Top 10 workplace time wasters

By Iain Thomson on Aug 17, 2009 9:12 AM
Filed under Technology
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Daytime indulgences every boss fears.

Let's face it, work isn't supposed to be lots of fun. As my grandfather used to say, they call it 'work' for a reason.

That's why everyone needs to blow off a little steam during the day, and some research suggests doing so actually makes us more productive. To keep from going crazy, we need to take a little break here or there. For those of us stuck behind a computer all day, this often takes the form of software and web sites.

There are going to be some people reading this who think “ah ha, I've just been given a list of sites to block at the firewall so my people will work harder!” Not a bit of it, plenty of the names on this list are very useful and blocking them is counter-productive, as well as making the IT manager look like the Grinch.

This week, we count down some of our favourite wastes of time. At least, we will count them down at some point... right after I check this one last site…

Honourable Mention: Instant messaging

Iain Thomson: Fair's fair, there is a strong business case for instant messaging. It's an invaluable tool for non-physical meetings and I use it daily to get in contact with the UK office without running up huge phone bills.

But that said it's also a time sink in other ways. How often are you sitting at your desk working on something when some slacker who you have no interest in hearing from suddenly IMs because they are at a loose end. Unfortunately politeness requires that you answer and before you know it you've spend ten minutes in useless chatter and your train of thought has been hopelessly derailed.

But, I hear you say, isn't that just the same as an unwanted phone call? Not at all, thanks to the wonders of technology. If you don't want to be disturbed you can always shut the phone off and pretend you're out. With IM they know you are there and there's no escape. This is why I only turn the IM system on when contact would be welcomed.

Shaun Nichols: Yes Iain, if only there were some sort of message you could put up to tell people that you're away from the desk or busy with work at the moment...

Even with away messages there's a problem, however. Perhaps you're not busy talking to someone else via IM with legitimate business, but that one friend who just seems to have way to much free time sees you and sends the "hello" message, followed a few minutes later by the dreaded "are you there?" and then "hellooooo?"

Aside from the time-wasting dangers, there are other worries with instant messaging. Perhaps you have a conversation with your girlfriend in one window, a quick chat with a co-worker or boss in another window, and yet another containing a back-and-forth with your best friend. We've all been there, and we all know full well the dangers which arise when you're not paying very close attention to which window you're typing in. Even if you get along really well with your boss he's not going to want sweet nothings appearing in his IM box by mistake.

Honourable Mention: SMS messaging

Shaun Nichols: Like our other honourable mention, text messages are a very useful technology that can easily become a distraction.

The big risk about text messaging is that it is almost completely silent and easy to conceal. This can make it very easy to sneak in a text message or five while sitting at your desk. Helpful if you're setting up a dinner date, but hazardous if you're whittling away the minutes filling a friend in on last night's date.

This becomes an even bigger problem for those of us that have friends on the dole. Getting through that 3:00-4:00pm stretch is hard enough as it is, but it's nearly impossible when your out-of-work buddy is texting you from the couch with his theories about the connections between Greek mythology and Everybody Loves Raymond.

Iain Thomson: With friends like that Shaun...

SMS does have valuable uses, and it's of enormous value to the phone companies who make billions a year out of it. SMS, despite being very old technology, is still the most profitable data service on mobile phones today.

But we're all seen the effects of SMS on some people, particularly the youth of today. The next generation is going to get a crick in its neck from constantly being bent over a mobile phone and scientists are already noting that extreme texters have begun using their thumbs to point at things rather than the traditional index finger. Humanity will only be saved because these people will get run over trying to cross roads while typing LMAO one more time.

10. B3TA

Iain Thomson: In 2001 three highly talented British basket-cases set up B3TA (pronounced Beta) to showcase and create the weirdest stuff online and the rest is,as they say, history. I suspect Shaun rues the day I sent him his first link to the site.

The site is more addictive than crack, and much more fun. The Friday newsletter is a thing of joy to read and the forums are full of both unusual links and some of the best Photoshopping and computer animation this side of Hollywood. There's a weekly Photoshop challenge and a Question of the Week contest too, all voted on exclusively by the membership.

It has spawned some of the internet's most enduring memes, including the infamous Badger, Badger, Badger animation which is the most persistent earworm I've ever encountered. Several of my friends want to kill me for passing it on to them.

As a timewaster it is excellent. At CES this year I introduced an American journalist to the site's sick joke wiki and he spent the next two days lambasting me for ruining his productivity and supplying him with enough jokes to get him tarred and feathered in his home state.

