The New Yorker looks at how distractions—such as our predisposition to viral media in the workplace—actually help us be more productive on the whole.
In a widely cited survey from 2005, people said that the Net was their favorite way to waste time at work—and that was before the advent of Twitter. Businesses have responded by trying, in various ways, to restrict access. One study found that half of all companies block access to Facebook and Twitter. Other companies cut off online shopping sites (particularly at Christmas) and YouTube
Citing a classic study in which participants were presented with a plate of warm cookies and a plate of radishes, New Yorker writer James SuroWiecki says that those who were instructed to eat their veggies and resist temptation made far worse, less dedicated attempts complete tasks than those who rewarded themselves with sweets.
The basic idea here is that for most people will power is a limited resource: if we spend lots of energy controlling our impulses in one area, it becomes harder to control our impulses in others. Or, as the psychologist Roy Baumeister puts it, will power is like a muscle: overuse temporarily exhausts it. The implication is that asking people to regulate their behavior without interruption (by, say, never going online at work) may very well make them less focussed and less effective.
So does the Internet make us better workers? That is questionable. But the notion that Facebook, Twitter, fantasy sports and viral videos somehow make us less productive, should also be questioned. Long before there was an Internet, there was boredom in the workplace, and people have always found ways to pass the time.