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The real reason you waste time online

woman looking at Twitter during kid's play rehearsal

What if we just admitted we didn’t want to be here?

The Great Distractor

Why do I open up my laptop with the intention of writing and then end up wandering around the Web? Why do I check my Twitter stream when I’m supposed to be enjoying my kid’s holiday concert?

I’m not the only one doing this crap. Study after study is published about how adults and children spend two, three, even ten hours a day online. Thoroughly distressed by these numbers, we ask, “What is all this tech doing to us?”

In short, it has caused a zombie apocalypse. We’re texting and driving (DRIVING!). We’re scrolling through our social networks at the dinner table. We’re Snapchatting during movies and culture events. The tech has made us into zombies. But the real question is, “Why?

The answer to why we are all so distracted by our tech isn’t as simple as Shiny New Toy Syndrome or contagious bad etiquette. The answer goes much deeper, too deep for contributors (read: unpaid bloggers) at major media outlets like Forbes and  HuffPo to ponder. We are so loath to bring the root cause to the surface that an entire industry grew out of the need to keep it repressed. Let’s be brave here for a moment and bring a sample of root causes to the surface:



1. You are mind-numbingly bored and you hate these things.

2. You already spend so much time with your kid that you feel like you are joined at the hip.

3. You have a crazy job that you love and you’d rather be there doing it.

4. You have a crazy job that you hate but you like to feel needed.

5. You like the people you are texting with way better than the ones sitting next to you.



1. You are mind-numbingly bored and you hate these things.

2. You already spend so much time with your family that you feel like you will be chained to them forever.

3. You are a seething ball of anger, hate, and resentment, mostly toward your parents.

4. You are a bursting ball of physical and mental energy but don’t want to share ANY of this with your family.

5. You really just wish you and your friends could just live in your own place.

Avoiding Death

What if your boss came to your house one evening. Just before you take that first bite of your favorite meal, she says, "Wait! I have 3 hours' worth of funny links from all of your most frequently visited sites. When you're finished, you can eat."

Mr. Grumpy Cat wouldn’t seem so appealing at this point, would he?

To admit to any of these “inappropriate” feelings would equal social death (and we humans HATE social death). Instead of being brutally honest with ourselves and others in attempt to find solutions or resolutions to hard realities, we collectively invent a comprehensive and easily-applied placebo. Unfortunately placebos aren’t long-term solutions. Our bad behavior creeps up again and again we are buried in our screens. Here’s where the role of repression and institutionalized repression comes in. And as a bonus, this new movement has us punishing ourselves for lacking the “willpower” or “grit” to break our bad habits.

In with the good, out with the bad

Positive Psychology began with a question: Why are we, as human behavioral scientists, studying behavioral pathology (sickness) and remedies instead of the opposite? Why are we not studying the origins of successful personality traits like resiliency and empathy, grit and compassion?

Using approaches like ethnography and biography, Positive Psychology started by collecting histories of successful people and reverse-engineering their best personality traits. How the Positive Psychology movement grew to be the juggernaut it is today is a bit of a long story, with dubious funding sources, sketchy research, and even sketchier main characters, but after a bumpy start it’s gaining a place household consciousness because of its perfect package solution to our errant behaviors.

That perfect package, though, like most perfect packages, is too good to be true. Positive Psychology’s message is that if one simply adopts positive behaviors and buys into the accompanying belief systems, one’s problems will disappear. Unfortunately like a lot of purely behavioral approaches, it forgets that humans are driven by unconscious motivations. No matter how much we try, we can’t neutralize the subconscious’s influence over our actions. We don’t like to admit this, of course. To think that something outside of our control is guiding us feels like a betrayal of not only our own personal daily perceptions of consciousness but also a rejection of our western culture. We like to believe we are bootstrapping mind-over-matter types in full control of our faculties.

Unconscious Rationality

But being driven by mostly unconscious behaviors isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s actually quite convenient: putting daily tasks on autopilot frees up the mind to tackle more unique and complex challenges. It’s a good plan. The plan breaks down when the autopilot takes over too much of our behavior. That’s when we end up wasting too much time online.

Let’s look at why we waste hours web surfing. It’s a procrastination method. We sit down, get ready to do work, and to “warm up our brains” (or whatever else it is you tell yourself you’ll do for just 5 minutes), we open up Facebook. We click on a few funny links. Then we read some intellectually challenging fare, telling ourselves that this is the next step before tackling our real work. Finally, hours later, we realize we can no longer put off our task.

