You Should Ditch Work to Go Watch Soccer, Say Productivity Experts

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Photo: Anthony Marsland/Getty Images

Those of us who have office jobs and who have been following the U.S. men's soccer team's exciting World Cup run so far face a quandary in a few hours: The team's match against Germany, which, combined with the result of the concurrent Portugal-Ghana match, will determine whether it advances to the elimination stage of the tournament, kicks off at noon. What to do?

I emailed three productivity experts with a simple question: Shouldn't we collectively reject the notion that anyone's going to get work done between the hours of noon and 2:00 or so? Shouldn't the people who want to watch soccer just go watch soccer and catch up on work after the match? Their response, in short: yes. Go watch soccer. Peace be with you. Work will be waiting when you return.

"Totally agree with your approach to focusing on the game, and then making up the time with full focus on work separately," wrote Julie Morgenstern, a professional organizer and productivity consultant. Great, but why? Christine Rosen, a fellow at the New America Foundation who studies our interactions with technology, pointed to the perils of multitasking. That is, most people who care about the match and are stuck at work — at least those lucky enough to have their own office or a window- or wall-facing computer monitor — are going to be sneakily streaming the match anyway as they toil, and this is a recipe for not getting anything done. "We are a nation of overconfident multitaskers," she said. "Despite our inflated assumptions about our ability to task-switch every few seconds, our brains are bad at this." (And remember that even a three-second distraction is a recipe for nosediving productivity.)

But even those soccer fans who can resist the sweet siren call of streaming video are unlikely to have a productive afternoon, explained Erik Altmann, a Michigan State psychologist. "An important source of distraction is the other important things on your mind, which can be quite a range — trouble at home, other things you want to be doing, etc. So if you can tick one of those off the list, so much the better." The idea that you're going to successfully work on that spreadsheet while your head is buzzing with yellow cards and corner kicks, in other words, makes no sense.

This ditching-work suggestion does assume you have a certain kind of job and work in a certain kind of office. It does not apply, say, to airline pilots or emergency-room physicians (we'll email you updates, guys). But the fact that some people are going to have to miss the match for no good reason suggests we're clinging to some pretty silly ideas about work — specifically, the fanciful notion that just because you're sitting at your desk during certain hours, you're being productive.

Rosen has the right idea: "It would be much more efficient and a great deal more pleasurable if we all gave up the pretense of working and simply enjoyed the World Cup game for a few hours before getting back to work," she said. "The only status we should be checking during the USA-Germany match is that of Jozy Altidore's hamstring."

Update: Clearly Governor Cuomo is a Science of Us reader: