I'll Just Check My Email, it Will Only Take a Minute . . .

Cyberslacking on the procrastination superhighway

Posted Mar 30, 2008


It's a rational decision, right? It will only take a minute to check email, clean that drawer, play one more game. Yet, a minute later we face the same choice, and hours later the thought is, "where did the day go?" Is this procrastination?

According to Jennifer Lavoie it's procrastination. Jennifer used an Internet-based survey (what else?) to collect data about Internet use and procrastination. She found that 50.7% of the respondents reported frequent Internet procrastination, and respondents spent 47% of on-line time procrastinating. Internet procrastination was positively correlated with perceiving the Internet as entertaining and a relief from stress. She also found that chronic procrastination in other areas of our lives and negative emotions such as feeling guilty or depressed were related to our online procrastination.

So, how does this happen? Jennifer explained it this way. One method to delay working toward task completion is to perceive time as segments of short intervals. Procrastination occurs when the individual justifies engaging in a minor amusement instead of committing to the task, even when the decision to work is not withdrawn. This justification is founded on the rational belief that the task can wait the few minutes while one engages in a short-term pleasure, during which time little long-term cost is experienced. This form of procrastination is easily applied to Internet use due to the fact that on-line activities typically do not require more than a few minutes to complete (e.g., viewing e-mail, searching the Internet for the day's weather). It's a rational decision over an irrationally short period of time.

The Internet is an especially risky instrument for idleness given this type of time fragmentation because this technology encompasses the properties that place the user at risk for procrastination: speed, accessibility, and "tip-of-your-fingers" convenience. There exists a particular attractiveness inherent to digital indulgences given that the pleasurable distraction is brief and can be ceased, at least ostensibly, by an act of one's volition or will. Rationalizations such as "Just one more game" or "I'm just checking my e-mail" are easily justified when perceiving time in short intervals because engaging in quick, minor distractions does not seem harmful relative to completing work.

The same thing can happen with so many other minor tasks. I've heard people describe the situation where they say, "it will only take a minute" as they think about wiping up a minor spill in the fridge, and this turns into a few hours of full-fledged kitchen cleaning (instead of continuing work on some pressing project).

Do you procrastinate online? Is it a problem? Why? Why not? If so, what, if anything, do you do about it?