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The Hidden Cause of Aimless Surfing

Cat Asleep on Computer

One of the most maddening things about the internet is the common experience of, despite having many things to do, some of which are even time-sensitive, one will occasionally find oneself clicking around more or less aimlessly. It’s all very interesting, to be sure (cf. William Gibson on Twitter as a novelty aggregator), but it doesn’t help get anything done. One enters into a sort of fugue state in which discovering a re-creation of the Avengers trailer using clips from 1960s animated shows is totally worth spending time on . . . and then all of a sudden it’s 2pm. (Or, worse, 2am!)

This situation probably never happens to ProfHacker readers, but, if it does, Christopher Shea explains that the problem isn’t really the internet. It’s much more likely that you are very, very tired:

That’s a rough-and-ready look at the problem, to be sure, so the researchers added a laboratory component. They asked 96 undergraduates, who had worn a sleep-monitoring device the night before, to sit at a computer and pay close attention to a 42-minute lecture by a professor (whom they were told was being considered for a job). The students were left alone for this task, which required considerable concentration and patience, but any web surfing they did was monitored.

As predicted, the less students had slept the night before, the more they were likely to wander off from their assigned task. Conversely, every minute of sleep meant .05 fewer minutes surfing.

Many people have a point in the semester when they start to feel, not just behind, but overwhelmed. (Am I at that point? Yes, just like Spider-Man.) There’s a powerful temptation to stay up later, or get up earlier, in order to catch up. (“I can just string it out for 10 more days, and then spring break. I’ll sleep then!”)

As Shea suggests, this cure may just exacerbate the problem. When you’re tired and stressed, sitting down at a computer is an invitation to wander, as much as it is an opportunity to work, and your mind will probably take advantage of it.

“Getting enough sleep” is usually pushed as a wellness strategy, but I think that it’s useful to remember that a rested brain is more able to focus. If you find yourself aimlessly trawling Pinterest instead of catching up on your work, a nap might be in order.

Do you have strategies for getting enough sleep? Let us know in comments!

Photo “Owen Using a Linux Certified . . . “ by Flickr user sskennel / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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