Back in my vacation time wasters article, I talked about how I like to be productive on vacation and how there are a ton of things that keep it from happening. I’m on vacation again, well, vacation isn’t the right word. I’m on a ‘break’ which we often have in the world of education. To clarify the difference, for the purpose of this article, a vacation is a destination, you are staying somewhere that is not your normal residence. A break is simply down time. It could be anything from a day, to a couple of weeks, to several months where nothing is planned and you don’t have to follow a normal work routine. In education there is spring break, fall break, national holidays, and the two big ones: winter and summer breaks. If you think about time as a resource, sort of like money, then from a time perspective, with all my breaks, I’m comfortable, not wealthy, but comfortable. When you retire, assuming you are truly retired and don’t have to work, that could be looked at from a time perspective as being independently wealthy. So why am I sharing this? Well I was playing a video game while I was on break, I got a strange feeling after a little while. I realized I was getting lost in the game and not really getting anything done. That got me thinking about everything I’ve been trying to achieve from a time perspective and I realized there is a problem, actually there are a few different problems.
Why is there a problem? Well let’s get started with the important thing about time. I’ve written about retirement extensively. Retirement is the brass ring. It’s the big prize. In the world of the 401K, for many, it’s also an unachievable goal. The mystical allure of retirement is that you have the time to do what you want when you want to do it. In this way my bigger breaks are a bit like mini periods of retirement.
So going back to the game. It was one of those games that takes two hundred hours to complete everything the developers designed into it. Honestly I really like them. In fact as I write this now I’m thinking about the next thing I want to do in the game. I like these very long games as I feel like I’m getting great value for my dollar. Twenty dollars for two hundred hours of playtime is a really good deal. Modern game design is built on a model to lure you in and keep you playing. This new structure was incentivized because publishers put so many opportunities to buy more digital content in the games. Just like retail operations, the more you are in the store, the more you will buy, so they work to keep you there.
One technique used to keep players playing is to give you the same type of endorphin hits you get when you accomplish something in the real world via in-game achievements or trophies. This is one of the arguments why a large population of young people are not entering the workforce. The theory goes that if their housing and food needs are met by parents, their sexual needs are met by willing partners who are ok with the family co-habitation, then the higher order need for accomplishment is being met by video games. Before video games, these accomplishments used to be met through work.
Unfortunately, most of these games are like an annual summer vacation to the same place. You look forward to it. It’s pleasant to be there, you have the opportunity to spend money on cool things you wouldn’t normally buy, but mostly it’s not too eventful and they all kind of merge into the same memory. For me, and I’m sure many others, it’s just fun to play the game because it’s not something that is stressful or hard to do like work or family. But like being on vacation for a bit too long, if you think about what you are doing, you realize something is missing and you want to go back home. At least I do. Only getting away from video gaming is not as easy as packing up, getting in the car and going home. That console or that PC is always there. If you have a break it’s super easy to pick up that controller and get lost in a world designed to keep you in it. And that in a nutshell is the big problem. Most people want more time. This becomes more acute as you age. But when you get it, you have to decide what to do with it and if you don’t decide, actively decide, and manage it appropriately, you can lose it.
I don’t understand the people who have a ton of time yet who don’t seem to be bothered with never-ending vapid time fillers. They are very happy doing nothing at all, well nothing of consequence. I’ve seen stay-at-home parents and retirees spend years just puttering about the house. They sit for hours on end, they read, they watch videos or clean a bit. All these activities are just that, it’s activity, but it’s not really associated with a greater purpose that leads to self-actualization. A little of this activity is refreshing. Too much, and it’s just wasted time.
