Cognitive Daily

Last week’s Casual Fridays study was supposed to be about distractions and distractibility. Many of us struggle to keep our minds on work when the whole wide internet is available to entertain and inform us. So I wondered: Are people who are more easily distracted by the temptations of the internet actually better-informed? Do they know more about current events, tempted as they are by the incessant flow of news update not just hour by hour, but minute by minute?

The answer: not really. We asked respondents several questions about how easily distracted they were, and how much time they spend at work doing non-work-sanctioned activities (such as, perhaps, responding to our survey). Then we quizzed them on recent national and international news events. Were people who spent more time surfing the net better at answering these questions? Nope. There was no correlation between scores on the quiz and amount of time spent on non-work activities. People who spent more time following the plane ditching in the Hudson River the day before our study were slightly better on the quiz, but one of the quiz questions was about that incident, so that’s to be expected.

But we also asked respondents about how much their employers restrict access to the internet, and how important the internet was to their job, and found something a little more interesting: restricting internet use may have the opposite of its intended effect. This graph shows the types of restrictions our readers have at work:

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While most respondents said there were no restrictions, nearly 40 percent of respondents indicated there was some sort of restriction on internet use in their workplace. But most respondents also said the internet was very important for their jobs:

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So although the internet can be distracting, most of our readers need the internet to do their jobs. How do employer restrictions impact their work? On the surface, not much:

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Where the responses get interesting is when we cross correlate employer restrictions to other factors. Take a look at this graph:

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This charts the number of internet restrictions an employer has versus how frequently employees check their work emails, voicemails, and IMs when they’re away from work. Respondents with more internet restrictions at work are significantly LESS likely to check their work messages while away from work. The message employers may be sending employees by restricting access at work is that work and home life don’t mix. Employees who aren’t allowed personal internet time at work are less likely to use time at home to monitor their workplace communication.

This might also be due to status differences: lower-level employees may have more internet restrictions compared to high-level employees, and these high-level employees might be more invested in their jobs, and so more likely to check in with the office when they’re not working.

A couple other interesting correlations: People who are available for IMs more of the day tend to spend significantly more hours per day doing non-work-related activities like gaming or surfing the web (r=.19). But people who spend more hours per day doing non-work-activities also spend more total time at work (r=.19).

One more thing: I thought everyone might be interested in the responses to the question about taking the survey itself:

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And finally, how do readers handle the distraction of the Internet? Here’s a summary of this result:

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Some of the “other” responses were quite innovative. Here’s a sampling:

  • “Leave my power cord at my girlfriend’s house for a few days. I can only use my laptop when I really need it in that case.”
  • “Take an ergonomic break every hour and a half.”
  • “Log myself out of, and refuse to save passwords for, the biggest time sucks — social networking sites — so that when I go to waste time, there’s one more layer of choice.”
  • “Focus on other sources of entertainment, like TV (less addictive than the internet) and books.”
  • “Switch locations. I have certain places I go to work that I think of in my head as “no internet zones”, and only allow myself to use the internet if it is necessary to do research for the job.”
  • “Read a book.”
  • “I have a second login without all my favourites.”
  • “Shut off tweetdeck.”
  • “Take the subway somewhere.”
  • “Keep blackberry near worktable (just checking is often enough) this way I don’t run into the other room to check and get even MORE distracted.”
  • “Must complete a specific project before checking email (if on a deadline). Or commit to certain amount of time on project (ie 2 hours before checking email).”
  • “Just thinking about work’s importance and the money I will win for that.”
  • “No food until work is done.”
  • “Reroute fark.com to 127.0.0.1.”
  • “I put on headphones and listen to music, which allows me to focus on my work for some reason.”
  • “Go to the library without my laptop.”
  • “Turn off IM (not much of a trick).”
  • “Given that I need the Internet for my work, it’s more not getting distracted by links and polls. ;-)”

Comments

  1. #1 Fargo
    January 23, 2009

    Being a self-employed computer tech, I’d say the internet is fairly critical when I need info. Obviously not the point at hand though, since the only thing restricting me is me.

    My prior jobs ran from nearly no restrictions to fairly high restrictions. My take on the whole thing is that, at least for people who actually use computers instead of forwarding huge powerpoint and video attachments and printing emails, the internet relieves some of the soul crushing boredom that jobs not fit for monkeys incurs. The large part of my time at any given job was pretending to care about what was going on in the office, especially the stuff totally irrelevant to my position. To clarify, at least half of a given day was just pretending to work. People that were bad with computers (and books, and thumbs) would drive themselves up the wall with makework, while the rest would read something interesting online, build web pages, or what have you.

    Then there’s network distractions that aren’t related to the internet. When I worked at Honeywell I installed several games on the two workstations in the mailroom (where I worked). One of these was Unreal Tournament, and lo, I found a UT server hosted by someone in IT. That was brilliant. No, there’s not more than three hours of work in a given day at a mailroom.

  2. #2 Tony P
    January 23, 2009

    In the two state jobs I worked the net was proxied and kept track of all your visits.

    Then there is the day I was perusing proxy logs to look for any unusual data and I caught a Chief of Staff surfing porn and hookup sites all day.

    Brought this to the I.T. directors attention and was told we do nothing with it. Huh? Policy breaks down when not applied to all.

    So the next edict that came down was that Administration and I.T. were NOT to be tracked in the proxy logs. So that was that.

  3. #3 JYB
    January 23, 2009

    I’m a K-12 teacher. One of my main goals this year was to get the staff blogging about what they did in class and use wikis for a class home page. Two weeks ago, our districts web filter (websense) started blocking blogger and wikispaces. I was not pleased.

  4. #4 Lilian Nattel
    January 23, 2009

    Before writing full-time, I was (of all things!) an accountant. During tax-time everyone was expected to put in long hours and work 6 days a week. (This was pre-internet) But I noticed that the people working the longest hours (and getting the most praise from supervisors for it) were also spending the most time gossiping, talking on the phone and even, in one case, playing cards. People can only put in so many hours working, whatever the expectations are. So if there’s no internet, they probably get their work done and boogie out of there. If there is internet, then they can surf and catch up on things at home.

  5. #5 Katie
    January 24, 2009

    With our group, it was a game to figure out what random sites were blocked. Apparently, they bought a list of ‘porn’ sites to block… and the ones we’ve found never have been and have no inclination to be porn hosts.

    That said, we get almost unrestricted freedom at work with the internet. The only time this is an issue is when Fantasy Football season comes around. One group (QA) is obsessed with it, and you can see their productivity drop dramatically. Reports turned in at the last minute, half filled out. We’ve been petitioning the IT department to block Fantasy sites, but apparently they’re more worried about the wayward breast.

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