Why we're spending work time on YouTube

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We are busy. So busy. But with viral quizzes, YouTube clips and lolz email forwards filling our work days, are we actually busy doing nothing…?

Words: Caroline Corcoran

You’ve spent five minutes watching a panda sneeze and have just moved on to cats wearing hats, while just out of your eyeline a PowerPoint document is craving your attention and your to-do list has very few things actually done.

You’re overwhelmed at work – “manic” as you told the friend you emailed to cancel tonight’s dinner – and have been in the office late the last two nights. You feel tense, permanently busy and super stressed, but those cats… well, they just need to be watched.

Of course we’ve been procrastinating as long as we can remember. Putting your bookshelf in alphabetical order was always more preferable to revising for your A-Levels; watching Fifteen To One, Countdown and The Simpsons was always a better idea than writing your university dissertation. But now, with the internet sharing the very same place as your most urgent work documents (namely your computer), the temptation to time-waste is even greater than ever before.

But there is no doubt that our propensity for internet distractions sits oddly with those ‘busy’ claims: the competitiveness over how little we sleep, unattended yoga classes and not looking away from our computer as we shout, “Can you grab me something from Pret? I don’t care, ANYTHING” at those rare colleagues who leave their desk at lunchtimes. Essentially, we’ve started to see busy as a byword for successful and important; something that makes us seem not just popular, but well-rounded too.

Cat: 1, Productivity at work: 0

“It’s cultural – it’s become small-talk to say ‘I’m so busy’,” says psychotherapist and behavioural expert Karen Meager. “And the more we tell people we’re busy, the more our brain repeats it back to us.”

There’s no doubt that we have packed lives – research by Direct Line says that we claim to have just four hours, 14 minutes of free time a day, which is about three hours less than the ideal work/life balance would give us. But are we kidding ourselves about how extreme it is?

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey shows that people often paint an inaccurate picture of how they’re spending their time. Results showed the average person slept 8.45 hours a night on weekdays, contradicting a National Sleep poll where individuals claimed they only slept six hours 51 minutes as the average.

If we’re deluding ourselves about how much we sleep, chances are we’re distorting the amount of work we have to do too. “It’s a human need for significance,” says success coach and author of How To Save An Hour Every Day Michael Heppell. “If we can’t be the most notable at something positive then we do it with something negative. That’s why you see those ‘Hell of a day...’ statuses on Facebook.”

Meager says that when we are overwhelmed we adopt a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response and that is where procrastination comes in. “Burying your head in the sand is very similar to the ‘freeze’ mentality,” she says. “In a desk job the internet is the most readily available way to do that.” And because it is ingrained in Western culture to think that everything is stressful and urgent (when asked, most of her clients are reluctant to downgrade tasks to less important, says Meager) our brain craves something with less pressure attached to it. We seek that respite a few times and like anything, it becomes habit.

You only meant to glance at one BuzzFeed feature but suddenly 30 minutes have passed and you’re reading ‘19 problems only people who don’t eat cheese will understand’ and have no idea how you ended up there because actually, you’re a big cheese fan.

“At first it’s our brain saying ‘enough’ and needing something – for want of a better word – ‘crappy’ to do, but then it’s like unconscious eating, it becomes habitual,” says Meager. Next thing we know, we are constantly flitting between eight internet tabs, which in itself makes us feel “manic”.

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Cat in a hat

It should come as no surprise that cute animals are often our procrastination method of choice: looking at them causes the release of pleasure hormone dopamine and one Japanese study claims that breaking from work to look at “kawaii” (cute) pictures increases productivity and performance. Laughter also reduces stress hormones such as cortisol.

The problem, of course, is that when it’s at our fingertips, the temptation is much harder to remove, so even though a 10-minute break may aid productivity, a scattergun approach, which means breaking your workflow to read an email subject-lined ‘Friday Lolz’, may be hard to resist, hampering your efficiency.

“For years we have heard the value of ‘multitasking’ when actually it’s a myth,” says Meager. “Switching between tasks means nothing gets your full attention.” Some people take extreme measures: apps such as MeeTimer record how much time you spend on which sites – sending you analysing, guilt-inducing data – and authors Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers are among those who have downloaded the Freedom app; you tell it how long you need to focus for and it takes you offline for the duration. You can go back online if you reboot, but the thinking is that it takes too much effort to bother.

There are smaller scale things you can do too to avoid the lure of YouTube lolz. “Reward yourself with tea after you’ve done your expenses rather than putting it off while you make one, starting a spiral of procrastination,” says Heppell. “Schedule properly and turn off the email notification that distracts you every time someone sends a viral. You wouldn’t let somebody stand talking to you while you’re on the phone so why allow them to on email?”

The other problem with computer-based breaks is that we don’t get the benefits of movement – leaving our desk every 30 minutes to stretch and walk around stimulates blood flow round the body, increasing our energy and attentiveness. Which is something that we don’t get from that biggest time-thief of all: social media.

“People estimate their use as being much lower than it is, because it’s designed to feel like five minutes,” says Heppell. “You wouldn’t go on otherwise.” In fact, the average time spent on Facebook per visit is 18 minutes and in general we spend 1 hour, 41 minutes a month on YouTube. Given that the UK has the highest online population in the world (85%) this is the case for a lot of us.

Anna Fielding, editor of and Emerald Street, says that our website, like many others, benefits from a view of its content as ‘bitesize.’ “So many of us spend so much time in front of screens, if something looks like it will entertain you for a short amount of time – say five minutes – then you’ll click because you feel you aren’t wasting too much of your day.”

And that, of course, is what gets us. The idea of breaking for 30 minutes to watch Girls at your desk seems preposterous but a five-minute break that ends up taking as long? Ah...

“We have to start being honest with ourselves,” says Heppell. “Admit that you missed your friend’s birthday drinks because you chose to spend half of the morning scrolling Facebook, rather than citing being ‘so busy’,” he says.

“Being clear about that will make you think more about how you use your time.” The important thing, says Meager, is to simply ask yourself, “Is this what I want to be doing?” “It’s when you’ve ended up in a half-trance on a website that you don’t even want to be on that you need to stop yourself,” she says.

Clinical psychologist Dr Jessamy Hibberd agrees. “Take the break but take it differently,” she says. “Do 45 minutes of focused work then reward yourself. Western society is so goal-driven and competitive that you’re expected to be productive all of the time. But that is simply not realistic.” Which means that next time we email a friend to cancel dinner, we can be honest and tell her that we simply spent a lot of today watching pandas sneeze.

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Stylist Team