A study performed at the National University of Singapore has confirmed what many of us seem to know intuitively: taking a little time off of coding or writing to check your favorite blogs or webcomics is actually a productive behavior.
Just as taking a short break to get a snack or a coffee can reinvigorate you, taking a very short break to do something other than type or mouse around improves the quality of your work thereafter.
The study, done by researchers Don J.Q. Chen and Vivien K.G Lim, started out with participants doing a repetitive task: highlighting every “e” in a 3500-word document. They then were told to do one of three things: one group was told to stack sticks in a certain way, another was told to do anything but go on the web, and another was told to go on the web and check out a few standard blogs and sites. Lastly, they were asked to repeat their first task with a different document.
Not surprisingly, the web people were the least mentally exhausted (according to the infallible questionnaire) and most productive. Interestingly, checking email did not tend to restore people, as it was viewed as a kind of work to read and respond.
Methodologically, it’s not bulletproof. People doing “anything but web” in their own environment, rather than a lab, would likely be as refreshed as the web people. And tasks that require more focus and skill (creative tasks rather than repetitive) might not be as forgiving of interruption. But the point was made that web browsing didn’t have any deleterious effect on the participants’ ability to function. It didn’t act as an opiate.
Naturally, this only applies to a certain extent (no WoW raids), and real-life work conditions must be reasonable as well (web access may not improve sweatshop morale). But attempting to limit or control workers’ ability to go to certain sites or take short breaks like this (I just took one in the middle of the last paragraph) is certainly counter-productive. It reduces trust and makes people unhappy. And saying that checking Reddit or 1UP is stealing from the company only alienates the people who know better. Plus, they’ll keep on “stealing” without a second thought.
So next time your boss walks up to your cube while you’re taking five to hit up a few blogs, tell him about this study and suggest they make it policy. People love policy.