Online shopping at work? Here's how to break the habit.

How to deal with your online shopping addiction at work

You’re shopping online at work again. You hear your boss approaching. You close the tab. Phew.

You’re not alone. A recent study by found that roughly 140 million Americans admit to shopping online at work, resulting in a whopping 234 million hours of online shopping each day. So much lost productivity—and so much spending!

So what drives us to treat every workday like Cyber Monday? Chloe Carmichael, a clinical psychologist who specializes in stress management, suggested that people shop on the clock because accomplishing personal tasks at work can reduce stress by making us feel more productive and successful.

“Shopping is a clear and simple task,” Carmichael said, “whereas work projects can feel amorphous and harder to solve.”

Makes sense. Rather than work on a proposal for my next book idea or video project, I can order a wedding gift or buy new shoes for my high schooler. With a few clicks, mission accomplished, cross it off the to-do list, pat self on back, and repeat.

Young and restless

As with many tech-enabled activities, online shopping at work is generational. The same survey found that more than 70% of millennial employees admitted to shopping online, versus 57% of Gen Xers and 33% of Baby Boomers. The younger you are, the longer online shopping has been a part of your life—and the more susceptible you are to its temptations while you’re logged in at work. Way to reinforce those stereotypes. (Oh, those one-click, consequence-free millennials!)

If you shop at work and you’ve tried to stop, you might have found that cutting back is more difficult than you expected. In fact, Carmichael explained, online shopping can be addictive. “When we acquire things, we get a hit of dopamine, which provides a sense of fulfillment,” she said. And because shopping can feel like self-care, she added, stopping can generate a sense of unease or anxiety.

Pain-free budget busting

When you shop with cash in-store, the transaction is concrete. You hand cash to the cashier. You then have less cash. Doesn’t feel great, does it? (That’s the pain of paying you’re experiencing.) With online shopping via credit card, shoppers can suffer an emotional—and monetary—disconnect because the transaction is nebulous. In fact, a famous MIT study found that people are willing to spend twice as much to buy the same item when using a credit card rather than cash. You’re charging the purchase to your account, but it’s not the same as peering into a just-emptied wallet, is it? The pain doesn’t hit you until your credit card bill comes due. That makes it easier to blow your budget and end up carrying a balance, which I am not a fan of because it can ding your credit!

Delay, delay, delay

You don’t want to break the bank with excessive shopping or get written up or fired—do you? But it’s hard to kick the habit cold-turkey. To begin reducing the time you spend shopping online at work, try setting simple limits, like allowing yourself to shop only during lunch or coffee breaks. And you know that I’m a proponent of teaching kids about delayed gratification. If you’re shopping online at work, you could benefit from learning this life skill as well. Try waiting until you get home. You might lose interest by then, or simply have too much going on.

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Carmichael agreed that delaying gratification can be effective. She suggested that rather than buying everything that appeals to you, make lists of the things you want on a memo pad. (The notes function on your phone or a task app are more high-tech options.) Creating lists can actually satisfy some shopping cravings because we are still browsing, and it retains that sense of possibility, Carmichael said. “It’s good to research. It makes you feel productive, which can be pleasurable in itself.”

Waiting to purchase will likely help you to make more thoughtful decisions. If you make yourself wait 24 hours before purchasing, or allow yourself only one day per week to buy stuff, you’ll probably spend less. Setting a monthly spending limit won’t hurt, either.

You’re at work. Act like it.

If you do shop online at work, there’s a good chance that your productivity and your wallet are suffering. Try, really try, to set achievable time and spending limits. After all, you’re at work to work—and to earn money, not to spend it before you even get home.

Do you shop online at work? Are you trying to break the habit, or do you plan to keep on shopping? Tell me about it in the comments. And good luck.

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