An epiphany about wasting time on the Net

This just occurred to me. Maybe you who’s reading this knew this for ages, but when Aamir Khan reads about dyslexia ages after Arun Shourie established a special school [Ok, not too sure about the establishment bit… but I think it has to do with autism… his child is autistic. I think], and gets excited enough to make a movie about it, and which gets critically acclaimed in spite of being a copy of a ten-year-old illustrated children’s book (You didn’t think Aamir was capable of originality, did you?) I’m sure I can be excused for writing this post.

So there are folks who manage time pretty well normally, but the moment they log on to the Net, their time gets sucked into a black hole. I wondered why.

Firstly, it is because we haven’t grown up using the Net for educational purposes, or for getting work done. We are used to seeing it as an entertainment medium.

But the larger reason is, everything is so close to everything else. It takes very less time to context-switch between work and fun, or fun and fun. Now you wouldn’t be talking to a friend in your living room, and run to check your postbox every few minutes, would you? And movies on TV don’t take time to load that you pick a book out of your bookshelf in the buffering time.

Essentially, there’s very less decoupling. The same applications are used for a variety of tasks, so much that it becomes increasingly hard to distinguish between the two. And it gets worse when these tasks are on opposite ends of the essential-nonessential spectrum.

One of the biggest defaulters is Mail. It is a very convenient application. It is non-intrusive. The user can respond when (s)he wants to. Items stay on for as long as you want them to.

So you find a very interesting post on which tells you about 10 Rags-to-Riches tales that weren’t. You know a dozen friends who’d be interested in reading this. You can’t disturb them in the middle of the day over this. So you do the logical thing: mail it to them.

And you also find a bug that needs to be fixed urgently. You feel too lazy to get off your chair and tell the owner of the code to fix it. What do you do? Mail.

You want to urgently call a team meeting. Your team is distributed over three floors. No prizes for guessing how you inform them all.

Now the logical thing to do while you are hard at work at a task that requires concentration is to turn off new mail notifications. In most practical situations, that is humanly impossible. Because folks who mail you mail you stuff with different levels of priority. You can’t forgo the urgent stuff (like meeting notifications and bugs that need fixing). (Actually, one solution involves staying off the Net while at work. But what about when you’re on a task that requires your use of the Net? Or one of the time-sink type websites/applications?)

This problem is not hard to solve. You use filters, block some, tell your friends to mail you the chit-chatty bakwaas discussions on some other ID…

Sadly, Wikipedia doesn’t have any of these features. So you go searching for info about Bio-NLP, and end up reading the story of Dev D, then some about Bimal Roy, Suchitra Sen… and before you know it, you’re chuckling at the dialogues of Jhankaar Beats… and an hour of your life is gone, never to come back.

While applications with multiple features seem a good deal, they aren’t exactly made with the monkey-mind of people in mind. People tend to get distracted easily. By the slightest thing. So while ISKCON and the Art of Mind Control might be a sight richer due to that fact, it doesn’t mean the problem is with you. You can only try to change the way your mind works, but heck, why mess with nature? Instead, tailor the world around suit the way you and your mind work… isn’t that what technology is all about?

After the advent of Google Reader, the number of email FWDs have reduced to a really great extent. (It is of course another matter that a lot of time is wasted on Reader). That’s the sort of decoupling we want. We should be able to distinguish between the different aspects of our life. While you can technically talk to your PhD advisor and better half at the same time now, it doesn’t mean you have to, if you’re morbidly scared of signing off with “Luv ya hon” to your advisor.

More features might seem a good deal, but heck, this is the Internet and we’re mostly talking about Freeware. You need to quit the whole bargain-and-buy mentality if you want to make some real optimal choices here.

If you’re waiting for some important mail to turn up in your GMail inbox, don’t have an open browser window which you’ll open every now and then and occasionally open a new tab where you check your blog stats or your feedReader updates. Don’t even keep GTalk on that you’ll be tempted to ping someone with a scandalous status message. Use GMail Notifier instead.

If you want to inform people about urgent work, use an instant messenger. Or the phone. Not mail. Or if you have some stuff that needs to be said in writing, mail them, and call them saying you’ve mailed them.

Like the Late Prof. Randy Pausch said, email is supposed to be checked at leisure. You don’t sit at your postbox all day waiting for the mailman. That’s the whole point of mail – a means of communication which can be checked at your own convenience.

Similarly, I’m waiting for a point-to-point messenger service. It’d be anyday better than signing on to GTalk to talk to some very important person halfway across the world, and being interrupted with “wazzaaa?”s. You could of course set your status as “DND”, but the hecklers who ping you with “y u login if ur2busy ya?” are painful enough. No, I don’t accept the ‘Invisible’ mode as a true solution. It is, at best, a workaround.

