Goodbye, Metafilter. Hello, cubicle.
April 5, 2006 1:43 PM   Subscribe

How do I stop surfing the Internet at work so that I don't lose my job?

I work in a cube at a computer all day writing, editing, and doing graphic design. While I work, I usually click back and forth from my task to reading articles on the Internet -- stuff from blogs and sites like Metafilter about politics, science, web design, you name it. (I know I can't be the only person around here who does this.) If our internet connection goes down, I feel cut off from the outside world; I have an almost constant need for external stimulii. No, I'm not ADHD; just a high-functioning information junkie.

At times I've felt guilty about my Internet tendencies; after all, time spent reading is not time spent working. But I justify it to myself by thinking that the "input" my brain gets feeds the "output" that I create. And I am productive -- not a superstar, but I get my work done and make my boss happy. My job is creative and challenging, but I have a high IQ and the ability to retain an absurd amount of this information I read; I feel like this is just what it takes to keep my overactive brain happy.

My company is going to start cracking down on "personal" Internet usage in the next few weeks, and I'd like to avoid getting busted. They're not just being Internet Nazis -- our company requires a massive amount of thruput to execute our Internet-based services, and employee Internet-usage sucks up bandwidth. (Being intentionally vague about my industry, but indeed, we stream a tremendous amount of data.) They'll be monitoring not only which sites we visit, but also the number of pages we load, so feed readers or GhostSurf won't really help.

Short term: what are some alternative ways to take rejuvinating "mental breaks" at the office? Are there little tasks, exercises, something I can do with a pen and paper that will get my brain out of a rut when I hit a wall? Frankly, I'm terrified that I'm not going to be able to give up my reading/surfing at work, and that this will lead to Job Problems.

Long term: am I seriously screwed up, or just lazy, that I can't manage to concentrate on work for 8 hours a day? I like my job, but I don't love it passionately -- is this a sign that I'm in the wrong field? Compensating for a lack of something in my work life? Or just the inevitable result of sticking a smart girl in a cubicle instead of graduate school? I spend relatively little time on the internet at home, so "Internet addict" doesn't really fit.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (38 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Short term: Buy a book of SuDoku puzzles- they'll be fun little breaks.

Long term: I personally think very few people are capable of paying complete and total attention for 8 hours, so I don't necessarily think it's a sign that you hate your job and you're in the wrong industry. I also think smart people who do their jobs should have a little freedom to let their brain do what it needs to do to keep alive, but that's your company's decision, not mine.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:52 PM on April 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

Will they let you wear headphones and listen to music? That can be a good distractor.
posted by GaelFC at 1:54 PM on April 5, 2006

are you allowed to listen to the radio, music or "podcasts?" perhaps those would be suitable creative supplements.

to stop yourself from browsing web pages, set your internet proxy to "localhost" or "". in firefox you do it under edit / preferences / general / connection settings, and set the http proxy to one of the two options i gave above. all this will do is redirect all requests for web pages back to your pc. no permanent damage and easily undoable, but it's the equivalent of sitting on your hands to keep from biting your nails.

good luck.
posted by Ziggy Zaga at 1:54 PM on April 5, 2006

You should consider looking for a job where your employer is a little less strict. If they cannot realize that you need to surf the web periodically to keep on top of things then they are woefully uninformed about the industry they are in.
posted by camworld at 1:55 PM on April 5, 2006

ssh tunnels?
posted by idontlikewords at 1:57 PM on April 5, 2006

If you're as great at self control as many people, try breaking your access to likely sites or set rules for yourself about using the web browser -- only let yourself use it during lunch or for a specific business need. You could also try breaking access to your favorite sites in the hosts file for your computer.
posted by mikeh at 1:57 PM on April 5, 2006

No, I'm not ADHD; just a high-functioning information junkie.

Have you undergone testing for ADHD? I used to tell myself this same thing, but I finally gave in and was tested, and found out I really do have ADHD. With the right medication and the right approach to work, I'm finally able to seriously focus for hours on end... on good days, anyway. I still have days (sometimes weeks) where I find myself falling back into the same old patterns. Still, knowing what the problem really is was key to figuring out how to deal with it.
posted by daveadams at 1:57 PM on April 5, 2006

My experience shows that most people really only work hard for about four hours per day. The rest of the day is usually filled with a mix of low-skill tasks and goofing off.

Don't worry about that part.

