Weekly Wondering: Removing an (Anti)Productivity Crutch

This is a new segment I’m trying to implement, because hey, writers gotta write. This post will be a little more of my musings as opposed to my take on absorbed wisdom or reports on numbers. Let’s see what comes of it, shall we?


It’s just sitting there…

I am something of a master procrastinator.

I think as a child some part of me determined my (non-negotiably kinda nerdy) identity was more “smart slacker” than “overachiever,” and I decided to get really good at putting off doing certain types of work. That identity doesn’t really fulfill me any longer, but old habits die hard, and I’ve come to see these procrastination habits as a crutch that keep me from having to come up with a new one.

We all have our coping strategies that keep us from facing a reality that we’d rather avoid. One of mine is on my smartphone.

I never wanted to be one of those people who are glued to their social feeds, always looking down at their phone, basically an advertisement for every bad smartphone commercial where people are falling over themselves for more data, more “digital connectivity.” Frankly, I’m not social enough to pull that off even if I wasn’t predisposed against it. That’s not my poison.

Mine is games.

I grew up something of a gamer (see non-negotiable nerd identity) and have an enduring fondness for retro games. Since I can’t go more than two taps into an app store without encountering an endless supply of free pixel-art games, it’s paradise for me.

I often have a good time playing games, sometimes strategizing, sometimes getting immersed in the story of an RPG, sometimes laughing at good writing. Some apps are covered with ads and have about thirty seconds of interesting content, but many – even free ones – are really neat, the kind of thing I might like to create one day.

I have found though, that the depth of the game is secondary to how I feel about having played it. It’s really about whether I used it as a crutch when all I wanted to do was walk.

Especially now while I am unemployed, it’s easy to lose direction. I’ve spoken before about trying to build good routines. I can relate in a fake/temporary sort of way to the way people who are actually FI building their vision of a life without work. I know with certainty that there are tasks, even as mundane as reading or getting the dishes done, that I’m always glad to have done. They’re things I “never have enough time for.”

These things will not necessarily get me a new job, or carve the most efficient path through my long-term goals. But when I confront a vacuum of time and feel momentarily lost, these are super-easy places to go to.

So are smartphone games.

Except I don’t enjoy them much when I play them to fill up a vacuum in time, as opposed to when I intentionally sit down for a few minutes to unwind. Worse, I often feel guilty about “wasting” time and refuse to let myself play the games I would normally enjoy most, usually tapping my way through god-awful casual games (designed from the ground up to waste your time), regretting it even as I download it.

(This is a related problem, where feeling lost leads to a downward spiral of negative decisions… if I did something I enjoyed, I’d be more apt to rebound faster. This is why I’m better at doing dishes than reading a book in this situation… doing dishes feels more like work I shouldn’t enjoy that I can let myself do while “wasting” time. Fortunately for me, I’ve learned to enjoy doing dishes and it’s become upward-spiral-inducing.)

Why am I ranting, nay whining, about silly little games? Because they sucked up all my boredom. A growing body of science is proving a direct connection between boredom and creativity. I’ll let an exemplary paragraph from the very first google hit on the query “humans need boredom for creativity” demonstrate why this is important:

Researcher Andreas Elpidorou of the University of Louisville writes in a journal article that “boredom helps to restore the perception that one’s activities are meaningful or significant,” meaning it acts as a “regulatory state that keeps one in line with one’s projects. In the absence of boredom, one would remain trapped in unfulfilling situations, and miss out on many emotionally, cognitively, and socially rewarding experiences. Boredom is both a warning that we are not doing what we want to be doing and a ‘push’ that motivates us to switch goals and projects.”

Sound like anything I’ve been describing? Sound like anything in your life?

Earlier this week I decided I’d had enough, the sucking up of boredom had gotten out of hand, and I removed this crutch. I set intentional limits on when I’d use my phone this way and stuck to it. This was surprisingly hard… the very first day I reached into my pocket before I mentally slapped my hand away. Can’t you last one day? I asked myself. Now a few days in, I’m hoping I can phase out the habit over time.

When I had to confront the question of “what do I do now?” without my primary avoidance coping mechanism… well, I had to find an answer. There are lots of things on my daily to-do list which I wasn’t always getting to, and more things on my long-term goals lists. It was a bit easier to actually get these things done this week. Guilt was replaced by satisfaction. Huzzah!

I’m not perfect of course, and sometimes the answer to that question was to find another way to distract myself. As I said, I am a something of a master (and the internet is far more infinite than a mere app store). But the quest is ongoing to remove the distractions that add nothing to my life, and if I am going to procrastinate, to do it creatively, or productively, adding value to my life even if it comes in a zig-zag pattern.

Crutches can be helpful – in an emergency, or when you’re hurting. I don’t condemn coping mechanisms in general. But when you get down to it, most of the time, you’d probably rather walk. At that point you need to kick those crutches to the curb.



Filed under Reflections

2 responses to “Weekly Wondering: Removing an (Anti)Productivity Crutch

  1. Gamer here. There’s a lot I relate to in this post. I still play games but probably only 2-3 hours a week now. As recently as ten years ago, it was closer to 20, and could have been much higher if I didn’t have a day job.

    The strangest thing happened when I cut my hours way down, though — I started doing a greater variety of things with my life. More reading, more writing, more exploring overall. (I lump reading in with creative tasks because your brain must create fake sensory data — images, voices, sounds — from the words you are reading, which requires work.) My experience supports the whole boredom thing: In the absence of constant stimulus, I reached out for more.

    I still play though, and don’t think I’ll ever fully stop. I’m just more conscious about how I play, and whether or not I’m using it as a distraction from something else I really need to be doing.


    • Thanks for stopping by – I enjoy reading your blog and appreciate the comment. When I’m overdoing it, games can definitely soak up multiple hours in a day – when I’m not, it’s often around 20m-30m on average. So I’m pretty right on with your numbers.

      What you’re describing is pretty much what I’m hoping for, so it’s encouraging to hear. I also don’t think I’ll fully stop, but as you say, just gotta be conscious about it.


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