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lucy kellaway

One day last week I was sitting at my desk reading an academic paper on cyberloafing when I glanced at my screen and saw a colleague had tweeted: "This shouldn't be funny but it is." I clicked on the link and found a series of pictures of ships with silly names. There was HMS Gay Viking, HMS Spanker, SS Lesbian, USS Saucy, SS Iron Knob. At first I laughed but, as I read on to HMS Cockchafer and HMS Grappler, I thought: surely not? Thus I found myself checking on Wikipedia and discovering HMS Cockchafer was the fifth Royal Navy ship of that name, that it was built in 1915, defended the southeast coast of England during the First World War and was later part of the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran.

Having established that, I saw Twitter was suggesting I follow someone whose name was dimly familiar, so I Googled her and started reading her dull résumé until I was distracted by a non-story on the BBC website about David Cameron weighing in on the non-story of Hilary Mantel having said the bleeding obvious: that Kate Middleton looks like a shop-window mannequin. What the hell was I doing? It was the middle of a working day and I had quite a bit to do, but had just squandered a whole hour on nothing.

The reason I'm flaunting this disgraceful theft of time from my employer is that I was reading (before I got distracted) a shocking piece of research telling me that when it comes to cyberloafing, I'm an amateur. According to Joseph Ugrin from Kansas State University, the average U.S. worker spends 60-80 per cent of their time online at work doing things unrelated to their jobs. This statistic leaves me feeling slightly less ashamed, but in despair about everyone else.

Until a couple of years ago, I thought skiving was a non-problem. The answer, I thought, was to fire extreme slackers and give the rest of us more work to do. But I don't think that any more. I cyberloaf even when I'm extremely busy, which means I often work at weekends to catch up. I find the temptation to waste time online is so great that it swamps everything else. It feeds almost every need I have. It's a drug, and I can't help myself.

Some people heroically try to pretend there is nothing to worry about. Researchers from the National University of Singapore recently concluded that surfing the Internet at work is actually a good thing, as it reduces stress and leaves you feeling refreshed. I dare say this might be right for the first five minutes or so. It was soothing for my mind to alight briefly on SS Iron Knob. But what wasn't soothing was the helter-skelter ride I took from there that left me guilty, angry with myself, stressed about undone work and about as satisfied as if I'd eaten a whole tube of sour-cream-and-onion Pringles.

The corporate response to this sort of Internet abuse is wildly inadequate. Most companies rely on issuing guidelines and doing some monitoring. They might as well not bother. According to Prof. Ugrin's research, this makes precious little difference unless offenders get punished publicly. In other words, we need the equivalent of putting people in the stocks to have any hope of persuading everyone else to get off Facebook and Reddit and get on with their work.

Prof. Ugrin points out that the problem with such punishment is that it reduces trust and makes people demotivated. But it seems to me a price worth paying: Trust may be a luxury we can no longer afford.

Short of clapping cyberloafers in the stocks, there are all sorts of software programs that offer help by blocking certain sites or shutting down the Internet altogether for periods of time. These are called names such as "Concentrate," "Think" and "Self-control" – which are in themselves a giveaway. Thinking and concentrating are things we used to be able to do perfectly happily by ourselves. Now we need special apps to help us.

But even if the Internet were blocked on work computers, the problem still wouldn't go away, as we would all respond by getting our cyberloafing fix on our smartphones instead.

In search of a more complete answer (and to give me an excuse to get back online), I've just sent out a tweet asking if anyone has found a fail-safe way of getting off Twitter and back to work. The great Tom Peters replied at once: "Just ignore it and move on!" – the speed of his response rather undermining his advice. More honest was the man who simply tweeted "no." But my favourite response came from a woman who said: "Too late. #genie/bottle/out."