Resisting Temptation

Temptation“I can resist everything but temptation,” Oscar Wilde once said.  Nowadays, if you look around most offices, you’ll discover lots of folks who appear to agree with Oscar Wilde.  They spend time during regular business hours on Facebook, checking personal email, indulging in online shopping, or just surfing the web.  In fact, it can seem as if the only temptation they are able to resist is the temptation to get some work done.

How bad is it?  According to a recent report on current research at Harvard Business School, the situation is quite serious: “A number of studies have suggested that US workers waste between one and two hours a day web surfing, costing their companies billions in lost productivity.”

In the face of these significant threats to productivity, some employers have taken the step of banning private internet use at the office.  While this may seem like an entirely logical response, Marco Piovesan, a Harvard Business School research fellow, thinks it may have serious drawbacks:

By banning web surfing, employers are essentially asking their workers to resist temptation until they can go home and surf on their own time. The rub: studies show that people asked to resist temptation in anticipation of reward become less productive and make more mistakes in their current tasks.

In the tests Piovesan and his colleagues conducted, they asked test subjects to complete specific simple tasks while fighting the temptation to watch a funny video.  The tests found that the people facing temptation “were more apt to make mistakes and were less productive overall” when compared to a control group.  In a workplace that demands high accuracy, this tendency could cause real trouble.  In any business that depends on high productivity, this could mean disappointing financial results.

Piovesan suggests that the better approach is to let employees know that they can have regular breaks in which to take care of personal business online.  He views this as a means to relieve the pressure and reduce the distracting and exhausting effects of having to exert self-control over long periods of time. This is consistent with the theory that “when we resist temptation we use energy to control ourselves-and then this energy is not available for subsequent tasks.”

Alternatively, we could let Oscar Wilde have the last word: “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself.”

[Photo Credit: Joel Montes]

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