I have mentioned both in my blog and on my podcast that I am a video gamer. One of my favorite series to play is Assassin’s Creed. The structure of that particular game, much like many others is that it includes both a main storyline you can play through and lots of side missions you can go on to build up your character. Most experienced gamers know that the vast majority of the side missions are fluff. What I mean by fluff is that there is lots of similar missions with minimal unique characters, locations or challenges. In the video game world having an in game requirement to complete these side missions is known as ‘grinding’. It exists because of the perception that time spent in the game, regardless of the quality of the time, equals value to many people. I can see how traditional gamers come to that conclusion. If you are younger and you only have $60 to spend on a video game once or twice a year the amount of time you can get out of that game becomes a major purchase consideration. At that point grinding becomes value. If you’re older or affluent enough to get whatever game you want, then playing the game through all the required grinding means something different. For good or for bad all those extra missions are simply Time-Wasters, assuming you want to complete the game 100%.
The universality of Time-Wasters are, I think, a relatively new concept that grew out of the digitization of our world. It’s not like Time-Wasters never existed in the past. My earliest experience with them was when I was a busboy at Tommy’s Pizzeria in South Florida. There was a waitress there named Pat. I always liked Pat because she gave me an extra fifty cents a night when she bussed me out. Don’t judge, it was 1987 and I was 15 years old. Fifty cents meant a lot to me back then. Because I liked Pat, I would talk to her more openly then I would speak to the other staff. She always used to read tabloids like the National Enquirer, a gossip rag, but she spent most of her down time reading it’s sister publication the Weekly World News. One day I asked her why she read such garbage? Even at 15 years old I knew that the paper was a waste of time, and worse, money. Her response? “Eh, it’s something to do!”. There were other Time-Wasters in the day, the next one that comes to mind was the daily run of soap operas with endless plots filled with sexual and emotional nothingness. One major difference between the early analog Time-Wasters and the modern digital versions is that the early ones were finite. Yes a new tabloid came out every week but it was limited by the physical reality of printing on paper. Every day there was a new episode of the soap opera but they were limited by broadcast time. The digital Time-Wasters are different, they never end.
Like many of the new and different realities of our modern world, digital Time-Wasters grew out of the information age. Specifically, the ubiquity of digital entertainment. So, what do these time traps look like? How do we Define them?
Defining Digital Time-Wasters
If I were taking a stab at defining a Time-Waster, it’s something that takes lots of time but doesn’t include much value at improving your life. The Life Trap variant of the Time-Waster is an activity that, by design, is built around driving the individual to continually engage with it to the detriment of said individual.
Digital Time-Wasters mirror the analog equivalents from the earlier years. Instead eight hours of crappy soap operas, we have binge-watching off of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime video. Instead of the National Enquirer and the weekly world news we have click-bait headlines at the bottom of every website that is trying to make a buck.
Although this is a life traps article, we can’t forget that Time-Wasters are not all inherently evil. There is occasionally some value in them. Generally speaking it’s when you have down time that needs to be filled. Where do you see it most? With those that have the most time. Kids, retired folks, and chronic underachievers. These are the people who will play the video games, watch the time filler television series du jour or live their lives sipping coffee with their cronies at McDonald’s. But sometimes normal people actually need Time-Wasters. Strange things happen in life that create dead time. These things boil around transitions. You can have a highly productive professional who for whatever reason has two months in between positions because of some legal or technical requirement. Maybe there’s some medical thing that requires them to be out of work for months or a set number of hours in a day. There could be a ton of down time to fill. A famous example can be seen with Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft. His transition away from the company and into the next phase of his life included a fair amount of down time that he filled with binge-watching seasons of the Gossip Girl before he bought the LA Lakers.
One way that I like to use them is as a reward for achieving a goal. I’ve talked about my lists (List article). Typically if I finish the items on one of my lists there is a built in reward. The reward, at least for me, is something like a few hours on the game. It really helps keep me focused and more importantly if I achieve my goal, I don’t feel at all guilty or anxiety ridden about playing the game when I should be doing something else.
When a Time-Waster Becomes a Life Trap
Life traps always have some nefarious element associated with them. Digital Time-Wasters are no different. I mentioned Assassin’s Creed earlier, specifically the grinding side missions. In defense of the game, the main storyline and RPG elements are very highly regarded in the industry. The grinding elements really are there more for gameplay extension and perception of value than anything with an ulterior motive.
The Life Trap element comes from digital entertainment that is designed to steal your time. With video games it’s a type of game that is designed to hook you into continually playing and goad you into spending a significantly disproportionate amount of money on the game. You tend not to see these games in the AAA space inhabited by Assassin’s Creed and other high quality games. These are the free games you see that populate the mobile app stores. Sometimes they are designed with a temporal element, where you can’t get to the next level without waiting a specific amount of time. Of course you can pay to speed things up. Games that replicate casino slots or anything that begins with the name ‘Tap Tap’ are obvious examples but sadly the list is limitless. These games are designed with scientific precision to continually incentivize the player with dopamine generating rewards to keep the user playing. Everything from the color of the buttons on the screen to the amount of time before bonuses are awarded literally are analyzed to keep the most people engaged for the longest possible time. There is no end to these games. There is only continual signals, both overt and subconscious, delivered to the player to keep them engaged in the task. The creators of these games are looking for “Wales”, the small percentage of people who spend hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars on a game to progress through the never-ending levels. Uncounted versions of these games exist because they become cash machines when they get the whales playing and spending forever. Consequently the more sticky the game is to people’s time, the greater the chance someone will turn into a whale. Even if the player never spends real money the stickiness makes the cell phone app stores a minefield of Time-Wasters.