I think that even for these people there is a danger in this type of time filler. For me I get tired of it fairly quickly and I’m cognizant enough to know I need to engage in something of consequence or I will feel unfilled. For others it could take years. Like the allure of picking up the video game controller, they don’t know what to do so they fall back into their old activity filled routines or they are constantly trying to find something else to fill their lives with what is missing. I’ve seen people engaged in things like acting and activity rich ‘businesses’ that never break even let alone make a profit or grow into something tangible. I’ve seen people use religion and family related activities to fill their time. Social activities are another big avenue for hiding from efforts that result in self-actualization. Like my video game example, these can be fun and interesting ways to spend some time, but they can’t be the full purpose of your existence, at least not without feeling something is missing. From what I can tell through my observations of others, if there is no self-aware extensical crisis leading to purposeful driven efforts, then what usually happens is a breakdown, or maybe a series of breakdowns. I’ve lost a best friend over this when I became the target of one of her breakdowns. I’m positive it was her lack of purpose that allowed her to focus on meaningless minutia and a personal disagreement with me to the point where it destroyed a nearly two decade long friendship.
Activity Verses Fulfilling Productivity
Let me just say that for the most part activity is good. Activity keeps your mind from totally atrophying. Physically working out is better than sitting around eating. I’m positive that playing my video games which are heavy with environmental puzzles is like exercise for my brain. They keep my problem solving ability in good shape. Activity also leads to opportunities. My ammature DJ, blogging and podcasting efforts have led to several opportunities, some of which are quite lucrative. But as I’ve said, activity alone can’t lead to fulfillment, and it can be a trap. A good chunk of your activity should have a purpose beyond what you are technically doing.
This is where we could get into a fairly heavy conversation about life’s purpose. I’m sure there is a ton I could write, and that has already been written, on that topic. Without going too deeply into it, I think a defined purpose can act as a compus. If you know what your purpose is, then you can occasionally look up from your activities during your breaks and ask yourself: Is this helping me get where I want to be long term? For example, I like to learn, and if I were to have a purpose it would be to learn as much as I can on the topics that interest me, and then sharing that knowledge. Clearly I’m not learning all that much playing hundreds of hours of the same game. It’s fun, but if i’m not careful i’ll look up and ask myself, where did all my time go? This break was two weeks long and what did I accomplish towards my purpose?
The more I think about it, It’s almost like you need a mission statement for your life. As stupid as they seem in the professional world, especially when you consider how much time goes into their creation, mission statements if properly used can be very powerful. They are a formalized organizational compass. When considering new initiatives, they provide continual guidance. Unfortunately most organizations don’t use them after they are created and get stuck in their own activity trap. I’m just as guilty. In the earliest days of the blog I created a Peluso Presents Mission Statement and a Personal Mission Statement and haven’t thought about them since. My guess is because they were too wordy. It probably should be simplified to something like “Learn as much as I can and share where it will add value to others.”
If you think about the new truncated mission statement, then it can really be a guide to all those activities. Will playing a video game allow me to learn as much as I can and add value to others? Probably not, so maybe it’s best if I plan to minimize my time with the games to an hour or two a day. Will listening to music add value to others? For the record I love discovering new music and actively listening to it to the point that I know every detail of the song. That takes time and it doesn’t add enough value to the lives of others so I won’t spend days alone in my room listening to tunes with a great set of headphones. Thankfully I can sort of do this with modern technology. I definitely can add value to the lives of others with my blog and podcast, but can I learn any more with them? Maybe, but it’s very much a diminishing return at this point, which is most likely why I’m thinking about how to wrap it all up. What about home improvement projects? I don’t do them enough, and I do feel like there is more I can do to learn and benefit the lives of others if I become more engaged there. That may be something I take up more of once the blog / podcast has been retired from active development and put on long term support.
Most people have downtime. If you don’t watch how your spending it, you’ll waste the opportunity that downtime affords. If you don’t have a purpose that fills some of your down time, and you let that go on and on for years, then it may morph into much bigger issues. This tells me that you have to plan your downtime carefully. Plan in some fun and mindless activities, and plan in some activities that are fulfilling and meet the bigger existential goals in your life. For the record, It doesn’t escape me that the purpose of most downtime is to do nothing, and I’m arguing for making sure you do something with your downtime. Yet I think even though it’s ironic there is value in what i’m saying, i.e. even when you have periods with nothing to do, make sure you don’t do nothing. Think about it, plan a little, and spend some of that time doing something of consequence. Fortunately for me, getting all this down in my blog and podcast does make me feel like I’ve done something meaningful. I guess that means I can go play some meaningless video games now. I’ll just have to make sure I don’t blow the rest of the break on them.
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