We’ve all been there: you’re in the midst of some important work, but somehow you can’t stop yourself opening a new tab to browse the news or scroll through social media... just for a break. This act – interrupting what you’re meant to be doing to browse the net – is called “cyberloafing”, and it’s costing businesses a lot. According to a study by the University of Nevada, businesses lose $85 billion each year due to cyberloafing. But in spite of the cost, is cyberloafing really such a bad thing? What, exactly, is new about the concept? And could some digital procrastination actually be beneficial?
On the surface, cyberloafing seems like a bad habit – as with any other form of procrastination. But checking in on Instagram or the news can allow us to step back and give our brain a breather before we dive back into work. Research actually suggests that a small amount of cyberloafing isn’t just harmless – it’s actually beneficial. Taking quick breaks allows our brains to recalibrate between tasks, and can help alleviate work stress. It can be a means of “psychological detachment” – a way for us to dissociate from what we’re doing to recharge, so we have the energy to continue working long-term. Of course, spending too much time mindlessly scrolling can quickly become distracting – so there might be a tipping point to its value. It’s also useful to consider why we’re going it. Do we cyberloaf just to take a breather, or is it an expression of deeper disengagement at work? If we cyberloaf because we don’t feel fulfilled or lack purpose, surely “healthy” cyberloafing can’t really exist. If we’re genuinely cyberloafing just to reset our minds, it’s probably not a particularly bad thing. It might not even matter whether we spend two or ten minutes cyberloafing, as long as we’re able to focus back on our work without wasting inordinate amounts of time afterwards. However, we should always keep in mind that it takes almost 30 minutes for the brain to refocus after a distraction. Unless we are in control of when we take our breathers, taking a “quick peek” at social feeds or phones can quickly become very unproductive.
Maybe we’re focusing in on the wrong issue here; perhaps it doesn’t really matter how long we spend cyberloafing or what form our digital procrastination takes. The bottom line is that we do it because we want a break. So instead of figuring out precisely when cyberloafing turns into time wasting, we should instead consider whether cyberloafing offers quality rest.We’ve previously written about the importance of taking regular breaks. No matter how motivated we are, we all need them – and research suggests that taking small cognitive breathers (even if only for a few minutes at a time) can actively help us sustain productive work for longer. But these breaks are only truly productive if they help return you to where you left off without new worries, distractions or frustrations. Cyberloafing may not actually let your brain rest – it can instead introduce a ton of distracting new information, creating an attention residue that makes it difficult to return fully to your work. Reading or replying to emails can leave you anxious, and scanning social media can leave you feeling frustrated or deflated. In and of themselves, these activities don’t actually improve the quality of our work.
There is little that’s actually new about cyberloafing; it’s a rebrand of long-established compulsive digital behaviours which see us passively consuming information, immediately responding to notifications, and routinely dipping into digital forums for “fear of missing out”. If improving our breaks is the main driver behind cyberloafing, simply moving from one form of digital engagement to another might not be the best solution. We could all be a lot more conscious of how we use our breaks and engage with the world beyond our screens. This is part of the idea behind “deep work breaks”; having space to reconnect with our material environment and find pleasure in small, tangible actions. Deep breaks embrace the mundane and allow us to be bored, giving our brains a rest without introducing new stresses or starting tasks we can’t finish. There are a ton of ways to recharge that don’t involve your screen: going for a short walk to focus on your surroundings, reading a short article about something unrelated to your work, meditating or doing yoga, making a drink or a snack, or doing something that’s actively useful to you – like tidying your desk, or completing a quick household chore. Ultimately, your breaks should benefit you and leave you feeling refreshed – so if cyberloafing isn’t doing that for you, make time to step away from your screens.