As for entertainment without the net... my first thought is of an employee of mine, who actually has his magazines delivered to the office. He does great work, so I never give him trouble about his little magazine breaks. Of course if he did bad to average work, it wouldn't fly with me, so YMMV.
posted by I Love Tacos at 2:00 PM on April 5, 2006

Oh, and this sounds cheezy as hell... but meditation.
posted by I Love Tacos at 2:01 PM on April 5, 2006

You could try using a web-based feed reader. That way you'd only need to hit one site one time to pull in loads of textual, mind-feeding goodness. Less bandwidth, less of your personal time spent hunting and clicking, less damning-evidence-of-time-wasting since there won't be loads of flashing banners and graphics to give the game away.
posted by bcwinters at 2:02 PM on April 5, 2006

It might be an interesting experience to replace the exchange the form of attention that you're having now (it has been called continuous partial attention I think) with a more focused steady one. Flow-like.

This is a lot easier of course if you find your work inviting in this respect.
posted by jouke at 2:02 PM on April 5, 2006

sounds like we're in the same boat only i don't know if my employeer knows/cares....i smoke breaks are great, i also have a computer at home which is running vnc...which allows me to log into my computer at away....for added security i'm tunnelin everything through ssh.....if only they knew what i was looking at...
posted by killyb at 2:02 PM on April 5, 2006

You could also get a Palm device (or a Pocket PC, but I am a Palm junkie). Some are pretty cheap. At my old job, one of my friends would sit in my office for what seemed like hours, playing Bejewelled. He was so productive when working that it seemed to balance out somehow. At least that's what we told ourselves to justify goofing off.

Check out PalmGear for tons and tons of games, many of which are better than Bejewelled (IMO). They would help you still take little breaks and feel like you're having fun. I'm totally with you though -- working on my own concentration skills. Surfing is a tough habit to break.
posted by theredpen at 2:17 PM on April 5, 2006

You and I sound like the same person at work, anonymous. Here's what I do - it's a bit labor intensive, but it works. At the beginning of the day, I fire up my browser for about 10 minutes, during which time I hit every site i want to read stuff from. Every article I want to read, I copy/paste into Word; I usually get about a 40 page Word doc that way, depending on the day.

Leave the Word doc open while you're working, and when you feel the need to be distracted, flip over from whatever you're doing to the Word document with your web stuff in it. You'll get the benefits of the web without hogging bandwidth or alerting a bored network person.

Do this twice a day, once in the morning and once after lunch, and you'll be able to get through your day no problem.
posted by pdb at 2:27 PM on April 5, 2006

Book. Get a book. An interesting book. You'll feel much better having read a book during those off moments than you would from surfing 6 hours a day. And they can't spy on that. Now if only I would take my own advice. I'm taking my own advice! Arrrgh! bye.
posted by furiousthought at 2:47 PM on April 5, 2006

Companies sure make up stupid policies all the time, but your description of the situation sounds a bit weird. Normal surfing, where you load some pages with lots of text and then spend some time reading it, just doesn't use a lot of bandwidth, especially not compared to the "tremendous amount of data" your company is streaming. If the IT guys are sane, they're not after you - they're after the guys streaming web radio and videos all day.
posted by dhoe at 2:49 PM on April 5, 2006

Get a smartphone.
posted by cellphone at 3:09 PM on April 5, 2006

I don't think it's lazy or screwed up, if I didn't share my office with two other people I'd be in the same boat. I think of it as akin to water-cooler chat- people waste tons of time gossiping and chatting to each other, and that's not frowned upon nearly as much as surfing the web is.

Can you sign up for a bunch of email news services to be delivered to your work email? I get a couple of work-industry-related news emails every day, and some general news alerts. They keep me sane when I really need to take a break from a project but have folks around who would notice if I were just goofing off on the internet.

Oh, and pdb- That idea is totally awesome.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 3:10 PM on April 5, 2006

Set your browsers homepage to a blank page (about:blank in IE). That will give you a second or two to think about what you're doing before you get sucked into a website.

Get up and walk around the office, or better yet, go outside if possible when you're feeling antsy.

Switch to an RSS reader, it will tell you when things are updated to you don't have to go to every website manually and check.

Turn off images in your browser, the info is still there but it's not as noticable and it looks a lot more boring.

I personally like going out for lunch, even if it's just down the street, I get out, walk around in the fresh air, or go for a drive. It helps me get through the day. Split the day up into shorter periods. Eg: 8am-10am work, 10-10:15 snack break, 10:15-12:15 work, 12:15-12:45 lunch, etc. If you you don't have 4 hours of empty space looming in front of you, it's easier to focus.

