog video you’ve seen since…yesterday. Before you know it, it’s lunchtime.

Besides taking a big chunk out of America’s productivity, cyberloafing can crush the momentum of life-changers, who need help staying motivated on sometimes daunting big moves. (Be honest: Nothing makes Words With Friends as tempting as having to write a new resume.)

Cyberloafing can crush the momentum of life-changers. (Be honest: Nothing makes Words With Friends as tempting as having to write a new resume.)

Matthew McCarter, Ph.D., an associate professor of management at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is researching cyberloafing and has plenty of ideas about how to limit the damage so you can reachyour professional goals.

In an intriguing experiment, he gave 10 participants a dull data-entry job. They earned the standard fee, but knew they could also make a bonus based on how much work the group collectively accomplished. Whenever they wanted, they could stop working and surf the Internet. Overall, the group spent 14 percent of their time cyberloafing.

When researchers cut off Internet access, productivity didn’t increase. Instead, workers just slowed down, or even stopped working entirely. But when the groups themselves decided to shut off access, they churned out 38% more work.

McCarter isn’t an advocate of eliminating Internet escapism. “The important thing here is expectations,” he says. “Some firms encourage their workers to take breaks at set times, others discourage them, and some build it into the job.” So the question becomes when it’s appropriate.

“One idea would be to allow surfing when a job has very high emotional and cognitive stress, like complaint call center employees,” he says. But it’s important to be aware that while a 10- or 15-minute break can help decompress, there are some key time-management lessons.

For one thing, people often don’t realize how much time even a quick surfing session can be. “While people are often aware of whether they are on Facebook or in MS Word writing a marketing report,” he says, “ they may be less aware of how long they are spending not doing their job—let alone how much time it takes for them to get back into the flow of work after an interruption from social media.”

The implication is clear: While cyberloafing costs companies millions in lost productivity, the answer isn’t autocratic moves, like blocking access, but rather empowering workers be a part of the policy making. (It’s worth noting that even workers who voted against Internet restrictions improved their output.)

You don’t have to wait for a new policy at work to shake up your routine, or let your constant news surfing habits keep you from life-change goals. First, take an honest look at how you spend your time: How often do you check your phone for texts or alerts? Log onto Facebook? Peek at your favorite news site to see if the world has exploded, or whether your team is making any last-minute trades? Include your use of work email, which is out of control: A recent Adobe survey found that the average white-collar worker spends 30-plus hours each week sending and answering emails.

Then make rules that are stricter but not Draconian—maybe limit major surfing to after work, but allow yourself a midmorning Twitter break. Vow to check email just once an hour. Or leave your cellphone out of sight while working.

You might take a little inspiration from Donald Knuth, the Stanford University computer science professor some people call the father of the analysis of algorithms. “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things,” he writes on his homepage. “But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.”

Remember, time is a terrible thing to waste.