I spend way too much time on reddit, hacker news, twitter, feedly, coinbase, robinhood, email, etc. I’d like to spend time on things that are more meaningful - chess, digital painting, side projects, reading, video games, exercising, meditating, etc. This has been a problem for years.
This post is only slightly adapted from my personal notes, so excuse the lack of structure; I didn’t want to try to twist this jumble of thoughts into a narrative.
Some might object to the “meaningful” items in that list, like video games. Why does playing Wild Rift, which is often very toxic, get a passing mark? By what am I judging a given 10 minutes as being spent wisely? Progress on a skill? Enjoyment in the moment? Creation over consumption? Strengthening relationships? Giving to a greater cause? It’s some mix of the above and others, but the point is that I can look at two activities and place them in relation to each other. Studying chess is more meaningful than playing Wild Rift, which is more meaningful than reading hacker news articles, which is more meaningful than reading the comments.
The source of this meaning is less of the concern of this post. The point is that this is something I’ve thought about as a potential reason, like “maybe I don’t really believe that studying chess is a better use of time than reading /r/programming, after all what’s even the point of being good at chess?”. But realistically I think this is at most a small part of the issue.
There have been times where some task has seemed so important, that it was able to overshadow the time-wasting apps. When I was going to Hack Reactor and felt a pressing need to get a job so I didn’t have to go back to USC, I didn’t spend my free time wastefully. When I was trying to create a startup with a couple friends, I didn’t have any problem eliminating the time-wasters from my day. But getting in these modes doesn’t seem like a long-term solution. I’d like to choose chess over reddit for the rest of my life, but it doesn’t overpower the pull of reddit by it being more meaningful alone.
Absence of more meaningful activities
For a while, part of my problem with wasting time was that I didn’t have many alternative things to do. Apart from work, my only hobby was reading, so if I’d burned myself out on the few genres I liked, I’d inevitably fall into a Reddit-shaped hole. This is no longer a problem, I’ve got plenty of things I can use my time on. So I think this is a failure mode that can cause the same time-wasting pattern, but it’s not my problem currently.
Top shelf theory
From here, the theory is that as long as you have access to things that are more immediately satisfying, you’re making everything else seem worse by comparison. For example, if you have the option of eating Blue Bell dutch chocolate ice cream, eating some berries seems worse by comparison; a comparison you won’t be able to help making. If you didn’t have the option of eating Blue Bell Dutch chocolate ice cream (this blog brought to you by the Blue Bell marketing department), then you could just enjoy the berries.
This rang true when I read through it the first time. However, it doesn’t match my own experience in getting to a stage where I can easily eat healthy. I don’t eat ice cream any more, but I do have a ranking for snacks, with berries on the “top shelf”. So I will generally eat berries over other snacks when I have them, but not exclusively, and when I eat beans I’m not thinking of the berries I could be eating.
I think the way the top shelf theory falls apart is when you’re not just talking about a couple super-satisfying options. To go back to time-wasting instead of food, it’s not like the only issue is that Twitter and Reddit are these irresistible temptations, and if they didn’t exist I would be spending my time optimally. They may have caused the issue, it’s hard to say, but what I have now is more general, in that I have a pull toward easy satisfaction, that I find hard to resist. If I eliminate Reddit/Twitter specifically, I start watching YouTube videos or reading trash fiction. It’s a gradient, and even if I could magically set some strict boundaries around my behavior, I’d be attracted to the tasks that just about made it inside the boundary. I’d end up bikeshedding my vim config instead of doing real work on my side project.
Junk food and junk time
You can compare time-wasting to eating junk food, like the top shelf article does. In contrast to my free-time habits, my eating habits are flawless. There’s zero disconnect between “what I wish I would eat” and “what I eat”. I read a book on gut health and went from a steak every day to a whole food, plant-based diet. I recently read another book on plant foods and replaced all my refined grains with whole grains. I’ll pick up brown rice now instead of white rice with no hesitation, even though I know I like the taste of white rice better.
Overall, this feels like an identity thing. Caring about my own health is a very strong part of my identity. It would feel wrong to eat any other way; I’d be betraying a core part of myself.
So what would that look like in the context of wasting time? If I was as good at spending my time as I am at eating? I would identify strongly as someone that doesn’t waste their own time, to the point where going on reddit wouldn’t even occur to me, the way that drinking my girlfriend’s diet coke doesn’t occur to me when I go to the kitchen. If I did find myself wasting time, I’d be able to cut it out without effort, the way I could cut out white rice as soon as I learned it was missing most of the nutrients that brown rice has.
The problem is I don’t know how to bridge that gap, but I have tried.
