Time flies... even if you waste it

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When I gave up Facebook last year, I silently patted myself on the back, as if it's some monumental thing to give up a platform you don't really use anyway. This year, I dumped Twitter... that was much harder. The sense of uneasiness I felt was a little alarming. At 28 days, I nearly broke down and restored my account before the 30 day grace period. I'd spent time posting, gathering followers, looking for others to follow... I had achieved things! But then I got to thinking...

Which tweets did I worry about? Find amusing? Got me fired up? I couldn't even remember! But isn't that the point? It's designed to place the endless attention-stealing stream-of-consciousness of all of humanity in front of you, with a few ads and promoted posts tossed in for revenue. None of it made me a better father.. spouse... human.

Those cumulative hours are gone forever.

Why oh why?

I can only speak for myself, but I'd wager fake Internet karma these resonate with you too.

Gamification. It sounds ridiculous even as I type it, but who can resist a "like" or "thumbs up"? A continuous stream of self-administered, self-affirming pleasure. Don't tell me you post a photo or comment and don't check back to see who hearted it or how many favorites it's gotten. How many sites offer pointless badges and trophies, just for visiting and participating? They know it tugs at the corner of our minds, drawing us back in. But all this fake flare is one domain expiration or corporate buyout from disappearing forever. It's incredibly ephemeral, like a pile of dry sand.

Superficial recognition. My great weakness (get ready to laugh) is Stack Overflow. I've posted 1600+ answers over the last 8 years, which averages to about 1 answer every other day... every week, for nearly a decade. In a field where we sometimes struggle to prove results, it's alluring to keep participating. Lending a hand is not a bad thing, as long as we understand it's still a game. Every time I see a green "+10" I get a little twinge of pleasure. Every time there's a red new message icon, I wonder if I'm about to be affirmed or criticized... and that's a bit exciting.

Trivial is easy. It's easier to argue about the trivial stuff. We can all ingest a quick tweet or post with a minimum of thought, take a side, and die on our respective hills. It's far easier than taking the time to read books, consider both sides, and discuss things like rational human beings. Hell, there's no time to take the time. In the week you took to read that book, a thousand other pointless things have happened. You're missing out! Check out Parkinson's law of triviality.

Social media as a DOS attack

Ironically, some of the people who designed these systems were the first to bail out when they realized the monster they'd created. There was an interview with James Williams awhile back titled Social Media Is a Denial-of-Service Attack on Your Mind, which I recommend reading. An ex-Googler who won awards for his projects, he's working to reverse some of it.

Some of my favorite quotes from the interview:

Back in an information-scarce environment, the role of a newspaper was to bring you information—your problem was lacking it. Now it’s the opposite. We have too much.

The whole point of technology is to help us do what we want to do better. Why else would we have it? I think part of the open door that these industries have walked through is the fact that, when we adopt a new technology, we don’t typically ask “What is it for?”

[We] need to remember the sheer volume and scale of resources that are going into getting us to look at one thing over another, click on one thing over another. This industry employs some of the smartest people, thousands of Ph.D. designers, statisticians, engineers. They go to work every day to get us to do this one thing, to undermine our willpower. It’s not realistic to say you need to have more willpower. That’s the very thing being undermined!

How sobering is that? There are people smarter than you and I - teams of people, buildings full of people - all working to figure out how to undermine our willpower and get us hooked. What chance do we have to combat that?

Our minds can be hijacked

Every time I see a red icon, on my phone or on a website, I'm drawn to it. Every time I see an icon with a number on it, it gnaws at me. Is that a new notification? A new message? Is someone waiting for me to respond? Will it be a positive experience? Negative? I need to check.

Am I the only one who's noticed that the longer I spend on a site, the less satisfied I feel afterwards? A slice of pie is okay. A slice of pie with every meal is less okay. Pie covered pie with pie on the side, for breakfast and lunch and dinner, in your pocket and at work and in bed, is just disgusting. It's less satisfying going down and doesn't sit well afterwards. This thing that was so great and novel before is now a compulsion we're ashamed to admit to. Just like no one eats at McDonald's yet somehow they've served billions. 😂

There's another article titled Our minds can be hijacked, which drives the point home that just because we can doesn't always mean we should. If you don't have time to read it right now (it's a long one), here's a few more quotes I enjoyed:

“The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions,” Eyal writes. “It’s the impulse to check a message notification. It’s the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later.” None of this is an accident, he writes. It is all “just as their designers intended”.

When smartphone users glance at their phones, dozens or hundreds of times a day, they are confronted with small red dots beside their apps, pleading to be tapped. “Red is a trigger colour,” Harris says. “That’s why it is used as an alarm signal.”

The most seductive design, Harris explains, exploits the same psychological susceptibility that makes gambling so compulsive: variable rewards. When we tap those apps with red icons, we don’t know whether we’ll discover an interesting email, an avalanche of “likes”, or nothing at all. It is the possibility of disappointment that makes it so compulsive.

It’s this that explains how the pull-to-refresh mechanism, whereby users swipe down, pause and wait to see what content appears, rapidly became one of the most addictive and ubiquitous design features in modern technology. “Each time you’re swiping down, it’s like a slot machine,” Harris says. “You don’t know what’s coming next. Sometimes it’s a beautiful photo. Sometimes it’s just an ad.”

[Roger McNamee] identifies the advent of the smartphone as a turning point, raising the stakes in an arms race for people’s attention. “Facebook and Google assert with merit that they are giving users what they want,” McNamee says. “The same can be said about tobacco companies and drug dealers.”

What can we do?

As Michael Altshuler reminds us (and numerous other motivational speakers have said similar), "The bad news is time flies. The good news is you're the pilot." We just forget it. Or if we're young enough, we've never even known differently!

Take a hiatus. Absence makes the heart grow fonder... or not. Pick something you love to waste your free time on and go without it for 30 days. If you can't list some really good reasons it was in your life, let it go. Yeah, easier said than done though. It's unnerving how much solace I find in scrolling through online media or certain news sites... but it rarely leaves me feeling peaceful or more fulfilled.

Find tools to cut the distractions. Here's a few browser extensions, none of which I've tried but they look pretty good. The first one strips out elements of YouTube, for example.

If you're a programmer, write something that helps you and share it with the world. When I realized that some of the sites I visit had thoughtful articles, but the comments were nasty, I wrote an extension to hide most comments. It works fairly well.

Find tools to keep you focused. For example, I use Trello with a single board. There's columns for what I want to do today, this week, and this month. Then a number of other columns representing things to do with my family, around the house, for this blog, personal pursuits... and I revisit it and move things around daily. YMMV, but it works for me. If I consider wasting too much time on <insert whatever here> I can make a decision on whether I need some downtime or want to get to work on something that matters.

And if you got this far and aren't thoroughly depressed yet, check out Keys Left to find out how many keystrokes you have before you die. LOL. Seriously though, I think that's a little too far, insofar as someone may end up watching the counter tick down with sweaty palms until they have a nervous breakdown. Maybe it should give you trophies and badges based on how long you spend on it or how many times you revisit. ;)

Time passes no matter what we do - does what we're doing matter?


Grant Winney

I write when I've got something to share - a personal project, a solution to a difficult problem, or just an idea. We learn by doing and sharing. We've all got something to contribute.

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