The membership could best be described as 'quirky', but the quality of submissions is so high you can spend hours clicking and laughing. My days would be poorer indeed without the stories of SpankyHanky, Legless, Grandmasterfluffles et al, the skilled animation of the other members and the knowledge that crackhouseceilidhband has taken flashmobbing to unusual new areas.

Shaun Nichols: For my fellow Americans who are not quite familiar with the site, B3TA is sort of like 4Chan, minus the shock porn.

Iain turned me on to B3TA shortly after his arrival in the US office, and because of that I have an excuse I can try whenever I spend a bit too much time on the site and nearly miss a deadline. It doesn't work but hey, it's worth a shot if I'm desperate.

Anyone who thinks that British humour is a completely dry, sophisticated affair need look no further than B3TA. Though the jokes are often very clever, there's also a fair amount of goofy, silly humour. I would recommend to everyone here in the States that we pull an "Office" and embrace B3TA. Maybe we can send back Simon Cowell as compensation.

9. Wikipedia

Shaun Nichols: When you need to look up a quick fact or double-check some stats, Wikipedia can be a very useful tool. When you need to buckle down and get work done, however, it can be a terrible vice.

We've all been there; you pop on for a quick look-up to verify a date in history or maybe settle a break-room argument. Then a link on that page looks interesting, so you check it out. Then another link catches your eye. Before you know it you've spent 45 minutes reading up on Soviet freight aircraft of the late Cold War-era.

So it’s not just questionable sources that one needs to be wary of when searching Wikipedia, there's also the lure of soaking up useless facts while you're supposed to be getting work done.

Iain Thomson: It's the random article button on the Wikipedia page that has been my downfall in the past.

Picture the scene; it's lunchtime, the sandwich is laid out before you and Wikipedia is open. A few trial clicks and before you know it you're hooked. It's a deadly trap that's difficult to wean yourself off.

That's not to say there aren't benefits. I now know more than any man should about rotary vane air compression, the debate over the correct plural for octopus and US Airforce experimental aircraft post World War Two. This may at some point be of use, but I'm betting it won't be at the next industry press conference I attend, unless things get really weird.

8. Fark

Iain Thomson: In days of yore we used to use the term Slashdotted to describe the effect of having something posted on the popular tech news site and then having your servers fall over when the rush of traffic hit. Nowadays we use the term Farked.

Fark collects the news from around the world and posts it on a continually updated board. What makes it special is that the submitters of links are volunteers and supply their own headlines. Most of these are so good you shouldn't view the site while drinking a cup of tea in case the keyboard and monitor get an unexpected bath from reading something too funny.

Nevertheless the site does serve a purpose. It breaks news early, both serious and weird, and is useful for keeping up with what's going on in the world. On the other hand it's an enormous time sink because, however way you spin it, learning about lunacy in Florida or oddballs in other parts of the world is seldom useful for work.

Shaun Nichols: How I ever lived before Fark, I'll never know. It's like a news aggregator that goes ahead and makes all of the snarky comments for you. And to think there was a day when people had to actually hold up a newspaper and make the sarcastic comments about the stupidity of it all on their own!

What's even more dangerous about Fark is that if you read it long enough, you too begin to talk like a "Farker." While this can be quite satisfying at times, it also can get you in a bit of trouble when around others who have yet to become jaded by the site's cutting and merciless approach to news analysis. My grandmother still hasn't forgiven me for referring to her beloved kitten Troubles as "the ugliest thing you'll see all day."

7. Boards/Forums

Shaun Nichols: One of the great things about the internet is that it allows pretty much anyone with any sort of interest to find a community of like-minded individuals. Often the best way to connect with others around the world is through a message board or forum.

Just as phone conversations with friends can carry on far too long, an internet conversation with a web friend can run late and get you into trouble at work. If you sit behind a desk, however, this can be even more of a danger than talking on the telephone.

While the boss can see and hear you yapping on the phone and shoot you a dirty look, someone has to be standing behind you looking over your shoulder to see the activity on your screen. How do you tell if someone is typing up a report or debating with a guy in Miami about which 1980s Bill Murray film was the best?

Iain Thomson: I'd say Shaun's initial point cuts both ways; like-minded individuals joining together is fine, so long as their interests are benign.

But when it comes to forums he raises the most meaningful point. At work, so long as people can't see your screen, you could be doing pretty much anything online and it would take monitoring software to tell the difference.

Unluckily for Shaun I sit right behind him so can see his screen, but luckily for him I don't worry too much if he pops onto the boards occasionally - so long as the work gets done on time and to the highest standards.

One of the finest explanations of the downfalls of forums came in, of all things, the West Wing. You can see an explanation here but I'd advise getting the full episode to appreciate the full danger of forums.

What else made it to the list? Read on to discover how workers spend their time!

 
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