Working Smarter: Is Facebook killing your productivity?

Jenna has just completed the Whole 30 and feels like a new person. Zach’s boss just told him how great he’s doing and gave him an unsolicited raise. Todd is living the dream — Christmas in Hawaii!!

Except for the names, these are real Facebook updates, and pretty typical of the genre. Don’t get me wrong — I’m happy for my friends. But checking Facebook sometimes feels like eating from a bottomless bowl of M&Ms — a treat that quickly makes you feel depressed, guilty and slightly sick. In fact, according to research, checking Facebook while working can seriously hamper your productivity.

Dr. Larry Rosen, a Professor of Psychology at California State University, conducted a study in which his research team observed nearly 300 students studying in their homes for 15 minutes. Unsurprisingly, those who concentrated for longer had higher GPAs than those who consumed a lot of media. But one result stood out: those who checked Facebook just once in that 15-minute period were prone to poor academic performance. Rosen says: “It was the only website or technology that predicted someone’s grade point average.”

Checking Facebook may just be a symptom, rather than a cause, of being a bad student, but Rosen hypothesizes that it’s a vicious cycle — those who can’t concentrate check Facebook, and Facebook makes it even harder to focus on their SAT prep or that pesky English paper.

Why, exactly, does Facebook hamper concentration? Rosen says it exacerbates “FOMO” (“Fear Of Missing Out,” and yes, apparently that is a term that research psychologists use), and FOMO is insidious because it causes a constant low-level anxiety. Sound familiar?

This isn’t the only study suggesting that Facebook stirs up negative emotions. In this study conducted by two German universities, one in three Facebook users experienced a drop in self-esteem when viewing others’ status updates, especially if those updates were about vacations. (The second biggest cause of Facebook envy was seeing how many birthday wishes, “Likes,” and comments others received.)

Is it any surprise that when I plug “Facebook makes me” into Google, the number one autocomplete is “depressed”? (The top ten searches, where I am, also include “angry,” “lonely,” and “feel like a loser.”)

Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones and Facebook makes you feel great. Maybe you just posted a cute picture of your toddler with mashed peas all over his face and got 157 Likes. After all, not all activities on Facebook are created equal. Scrolling through others’ successes may cause you pangs of freudenschade (the opposite of schadenfreude), but what about collecting friends, posting photos, and earning glowing comments and retweets?

Well, it turns out that this has a different kind of negative effect. In this study, students who studied their own profile for five minutes had higher self-esteem than a control group, but made less effort on a mental arithmetic test.  In other words, they felt so great about themselves they became complacent.

Should you avoid checking Facebook at work altogether? No — let’s be realistic. But be aware that, more than any other form of digital distraction, it takes a toll on your motivation. Whether Facebook makes you feel like a loser or a rock star, the end result is you’ll feel less like getting stuff done.

Helena Echlin
Helena Echlin has written for numerous publications, such as The Guardian, The Times, and The Sunday Telegraph in the UK, and Yoga Journal and The San Francisco Chronicle in the US. For five years, she wrote Table Manners, an etiquette advice column for CHOW.com.
Helena Echlin
Tags: Business,Productivity,Social Media