Weapons of Mass Distraction

“Territory I can always recover, lost time never.”

– Napoleon Bonaparte (supposedly)

Have you ever heard people complain about having too much time on their hands? Me neither.

Everyone’s busy. We have jobs, family responsibilities, club commitments, volunteer duties—all manner of things to fill our days. And once we’re done for the day we want nothing more than to kick off our shoes, put on our jammies, and chill. So we do. Then we get up the next morning and repeat the same process.

Every once in a while, cool ideas pop into our heads and we momentarily pause to think about them. Then we snap back to our senses because we don’t think we have the time to work on them. But here’s the thing—with very few exceptions, most of us have plenty of time. We just choose to do other things with it besides work on our cool ideas.

I should know. I am the undisputed king of time squandering.

I wasted lots of time as a kid, and as a student—all the way up through college. If I could go back I’d probably pay a bit more attention and crack a book every once in a while. Regardless, it doesn’t bother me too much to think about it.

But when I think of all the time I’ve wasted as an adult, I cringe. Maybe you can relate…

I’m not talking about time spent lying around doing nothing—we all need some of that. I’m talking about huge quantities of immoderate time spent on things that I thought were important/useful in the moment, when in actuality they were a complete waste.

For me, the biggest time-suck was paying too much attention to the “news.”

A wise man once said that trying to find out what’s going on in the world by watching the news is like trying to tell time on a watch that only has a seconds hand. It just keeps going and going and there is never really any point of reference. I wasn’t just spending a few minutes a day watching or reading a recap of the major headlines, I was spending hours each day watching cable news. When I wasn’t actively watching, it was still on in the background so I wouldn’t miss any “breaking news.” I spent a few more hours each day listening to talk radio in my car. Once the web started to blossom, it meant even more time consumed with reading articles and blogs and watching videos. Add social networking to the mix and that was all she wrote—I was a full-blown media junky.

One of the interesting parts of any addiction are the justifications offered by the addict. Isn’t it the duty of educated people to stay informed about the world around them? There’s an election coming up and I need to make an informed decision about who to vote for, right? You know all media outlets are biased so it’s important to spend countless hours ingesting as wide a range as possible in order to see what’s really going on. It never occurred to me that the overwhelming majority of the “news” was completely insignificant in the grand scheme, and that there is ALWAYS an upcoming election. But I continued wasting precious hours each day consuming this garbage under the assumption that to not do so would somehow be irresponsible. And God forbid someone would mention a story that I wasn’t familiar with. The horror!

During the 2008 election, it finally hit me that this was a complete waste of time. I can’t remember the exact moment, or which straw finally broke the camel’s back. It was more like a feeling of déjà vu. No matter who was talking, I felt like I’d heard it all before. The names were different but the criticisms were almost identical to the criticisms I’d been listening to for the past 15 years. The only real difference was the size of the bullhorns. So I started paying more attention to the tactics of the media and pundits instead of their messages and my dissatisfaction quickly turned to disdain. It seems as if they all follow three basic rules:

Rule #1 for hosts and talking heads is to constantly tell their listeners/viewers/readers how much smarter and well informed they are than the average person, and it’s all because they listen to/watch/read that particular program or article.

Rule #2 is never, ever say anything complimentary about the opposing side. In order to properly pull this off it is imperative that you never dig deep into any topic. Just kick the same shallow talking points around until your time is up.

Rule #3 is to whip your audience into an unnecessary frenzy over anything and everything. They must be in constant mortal fear that life as they know it is under attack.

Predictable punditry—Conservatives invoke God while channeling the Founding Fathers, Liberals decry inequality over their lattes, Dick Morris is always wrong.

It would be funny if the consequences weren’t so serious. Political talk show hosts take to the air for several hours every day to rant and rave about the falling sky. When they go off the air they get driven home to their mansions, where they eat cake. Meanwhile, their audience members spend the rest of the day hopeless and pissed off at the world. How is this helpful?

Additionally, there are huge opportunity costs that come with consuming this much media. People are always talking about the value of a dollar but not nearly as much is said about the value of our time. I could have built a pyramid with all the time I wasted. Worse, it didn’t put a single dime in my pocket or food on the table, but with every click of the mouse I put money in someone else’s pocket. I gave them my most precious commodity—my time—for free. Actually, I was paying them for the privilege! Their job is not to inform or educate. Their job is to suck us in and keep us there as long as possible. Ratings/listeners/readers equal revenue. That’s it. And while I was enriching these folks, I was also putting off my own goals and projects under the guise that I didn’t have the time to work on them. That’s insane.

Practical Exercise: Keep track of your media consumption for one week—TV, talk radio, and internet activities—all of it (yes, that includes sports). At the end of the week, take a look back and ask yourself how much of it actually added value to your life and how much was a waste of precious time.

Now consider this—how much time do you actually need to dedicate to your project each day to start bringing it to life? Unless you’re splitting the atom, you probably only need an hour or so. A half-hour each day would do the trick as well. Over the span of one month, that’s between 15 and 30 hours spent working on your idea. Close your eyes and visualize what your project would look like after 30, 60, 90 hours spent working on it. Heck, even if you only devote 15 minutes a day to your project that’s still over seven hours per month. Now figure out where you can carve out that hour, then make it happen.

If something big happens you’ll still hear about it, so don’t think you’ll be missing anything. I cut my own news consumption down to just “Breaking News” email alerts, and even that is pretty much a waste of time. In a world where everything is treated with the same urgency as the Kennedy assassination, yet 90% of it has no direct impact on the quality of my life, isn’t our time better spent creating and nurturing our own projects rather than reacting to what some producer thinks will suck us in for a few minutes?

This post is an excerpt from my book Buck The System: Stop Marking Time and Start Making Noise. If you liked the post – you’d probably like the book.

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Comments

  1. Jennifer Payne says:

    Going to journalism school at Ohio State showed me how news is made for various goals. We were always asking our professors for their definitions of news. One of them, an old-school print journalist, said “News is what those who are in a position to say is news, say is news.” I wish I could remember his name….

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