Check out they've got some interesting advice.
posted by blue_beetle at 3:56 PM on April 5, 2006

No, there's nothing wrong with needing some mental breaks. A good way to force yourself to not browse the internet is to move your monitor so it faces as many people/as much traffic as possible. When I worked in an office where people couldn't see what I was doing, I developed a severe addiction to the ILX boards and Freecell. If I had moved my monitor around so that people could see what I was doing as they walked past, I'm sure I would have been a lot more conscientious about what I was doing.
posted by apple scruff at 4:07 PM on April 5, 2006

Is it possible that you could ask for more work? It sounds like what you're doing now isn't challenging or time-consuming enough for you, so you're looking for outside stimulus. Maybe you could ask for a side-project that you're interested in doing and that would help out your company, but that is different enough from your main responsibilities to be captivating.
posted by hooray at 4:32 PM on April 5, 2006

I work for a company with somewhat restricted internet usage policies due to regulatory reasons, and because I am paranoid about accidentally surfing to the wrong place, I have cut my work surfing down to a very limited set of sites, most of which are news sites, and I don't post anything anywhere during the day.
Limiting the set of things I read at work does two things for me: 1) it cuts way down on random surfing and the time-wasting that can accompany it, and 2) it makes me feel comfortable that my web usage is unobjectionable. I guess if I were you I would get a clearer picture (maybe than reading news.from my boss) about what they're actually going to care about-- casually mention that you are a little concerned about the new policy because you like to take breaks to read the news online and see how s/he reacts.
I personally think the idea of reading magazines or (horrors!) a BOOK at work is really bad. Nothing makes you look like you're wasting time like reading a book at your desk. If you cannot find a technological solution or a surfing time balance, why not use the age-old technique of chatting up your coworkers for a break? I hate doing this because I'm shy and awkward that way but I can't help but feeling like if I were spending more of my wasted time in casual conversation with my coworkers it would be much better for my career .
posted by ch1x0r at 4:44 PM on April 5, 2006

I think the traffic reason is bullshit. If your company streams obscene amounts of data (and it sounds like that) than the web traffic will be a tiny miniscule amount that doesn't add to significant overhead..

But anyway, I doubt anyone works 100% those 8 hours that they are supposed to. I know I don't.. I'm productive in about 3 hour spurts, the rest is required downtime (3 hours on, 1 hour off). I'm sure managers understand that, if not... I'll leave that up to you.

Regarding you not liking your job - I think every job is comprised of things we enjoy (I'm a coder, I like writing code) and things we hate (writing documentation, maintenance etc). So just because you enjoy some things and hate the others doesn't mean you should quit.
posted by aeighty at 5:00 PM on April 5, 2006

You're normal...

I picked up a good tip from a similar AskMe thread a while ago for trying to break that reflex habit of flicking over to the browser everytime you're bored. Every time you go to surf, stop yourself and write down the time on the blank piece of paper. Just notice that you did it, stop yourself, write down the time, then go back to your work. At first I found myself doing it shockingly often (every few minutes) but gradually the gaps got longer and longer. In fact just writing down the time sometimes satisfied the urge to jump away from what I was doing before.

Doesn't answer your question about what else to do, but it helps stops your attention jumping so often, and helps you quantify just how much time you are actually spending online.
posted by penguin pie at 5:02 PM on April 5, 2006

My boss told me one day that I had visited over 300 sites in one day during work hours. He didn't care per se, cuz I kick ass, but he said the IT people who told him about it were kinda pissed.

So, now instead of clicking on every damn post on Meta and new sites or whatever through the day, I dedicate about 10 mins in the morning while also checking my biz-mail. I check the headlines and a few posts and therefore don't feel disconnected.

For the rest of the day, I only check sites that are really reading intensive- I read movie scripts now, for example. That way I only hit about 10 off-site sites during the day and easily switch back and forth from work to reading. To the IT folks it looks like I've really quit surfing.
posted by snsranch at 5:16 PM on April 5, 2006

I read somewhere (43folders? askmefi?) about a trick that I've adapted that works well for me.

You set a stop watch for 8 minutes and then get to work. Don't look at the clock. If you're working when the timer goes off, you get a point. If you're not, you lose a point. When you get to 20 points (or whatever you decide) you get to browse the internet (or do a sudoku, or read a book, or talk to coworker) for 8 minutes.

No cheating by checking the time. Also, it doesn't matter what you're doing that isn't work. Maybe you're going to the bathroom, maybe you're on a personal phone call, maybe you're getting coffee. You still lose a point. THE TIMER DOES NOT FORGIVE!

Anyway, it works for me when I really need to focus.
posted by lalalana at 5:31 PM on April 5, 2006

This is my favorite "think before you browse" site for my own home page. :)
posted by salvia at 6:54 PM on April 5, 2006

You know I used to do work I hated and the internet sucked up my time and could have written an almost verbatim question that you asked here. Now, I do something I love and I read the internet at lunch or when I get home......

