Pausing at work to watch a kitten video or two online might not seem like a big deal. It's been a hard year, cats are cute, and experts have even declared that the odd animal meme is actually good for your brain and your productivity (thank you, experts). But, as we all know, the problem, much like with Pringles, is, "Once you pop, you can't stop." 

While the odd dog-on-skateboard distraction does your productivity no harm, opening that first video or post often causes you to tumble down an online rabbit hole. You look up again and, despite your best intentions, an hour has passed. 

Are you just weak willed? Are the evil geniuses tuning our social media algorithms entirely to blame? Or is there something about our viewing habits that makes this kind of mindless clicking more likely? A pair of business school professors recently investigated this question in depth, returning not just with insights about the irresistible pull of just one more video but also simple steps you can take to get back in control of your productivity (without putting yourself in internet jail entirely). 

Streaks make internet distractions way more addictive

Cornell's Kaitlin Woolley and Wharton's Marissa Sharif recently wrote up the findings from their investigation of the social media habits of some 6,445 social media users on HBR. The whole post is worth a read in full, but the professors basically identify three factors that make it far more likely you'll be unable to resist the lure of just one more video. 

  1. Number of videos. The more videos you watch, the more you'll want to watch, the research showed. "Watching five videos made people 10 percent more likely to choose to watch an additional music video than if they only watched one video," the authors report. 

  2. Similarity. Watching videos that clustered around a similar theme or topic made it harder for people to tear themselves away and get back to work. 

  3. Timing. Whether you watch videos one after the other or break them up with other activities affects their addictiveness. "Participants whose video consumption was uninterrupted were 22 percent more likely to choose to watch another video than those who alternated between work tasks and videos," the authors note. They explain that streaks seem to make watching another video feel more accessible or familiar to your brain, and therefore more appealing. 

In short, the longer and more similar your streak of videos, the more your compulsion to keep clicking will grow. I'm guessing that while you may never have consciously considered your viewing habits in these terms before, that sounds pretty accurate to you. It certainly matched with my personal experience. 

... so don't let yourself get on a streak 

Happily, laying out exactly what type of viewing tends to keep you mindlessly clicking also makes it clear what steps you can take to better control your time and productivity. 

"We're more likely to get sucked in if we view many photos or videos in a row, if we consume multiple pieces of similar content, and if we are uninterrupted while consuming that content. So, to combat the pull of the rabbit hole, make an effort to just watch one video; if you really want to watch multiple in a row, choose videos that seem unrelated; or find ways to intentionally interrupt your viewing experience," the authors conclude.

Setting a timer, affixing a sticky note to your screen, or just giving yourself a mental reminder can all do the trick. 

The internet is only growing more immersive and you're unlikely to give up your obsession with goats/sloths/puppies anytime soon. Which makes this some of the most straightforward, useful productivity advice I've heard in a while. Go ahead and indulge your distractions of choice, but do it armed with the knowledge of how "short breaks" spiral out of control and you'll be far less likely to fall down any internet rabbit holes.