The Distraction Economy: How You’re Not As Busy As You Think

I must admit, the main reason I’m writing this is due to something that really bothers me. I’ll be talking to a friend, and they’ll bring up an ambition of theirs:

“Man I really want to learn to play guitar,” or “I really need to write more,” or “I’ve been wanting to get in to extreme ironing for a while now!”

In case you were curious.

That last one I don’t hear too often, but you get the idea. No matter the ambition, my response is always the same.

“So why don’t you?”

After a combination of nervous laughing, fumbling with words and sticking hands in pockets, the response I get is usually the same too.

“I’m just so busy…”

When I hear this, I usually know the conversation is going to end poorly. Because it usually leads to me analyzing that person’s daily schedule, attempting to find any time they have that could be better spent following their ambition. This usually just comes off as annoying to the other person though. I’m not great at parties.

I really hope I’m not the only one who gets annoyed hearing this. If I am, feel free chalk this up to the crazy rambling you see all over the internet. But before you do, understand where I’m coming from here. For the majority of my life up until this point, I suffered from depression. I had trouble motivating myself to do even the most necessary of tasks, let alone follow my ambitions. Most of the time I would just play video games or watch TV  just to avoid having dark thoughts. So when I saw someone who had it together and still claimed they didn’t have time to do whatever they wanted to do, I would think they must just be wasting their time.

I now realize that’s not the most empathetic reaction in the world, but it still frustrates me to hear it because to be motivated is arguably one of the most important traits of humanity. Ambitions are the river on which we float to fulfillment, not the the puddle we dip our toe in to test the waters. I’m going to put that in a block-quote again in a second because I think it’s important to reiterate.

Ambitions are the river on which we float to fulfillment, not the the puddle we dip our toe in to test the waters.

And let’s face it, we’re never as busy as we say we are. Most of us may think we’re busy right now, but a lot of that mentality can stem from status quo bias. I guarantee, most people reading this could add an extra daily task to their schedule, and not lose sleep or have to skip a meal. But it’s not like our days have large gaps where we do nothing, so where is all our free time going?

Well, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has some pretty awesome data on this (because it helps my argument). According to their 2014 American Time Use Survey, we spend around 156 minutes per day watching TV, 25 playing video games, and another 20 on various other activities. This adds up to roughly 3.5 hours of Netflix & chilling a day. I’m all for relaxing after a long day, but I think most people could agree a lot of that time could be better spent. I know after I really thought about how I spend my time, I was disgusted by how much of it was me sitting on my duff watching King of Queens. I don’t even like King of Queens!

The good news is…no, not good. The bittersweet news is that this is not entirely our fault. It’s in the TV industry’s best interest to keep us watching, so they make us more or less addicted. And you can’t act surprised at that, because we use the same language to describe our TV watching habits as we use to describe heroine addicts. People literally say their “addicted” to shows, and Netflix designs their shows for perfect “binge-watching”. If you heard someone talk that way about alcohol, you’d fear for that person’s life.

And it’s not just TV. The design of most phone games are based on slot machines and Facebook tries to create a feedback loop in your head to make you instinctively check it any time you’re bored. There’s a lot of money in making you addicted to a product, and since American culture only sees chemical dependence as the only kind of addiction, they can get away with it.

Please don’t see this as me judging you for being a TV addict or wasting your day. And don’t think I’m telling you to throw out your TV and computer. I still play video games and watch TV all the time, and I use my Facebook as much as anyone else. I’m not saying you should stop doing those things if they make you happy, I’m just saying that if you know there is something you could be doing instead that would make you happier, shouldn’t you be doing that?

Of all the things you own, none are more valuable than your time, and how you spend that time is up to you. Many companies will try to buy your time by claiming that this is the best way to spend it. In some cases that may be true, in many others it isn’t. You have to listen to your wants and desires to truly know want to spend your time on. So next time you find yourself wanting to pursue an ambition, or you find yourself too busy in the day, just ask yourself.

Could I be putting my time to better use?

Thanks for reading!

Please don’t quit your job because of this article. Unless it’s to become a professional extreme ironer.

If you want to read more about the distraction economy (sometimes called the attention economy) you can check out the articles linked below:

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic-The Distraction Economy: How Technology Downgraded Attention

Vineet Nayar-5 Ways To Find Focus In The Distraction Economy

Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter-How to Thrive in the Attention Economy

There’s also an awesome episode of the Cracked! podcast where they talk more about addiction in all of its forms. You can check that out below:



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