The web analogs to the video game Time-Waster are all of those supposed articles designed to keep people clicking through to see what’s next. They are structured to have one small informational item, usually as part of a long list, and then a requirement to click through to see the next item in the list. Of course each page that gets clicked is loaded with ads. The quasi articles always have a salacious headline like: The top 10 stars who had sex change operations! Or The 22 Stars you didn’t know were gay! Sex is a big draw for this clickbait but admittedly not the only one. Many times the article will be designed around some type of schadenfreude like: You’re not going to believe how fat these stars have gotten! When you get to the end, there is several more similar articles to click on. More and more I’m hearing that people will lose hours on end clicking through list after list.
All articles based around lists aren’t evil. Even I have one. Like many similar articles that appear around Christmas or New Year’s every year I have a top 5 list that I publish. I use it to highlight some of the Articles I’m most proud of that year and to give my production a little bit of a break when I know readership is going to be low. My list, like all of the others around that time of year, are not designed to grab people and keep them clicking through in perpetuity which is the sign of a time-waster life trap.
Time-Wasters at work:
I’ve been talking about digital Time-Wasters, but there are other Time-Wasters that are real world activity-based. I find these often in the workplace and they can be tasks but often it is meetings. Regular meetings are a little bit like the Assassins Creed game. They take longer than they have to but they are not designed to be inherently wasteful. There can even be high levels of quality and productivity enhancement built into the process of meeting, at least for the good ones. Over the years I have found that there are occasionally meetings that fall into that second category of Time-Waster: Time-Waster as a life trap. These are meetings called by a person of importance because it looks good and they continue to be called again and again for no other reason other than the appearance of activity. They waste everyone’s time, sometimes they even beget tons of superfluous work.
The meetings, and sometimes corporate culture, will create Time-Waster tasks that fall in the pure activity category. They usually are reports that have to be compiled or even trips that are undertaken for the same reason as the meetings: Appearances. If a chess player personality calls the meeting, suggests visiting a client or asks for the report it’s never good. All the stuff you have to do has to get put on hold. There are so many variants of Time-Wasters at work that it’s impossible to list them all here. Unfortunately, unlike the dopamine driven and self-afflicted use of our modern era’s ubiquitous digital Time-Wasters, there is little choice but to take part in the work Time-Waster. Fortunately, the professional class has one major ace up the sleeve when it comes to work Time-Wasters. We are intelligent and problem solvers by nature. To that end we have the benefit of figuring it out quick and learning the art of how to not let it control us.
The world that developed around the industrial age is built around productivity. There are infinite metrics used to measure this productivity throughout every job in the greater economy. The odds are that there are several that every reader of my work and listener to my podcast is tasked with meeting daily. The more time people spend on unproductive tasks the more pressure there is on the time for tasks that actually enhance productivity. That’s why I stick to three rules when it comes to these types of distractions:
Rule 1: Plan for the Time-Wasters if you need them. One way is to set up a goal like I did with the video game. I get 2 hours of dead time when I’m done with my goal sheet. For me it’s ½ reward and ½ activity based recharge time. There are other ways to do it, but moderation is the key. This only helps productivity tangentially, but it does help.
Rule 2: Avoid the digital Time-Wasters like the plague. They are incredibly addicting because they are designed to hook you and constantly keep you engaged. I can’t underscore this enough. These things are evil. They are the smartphone equivalent of opioids and should be outlawed.
Rule 3: Avoid Time-Wasters at work where you can and figure out ways to accelerate the ones that you can’t avoid. There is a delicate balance here. You don’t want to put together garbage that may be looked at every once in a blue moon, but you don’t want to spend forever putting together a magnum opus that will only ever collect dust on a shelf.
I’d like to write more, but right now my list of things to do is not getting shorter. Also, I like to keep my articles and my podcast succinct. My goal is to add a ton of value people’s lives and not waste their time. Rambling on and on doesn’t help with this goal. I guess that’s why I’ve been more aware of the detrimental aspects of Time-Wasters. We only have so much time on this fruited plain, so I get frustrated when I see organizations and media who’s sole focus is to take our time more for their benefit than our own. Maybe if the creators of this drivel read their own clickbait articles and played their own vapid games they would change their attitude and their products. Until then, like always, we have to rely on ourselves to avoid the trap of Time-Wasters and concentrate on the more engaging aspects of life. Thankfully this is one Life Trap that we can avoid fairly easily.
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