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Elgan: Why goofing off boosts productivity

Researchers believe Internet slacking helps concentration. Here are 8 more reasons.

By Mike Elgan
April 4, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Office "slackers" who sneak in a little Facebook and Twitter time do more work than the all-business, all-the-time folks.

Researchers at the University of Melbourne confirmed this little truism in a new study. Their research found that, on average, employees who use the Internet during work hours for personal reasons are 9% more productive than those who don't.

In my experience as a boss, employee and as a writer who thinks a lot about how technology affects attention and productivity, I think the Aussie researchers are looking at just one tiny piece of the attention-management puzzle.

I believe that not only are office slackers more productive than work-only employees, but that people who work from home are more productive than the office crowd -- and for many of the same reasons, which I'll get to in a minute.

The researchers surmised that employees who do what they call "workplace Internet leisure browsing" (and what I call "Internet slacking") concentrate better after taking a mental break from work. But I'm not sure this explanation fully covers it.

Here are eight additional reasons why I think Internet slacking boosts productivity.

1. The subconscious mind keeps working.

Unlike physical labor, which stops when the worker stops, the mind keeps working on mental tasks when you're not thinking about them. This powerful process of problem solving happens when you're surfing the Web for fun, watching TV and especially while you're sleeping (hence the phrase, "Why don't you sleep on it?").

Internet slacking helps this process by getting the conscious mind, which is prone to getting stuck or blocked, out of the way.

2. It gets personal things off your mind.

If you're worried about your kids, or missing your spouse, or preoccupied with some pressing personal matter, you're not going to hit all mental cylinders in your work. Social networking, Twitter and personal e-mail let you quickly get in touch with friends and family, find out what's going on, then get back to work with full attention.

3. It builds work relationships.

Companies spend a fortune on lame team-building exercises and outings, which build work bonds only because everybody is suffering from the same forced interactions.

Social networking, on the other hand, can allow employees to build bonds at no cost to employers. Yes, people interact with family and friends who are not part of the company, but usually people interact with co-workers, too, and this can help build teamwork.

4. It converts real-time interactions into asynchronous ones.

A social interaction controlled by others (also known as an interruption) can devastate attention. I've found that a five-minute office "pop-in" by a co-worker can set me back the equivalent of an hour. This kind of concentration-shattering interaction is allowed -- and even encouraged -- in the workplace, while social networking interactions are frowned upon or even blocked. Why? Social networking interactions on Facebook and Twitter are, by definition, controlled by the user. They happen between, rather than in the middle of, bursts of focused concentration. They restore productive concentration without interfering with it.

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