Attempt #42: screen time
When the screen time limits feature came around, I set some reasonable limits on my problem apps. I’ve tried this approach many times, and it has the “new todo-app effect”; it works for a while because I’m excited about the new system, but ultimately doesn’t change my behavior. There came times when I was exhausted, or waiting for something, or there was a legitimate reason to use one of my screen time apps, and I’d tap “another 15 minutes”. Each time that happens it weakens the strength of that popup, until eventually it’s almost second-nature to tap that sweet “another 15 minutes” prompt. At that point it was still probably better than nothing, but not by a whole lot.
Attempt #74: screen time, throw away the key edition
At one point I set some strict screen time limits, then gave my roommate the keys to the kingdom. I could no longer ask for 15 more minutes, because I didn’t have the pin. This worked pretty well, strictly speaking. I spent way less time on reddit, hacker news, and twitter. The voice in my mind telling me to seek out immediate pleasure didn’t change though, so I found myself discovering entertaining YouTube channels, playing stupid mobile games, etc. Also I wasn’t immune to the pull of reddit and twitter on my laptop, while waiting for my code to compile.
Success story #1: puzzle storm
Somewhat recently I had a month or two of success. I managed to stay away from twitter and reddit enough that I didn’t view them as a problem anymore. I had been studying chess for a long time, and discovered a new mode on Lichess, puzzle storm. It’s a timed mode where you solve as many puzzles as you can in about 3 minutes. It was fun and lined up with a skill I was learning, so it ended up winning in whatever calculus my subconscious does to decide how I’ll spend my free time. This was a nice fluke, but there’s no chance that coding on a side project, for example, will ever win out in in an immediate gratification battle with the time-wasters. So I don’t see how it could be the path to a general solution.
I’ve been picking up meditation again, and it feels like there may be a benefit in there. In the beginning, you’ll often forget the breath completely, but as you meditate more and more, it won’t go so far as to totally forget the breath. You train yourself to acknowledge when this is happening, to stop yourself before you get to the “forgot to focus on the breath at all” stage. Mind wandering during meditation seems somewhat related to attention wandering while I go about my day. If, instead of letting myself be lured by twitter’s siren’s call while staging is deploying, maybe I could recognize the pull and bring my attention back to the task at hand. If I was really good at this I could eliminate a certain class of time-wasting.
This hasn’t actually happened yet, it just feels similar in some ill-defined way, the feeling of being pulled into reddit and the feeling of being distracted from focusing on the breath.
Occasionally I’ll get fired up by something, usually a book but sometimes a YouTube video, and I’ll get the motivation needed to do the more meaningful things. For example I read “The War of Art”, and for a few weeks I viewed the war for my attention as just that, and the gung-ho mentality that the book instilled in me was enough to win some battles. But this is more like someone on a SAD diet reading fad diet books every few weeks, riding on motivation for a week then crashing back to baseline. It helps, I’ve finished a couple side projects on waves of motivation like this, but it’s a band-aid.
As much fear-mongering as there is online about how social media is eroding our attention span, I haven’t actually seen this effect in practice. When I need or want to, I can still focus on stuff for the entire day. When I was close to getting to 1800 elo in chess, I could spend the whole day studying. When Will Wight’s latest book, Reaper, came out, I read it in a day, probably never visiting twitter or reddit. Maybe it would actually be better if I saw my attention span eroding from doomscrolling, because then I’d have more motivation to quit.
Lack of evidence
I think if I saw some really compelling studies about how twitter/reddit/etc affect my health and mental function, it would be easier to avoid them. Going back to the food analogy for the 100th time, it’s easy for me to avoid dairy and red meat, after seeing some studies. Unfortunately, for time-wasting the best argument I can come up with is “scrolling through that much crap just, like, can’t be good for you”, and that doesn’t have the same motivating factor as something like “populations eating a primarily vegetarian diet have a 40% lower incidence of cancer”.
The value of my own time
Wasting these vast swathes of time seems to suggest that at some level, I don’t value that time too highly. Which seems crazy, I’d say I value my time higher than most everyone. But the proof seems to be right there in my screen time report, every week. “This is how much you value your time”, it says, “you wasted three and a half hours every day, on absolutely nothing of value”. Potentially, if I valued my time more, I would be less inclined to read reddit, scroll twitter, and watch guess the elo on youtube. Certainly if I knew I only had a few weeks left, I wouldn’t be hitting the kind of numbers on my screen time report that I am now.
What sort of steps would I take, if valuing my time incorrectly is the problem? Memento mori is the practice of reflecting on your own death, specifically in how much time you have left. Maybe engaging in that practice would help highlight how little time I have to do things that truly matter to me. Or maybe a gratitude practice. I haven’t explored these, but intend to.
The value of your time
Breaking out of first person, this is getting really long. If you’ve figured out the secret to using your time well, let me know.
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2021-11-10 15:23 +0000