More and more parts of our lives are coming to resemble a 24-hour unlimited buffet. Unless we think through the consequences, we’re likely to wonder where all our time went.
An Old Joke
The Internet is now old enough that some Internet jokes are now officially “old jokes.” One of the oldest is a plain HTML page that reads “Attention: you have reached the very last page of the Internet. We hope you have enjoyed your browsing. Now turn off your computer and go outside and play.”
While there is real wisdom in this bit of Net humor, the joke almost doesn’t work anymore. Now we have the Internet with us everywhere, even outdoors. But the underlying point remains: then and now, the Internet has the ability to absorb our attention for unlimited periods of time. In earlier days, this wasn’t the case. If we watched TV, we watched TV according to the network’s schedule. We got one episode of a treasured series a week, not season after season, anywhere, anytime, night or day, on TV, PC, tablet or smartphone. Where before the environment (if a television network can be said to be part of the environment) regulated how much TV we watched, now we’re left to make that decision for ourselves.
In fact, if you look carefully at how the streaming TV interfaces are designed, they’ll often assume that if you start a series, you want to keep on watching the series and will roll one episode straight into the next. Maybe that’s the default most people want, but this subtle nudge is just one more way we stay glued to our couches. Brian Wansink of Cornell University demonstrated a similar phenomenon using a trick soup-bowl that would surreptitiously refill itself when diners weren’t looking. Not surprisingly, most of the subjects ate far more soup than they would have with a normal bowl.
This problem is personal for me. Ever since I got a tablet, reading news has been a real delight. Whatever chair I want to sit in, I can browse and browse. Whereas decades ago I might have taken the evening paper and gotten tired of it somewhere around section C or D, now the Internet goes on and on. There really isn’t a “last page.” I find myself staying up later and later, even though I know how much sleep matters and how groggy I’ll feel the next day.
Computer games have also evolved into the all-you-can-eat model. ‘Save’ mechanics have progressed to the point where it’s easy to stop your game at any point and pick it up later. In the past, many games could be said to have had a certain number of hours of gameplay built into them. Big-name Role Playing Games (RPGs) often had between 30 and 70 hours of gameplay to complete the game in some meaningful way. Lately, the number and depth of “side quests” have extended and expanded the amount of time players can spend in-game to nearly indefinite levels. And downloadable content (DLC) allows publishers to milk existing games for extra money in exchange for even more prolonged gameplay.
When ‘Easy’ Beats ‘Good’
I used to read a lot of novels, but I got out of the habit. Why? Because reading long fiction — or longer work in general — requires a bit more investment than rapid-fire tidbits of novelty that the Internet has become so adept at serving up. Given the choice between a recreation that is easy and one that is ever so slightly more demanding, most folks (myself included) go for easy even if the other option is much more rewarding. How small does the difference need to be? Well, for instance, I’ve noticed that the act of loading a DVD is enough to change my behavior. I may ignore a DVD on my shelf for months and then when it appears on the streaming services, I’ll be prompted to view it. And I don’t see myself as a lazy person. Little differences do make a difference, even if we ignore them or believe that they don’t.
Getting Your Free Time Back
Web authors, television producers, and game designers have all tried to make their games more engaging and entertaining, and we have no need to assume any ill intent when their art seems to invade our schedule. The key point is that individuals have more and more choices about what to do with our free time and unless we exercise more discretion, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves. So how can we restore some sense of proportion to how we use our time?
The front-line tool against creeping media is awareness. How much time is actually being used on what? Monitoring yourself is fine, although you can also avail yourself of more technical solutions such as RescueTime, that will show you exactly how long you spend on various websites and applications.
Once you know where the time goes, you can start to make decisions. Like the bottomless soup-bowl, unmetered media access leads to overconsumption. Pre-deciding your “serving sizes” of media can help get the problem under control. Sometimes I favor half-hour series over longer ones because the shorter episodes make for a right-sized break, as long as I can stop at one episode.
Putting borders or boundaries around free time can also help. A short bout of web surfing before work is probably better contained than in the evening, when “one more page” threatens a more flexible bedtime.
However, my favorite solution is about addition rather than subtraction. One way to reduce any behavior is to make an alternative easier or more appealing. Many a musician has improved their practice schedule simply by putting the instrument in view. If reading is preferred to viewing, then putting a novel next to the remote might also serve as a visible cue for the alternative behavior. I’ve also heard of good results by taking the opposite tack: making the undesirable behavior slightly harder, such as moving the remote control to another room. With just a few alterations, we can nudge ourselves towards making better choices in the face of unbounded opportunities for surfing, viewing, and gaming.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Pat Orner Oliver on .on and was last reviewed or updated by