And wasting time on Google Reader? The only solution I can think of is don’t login if you don’t have the time.

I’d really like it if applications with multiple features provided a way to switch on only those features you wanted. At each session.

So… tell me.. what are your biggest time-BlackHoles on the Internet? How do you manage when you need to get stuff done?

About wanderlust

just your average books-and-music person who wants to change the world.
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10 Responses to An epiphany about wasting time on the Net

  1. karthik says:

    So… tell me.. what are your biggest time-BlackHoles on the Internet? How do you manage when you need to get stuff done?

    Google Reader: A hundred odd subscriptions, and this is after throwing away a dozen every month for an year.

    That’s about it, really. I have little need for mail or IM- I don’t have any contacts to speak of. If I need to get stuff done, I shut down the computer and work with a notebook- unless I’m running simulations and the like, in which case I don’t get stuff done.

    Have you ever read/played Interactive Fiction? Violet, this year’s IFCOMP winner is a real treat. You play as a graduate student trying to write her/his thesis who keeps getting distracted by the Internet (among other things). The irony is delicious; most people likely played it as a distraction. (Play it here)

  2. sindhu says:

    I just don’t login on any IM anymore, that fixes all the time-suckers. Also if i _have_ to read an article (at the cost of doing something else), I put it on my list then check back when I have the time to spare.

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  4. Shreevatsa says:

    You’re right on the whole. (Having mail notifications turned on is a terrible thing; minor details about what is better are open to quibbles but not the main point.) My biggest blackhole on the internet has varied over the years (from one website to another, to another forum, to another IRC channel to IM, to one set of blogs to another…) as I recognise major problems and pull the plug on them, but the deeper issue we all need to fix is that it hasn’t sunk in that our attention is an important and limited resource that we need to consciously manage. Our brain has evolved to respond to “Ding”s; if we cannot train ourselves out of the way we respond to the environment we need to meticulously change our environment.

  5. AJ says:

    The Internet IS a huge time waster at times.

    I spend a lot of time either on my feeds or on email. Sometimes I’m thankful that most of the webmail is blocked at work.

    Oh and IMs. They are such a time sink. That’s why, as you already know, I’m usually never on IM.

    Of late, Twitter is also another time sinker for me. But it is less of a problem since I tend to auto-ignore it’s promtps..

  6. wanderlust says:

    i have a standing ban on games of any sort on the Internet. this is helped by the fact that i have an ancient laptop that is low on memory, low on features, low on space, and low on everything except regular doses of problems… and so i can’t load flash games et al without making my comp super slow. 🙂
    perfect abstinence better than perfect moderation, eh? i agree.
    if i don’t have the Net, it’s minesweeper or mahjongg. i just am looking to get distracted. rather, im so used to being distracted, if im allowed to concentrate on something for more than some time, my mind automatically asks, ‘what, no distractions? there’s GOT to be one!’
    i don’t join new networking sites, or try out new web apps. twitter struck me as something that would make an awful addiction – relaying your life story every two minutes? or reading others’ life stories that often? in 140 chars? no thanks i said. hence i quit social networking. all i have to distract me is google reader, mail and occasionally wordpress
    uhhh… did i just say ‘all i have’?

  7. AJ says:

    Well that’s not necessarily the only use of Twitter. Considering I’m extra paranoid about my privacy and the information that is available about me on the Internet, I do not disclose any sensitive information about my life on twitter. Never have, never will.

    But I do use Twitter for quick communication (one level below chat) and also think it is less time intensive than IM, less real-time and generally less stressful. But then, all this could also be cos I’m not so heavily invested in Twitter.

  8. karthik says:


    “I have an ancient laptop that is low on memory, low on features, low on space, and low on everything except regular doses of problems… and so i can’t load flash games et al without making my comp super slow.”

    This is perfect. Interactive fiction will run on any old x86 PC with a couple of megabytes of free RAM. 🙂
    On occasion, I have played IF on a Pentium PC with 16 MB of RAM at a virtual console. You need to run the Violet story file in Gargoyle (for Windows) or Frotz (for Linux, from your repos). The flash applet was made in a hurry as a one-click-play version for busy people.

    Violet perfectly captures the “what, no distractions? there’s GOT to be one!” quagmire you mentioned that we dig ourselves into. That, plus this story/game is hilarious.

  9. AJ says:

    With that laptop, you HAVE to give Battlemaster a shot. It’s been my game du jour for 7 years now 😉

  10. wanderlust says:

    I felt twitter had no place in my online life… and if i had to find some use for it, it would mostly be some timewasting exercise. hence…
    @karthik, AJ:
    quit tempting me to waste time!

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