Did you see what happened there? We didn’t go first to our work and then reward ourselves with some time on Icanhazcheeseburger.com. We watched cat videos then (eventually) started on our work. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Sue Shellenbarger said researchers call this behavior “giving in to feel good.” It is an attempt to bolster our mood high enough to face the anxiety (or other negative feeling) that comes with the work.

Mood altering effects

We don't miss a night out with the gals because we lost track of time watching cat videos We can plaster our office walls with motivational posters but it doesn’t address the underlying fact that there is something about our work that we want to avoid. The reasons we want to avoid that work or the anxiety that comes with doing it can be varied, but we have a better chance of keeping our jobs and feeling genuinely positive if we examine and address what those reasons are.

We will keep walking the tech zombie walk if we don’t face what we’re avoiding.  How to face facts? Well, establishing good habits helps. And there’s a way to use the tech to help, not hinder, your efforts.

Mindful Computing

When I first heard the term “mindful computing,” I thought, “Why, yes, I DO mind all this computing, thankuverymuch.” Then I expected a motivational spiel, a la Positive Psych. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that mindful computing is an approach that turns the tech into a benevolent Big Brother of sorts. Spend too much time online? There’s an app for that – it will shut down Internet access for a specified amount of time. Need to take 5 minutes to meditate instead of useless web surfing? There are many apps available on iTunes that will bring you to your bliss daily. Too caught up in editing software to concentrate on typing? Stripped down software that plays soothing background music will provide you with a blank slate. Too many windows open? An app will cover up all the windows except for the one you’re using. The list goes on and on. We can program our attention, even if we can’t exactly control it. Especially since we can’t exactly control it.

In his book, The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul, author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang wakes us up to a different, more mindful way of breaking out of the tech zombie trap. The book takes a page out of the Positive Psychology movement in that Dr. Pang doesn’t tell us how to root out the causes of our avoidance. Instead, he advises us not to push down any bubbling up frustrations but to learn how to slow down and be deliberate in our tech use. For those of us who can’t seem to confront our inner zombie-making anxieties, starting out on a mindful approach to technology use is a great start.

Dr. Pang uses very common situations we’ll all recognize and touches lightly on their causes. Instead of guiding us through deep analysis of our anxious behaviors (which, admittedly, we will all ultimately have to do on our own), Dr. Pang offers technological solutions, in terms of paths of behavior and applications to support them.

Despite the bait-n-switchiness of The Distraction Addiction’s cover (the book looks more like a pop-psych manual for the mommy set), Pang’s book is a steady examination of how to combine meditative mindful living with the necessity of using today’s tools. Wired need not mean wasted. Connected need not mean constrained. Learn to work with the tech by paying close attention to your mood, your anxieties and your actions. Forgive yourself your unwanted thoughts, and be honest with yourself. Design your day and your tech to be supportive of your goals and dreams. With a little help from the “enemy,” we may just kill our zombies after all.


Kids' Concert: Andrew Baisden on Flickr
Mac Salad: Peter Hellberg on Flickr
Pink Limo: Gene Hunt on Flickr


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mari Adkins 20 January 2014, 2:59 pm

    It’s totally a procrastination thing for me. And I’m trying to get better! I can’t keep doing what I’m doing now.

    • PurpleCar 21 January 2014, 3:48 pm

      Tiny steps! Writing the date on your writing helps. Yes, it will be a pain to go back and take all of them out but it starts the typing for you.

      • Mari Adkins 21 January 2014, 3:56 pm


      • Mari Adkins 12 June 2014, 4:02 pm

        i’d totally forgotten about this!!

        i’ve started carrying a dayplanner. undated. i carried a dated one for six months and it just wasn’t working for me. the undated one is working so much better! plus, i can print out the cutest pages for it and have different ones every time i need a new page. with ADD, it’s all about keeping yourself excited about something.

        • PurpleCar 12 June 2014, 9:25 pm

          This is great!

          • Mari Adkins 12 June 2014, 9:58 pm

            i can’t remember if i uploaded my favorite to-do lists to the journaling group or not but i do believe they’re in the homemaker’s group … am going to see if i can attach one or two here.

  • Mike_S_Htown 20 January 2014, 9:24 pm

    “1. You are mind-numbingly bored and you hate these things.”

    That covers J’s dance recital perfectly. So glad there was only one. And, the girl she kept accidentally hitting in the head w/ her wand is undoubtedly glad, too…

    • PurpleCar 21 January 2014, 3:47 pm

      Well actually it sounds like it got pretty dang interesting there…