Which is More Distracting at Work – Surfing the Web or Trying to Resist?

Harvard Business School researchers Bucciol, Houser, & Piovesan (2011) have discovered something quite remarkable. In their paper “Temptation at Work,” they extended earlier research by finding that using willpower to delay gratification can negatively impact performance in the workplace.

In a previous post I wrote about how multitasking does not work, and that still holds true. The research from Bucciol, Houser, & Piovesan (2011) does not discount that. What they found was that by trying to resist temptation, we become distracted enough that our work actually suffered (Blanding, 2011).

I apologize in advance (because I’ve been quite busy), but I will simply post what they found and direct you to an article (“Is Web Surfing Distracting Your Workers?”) about their work.

Key concepts include:

  • Psychologists have theorized that the energy spent resisting temptation takes attention away from other tasks, but this is the first experiment to test it in the context of a work environment.
  • Researchers found that subjects exhibited a decrease in productivity when they were tempted to watch a funny video but then told not to do so. Comparatively, subjects who were allowed to watch the video were more productive.
  • The research indicates that prohibiting private Internet use at work is actually bad for employees’ productivity. That effect could be especially critical in jobs where small mistakes could mean a big difference in performance.

The researchers suggest (Bucciol, Houser, & Piovesan, 2011, p. 4):

Employers should not prohibit the Internet and yet leave it available. Instead, employers should either remove it entirely or, when doing this is impractical, allow employees a certain amount of time – maybe even as often as several minutes per hour – for personal Internet activity. Perhaps lunch-breaks can be somewhat shortened to accommodate “surf-time”. Alternatively, employers might consider allowing regular Internet breaks, in the same way that many currently accommodate short but not infrequent cigarette or coffee breaks.


Blanding, M. (2011, May). Is Web Surfing Distracting Your Workers? HBS Working Knowledge. Retrieved from http://hbswk.hbs.edu/pdf/item/6657.pdf

Bucciol, A., Houser, D., & Piovesan, M. (2011, February). Temptation at work. Harvard Business School Research Paper No. 11-090. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1772815