Just a thought, but it might be the change you need.
posted by narebuc at 8:51 PM on April 5, 2006

Ok.....just get a PDA and have it download good pieces from avantgo or aggregator sites and you can read that at work......
posted by narebuc at 8:52 PM on April 5, 2006

When I was writing my thesis, and I kept getting sucked into a huge time-wasting vortex of the Internet, I set my homepage to this which was really helpful, at least for a little while.

It helps to play the little game that lalalana mentioned and the site keeps track of it for you. Best of luck.
posted by geryon at 9:59 PM on April 5, 2006

If you can install software on your work computer, I've found that Temptation Blocker has been super useful at getting rid of my impulse to surf; it makes you type a 20 digit code before you can get to the program you blocked. By the time I have started typing I usually realize that I don't NEED to surf that badly, especially when there is work to be done.
posted by mayfly wake at 10:29 PM on April 5, 2006

I think that this is a very normal issue for even the most highly productive people. Lifehacker had a good article about blocking time wasting web sites (and specifically metafilter). I've found that setting an hour timer and not allowing myself any non-work related distractions until the timer goes off helps.

Podcasts (audio) are also good distractions and you always look busy even when you're listening to your favorite audio blog. It's probably a better solution than a book or playing a game on your PDA.
posted by DrJJ at 11:14 PM on April 5, 2006

I think you'll be happiest if you can spend the extra time working on low-skill tasks. Imagine that you have 4 hours a day of maximum concentration for the major task that you're meant to be doing. That gives you 4 extra hours to: get organized, learn about potentially useful features of the software you work with, research new software or working practices that might help in your work, write comments in code or do straightforward refactoring, etc. If you're a professional writer you could justify a little break reading Strunk & White or something similar.

Another thing you can do is look for things that can be improved in your company and make it a personal project to do something about them. It takes fairly good communication skills to be able to do this without treading on your boss's toes, but I have managed it in the past. Things like identifying when a meeting really needs to happen about X, or noticing that you could do a really good demo of your product based around Y. If there's something you really want to do, you can sometimes get your boss to hand it to you as a personal product to spend some percentage of your time on.

You might also think about using Getting Things Done as gets referenced here all the time, if you have an effective capture system you should have a few no-brainer tasks available at any one time which will help to keep you busy at times when your concentration is not all there.
posted by teleskiving at 1:59 AM on April 6, 2006

I got fired for reading metafilter at work in 2003.

Fast forward a few years, I'm at a job that gives me zero internet access at work, but now... I have a laptop!

I worked the night shift and my supervisor was there during the day, so there was some time I wanted to spend reading where I knew I wouldn't have someone breathing down my neck (and yes, I made sure to get all my work done).

So I'd load up a bunch of tabs worth of pages on my laptop before heading to work, then just shut it to send it into hibernation. Whip it out at work, and - presto! All sorts of great reading material, but - this is key - in a *limited* amount, and nobody had access to my browser history or anything to hold against me.

Having been fired once, I was a bit more paranoid than the average person. (I actually got accused of downloading CHILD PRON when I was reading a text-only thread on mefi. Yes, the people who fired me were that stupid.)

Also for my arrangement the laptop never ever touched the work network at all, ever. I couldn't have connected it even if I had wanted to.
posted by beth at 6:16 AM on April 6, 2006

My boss and I plan and (more or less) budget some time each day for "self-development," mostly surfing sites like 37signals and A List Apart and such (except nowadays I'm using a feedreader instead of actually surfing to each site everyday - at least I'm being more efficient about it). So I have approval to surf the inTARweb, keeping up with the industry and staying informed on new technology, trends and techniques (and, apparently, alliteration). Hell, it's even included in my annual performance goals. I'm sure the network wonks at the corporate level are watching everything going through the pipe, but I've got my boss to run interference.

The problem I run into is that for the past week or so I've been between projects so instead of charging 1-2 hours per day to these activities, I'm charging 7-8. Naturally there's not enough new web design-related stuff posted each day to fill up my day so I "drift" over to sites like AskMetafilter. As yet the fecal matter has not hit the rotating blades.
posted by friarjohn at 2:17 PM on April 6, 2006

i have the same problem. what i do is work straight for a certain amount of time and then take a 5 minute break where i go on line. if you dont have that option then i dont know.
posted by BigBrownBear at 1:03 AM on April 7, 2006

I tried out the 'note the time every time you're tempted' trick - worked like a charm!
posted by Happy Dave at 2:09 AM on April 7, 2006

Set the following as your home page:
posted by felix at 5:06 PM on April 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

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