No Will Power to Spare

March 31, 2015

I'm certain that years from now, I will look back on January of 2014 as the beginning of when I really became productive - and responsible for my time. I have been knee-deep in various self-improvement communities since at least 2010. I knew that my time was precious, and I knew that I should live every day as if it was my last. But sometimes, hard ideas just take time to sink in.

I spend my days on the computer. Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter are constants in my day. I was addicted, and January of 2014 was when I decided to get clean. I decided to start tracking how my time "leaks". If I'm to spend everyday as if it was my last, surely mindlessly clicking on dumb links can't be the best way to go? Enter RescueTime and various browser extensions to limit my time on social media. All social media apps on my phone got purged.

For about two months, I ruthlessly tracked every single activity in a spreadsheet and tallied up the amount of time that was wasted on activities that were not productive or enriching in one way or another. I used to compulsively (and I mean compulsively) open the Facebook or Twitter apps on my phone. Blocking social media was the easiest fix to start with. Over the next few months, I also quit playing some video games that were taking a lot of my time. Then in June 2014, I moved into an apartment without a television. I don't know how I ever lived with one.

Have you ever considered the fact that you and Elon Musk both have the exact same number of hours in a day?

One reason why you and I aren't launching rockets to space could be that we are inundated with attention sinks. Our modern lifestyles are full of them, and the internet is not making things any better, as the rise of click bait "news" sites attest. We are bombarded with opportunities to spend our time the way somebody else wants us to. And because these attention sinks are so pervasive, blocking them off seems weird to most people.

Success means different things to different people, but it seems to me that spending time deliberately - by first establishing the desired achievement and then deciding how you'll spend your time to get there - must be a core component of any successful life plan. In its most basic form, spending time deliberately means blocking off distractions like TV or social media. These attention sinks are like cans of Pringles - once you open it, you can't stop.

But past this basic level, spending time deliberately could also mean not spending time on things that are not actionable even if they are productive on paper. How much of your day do you spend watching or reading news? How much does that information help you in your life? Could you get by with cutting the time you spend on news by half? Similarly, if you have many interests, you might have to decide that you won't indulge in one or more because spending time on too many activities means none get done well.

Even in the short time since January of 2014, I have fallen off the no-time-wasting bandwagon and gotten back on it several times. It's not easy. And the key to doing it well, in my experience, is to manage your will power to resist. I can't get lured into watching TV because there is no TV. Similarly with things like Facebook, if I log out or install a blocker at a moment of strength, then at my moment of weakness when I want my next hit of social media, I just might not jump through the hoops of disabling the blocker and logging back in.

Most recently, in a moment of weakness, I got Netflix. Now, when I come home in the evenings with a precious free hour or two, I end up having a debate with myself over whether I should read or watch an episode of Arrested Development. The latter wins too often for comfort. Managing Netflix is going to be the next challenge.

All entertainment is not bad. Entertainment that is not deliberate or one that makes you lazy is. It is best to anticipate your own weaknesses in advance, and put yourself in an environment where the easiest thing for you to do is be productive. It is best to not buy the can of Pringles in the first place.