Waste Time on This, Not That
By kristin tennant
March 16, 2012
I was ready to head to the gym—but then I made the mistake of checking Facebook one more time.
Forty-five minutes later, I had traveled a great distance, but not on the treadmill. Instead, a virtual trek took me from one friend’s page to another, which led to an interesting-sounding band a friend was listening to on Spotify, then an article about the band and a YouTube video of a live performance. Finally I ended up at iTunes, where I purchased the album so I could put it on my iPod to take to the gym ... Oh right, the gym! But by then it was time to think about dinner. Hmm … What to eat—maybe Pinterest will inspire ...
Sound familiar? There’s no denying it—our sense of time becomes warped when we venture online without heavy doses of self-control and purpose.
It’s also true that much of what we encounter online enriches our lives offline. When we visit sites like Pinterest and Ravelry, we find recipes to cook and knitting patterns to create. On Twitter, we cross paths with interesting people we sometimes later meet in person at a conference or tweet-up. On Facebook, we stay in touch with family and old friends, and we find out about books and articles that feed our intellect and real-life conversations with others.
Time spent online is clearly not all bad. So are we really in danger of losing touch with reality—with the tactile and face-to-face and fresh air of life—or is reality simply shifting?
Redeeming unstructured time
There is a danger of getting sucked too far into the online vortex, but it’s a danger that’s easily averted if we approach our time at the computer with a healthy sense of perspective and balance, along with a few basic goals.
First, it’s important to recognize that how we spend our free time should reflect what we value and love most in life. A good place to start is by making what I call a “love list.” What do you love most in life? What makes you feel most content in the world—most like you? Solitude or time with others? Being at home or outside? Revisiting your favorite places or exploring new ones? Creative endeavors or physical activity? Seeking inspiration or inspiring others? Whatever it is, write it all down.
Next, keep track of your free time for a week. How do you spend it? Where does it go? How much of it is planned and how much just “happens"? Having some unstructured time in our lives is healthy, but it’s important to remember that unstructured time can also be made more intentional.
Finally, think about what you enjoy and value most about your online interactions. Are there aspects of this list that line up with your love list? Creating balance is not just about evening out how much time we spend on- versus offline, it’s also about linking and weaving together those two worlds into a single, more cohesive life.
Now that you’ve examined what you care about and how you tend to spend your time, let the brainstorming begin! With a few tweaks and an intentional mindset, you can re-engineer your free time in a way that adds meaning and richness to your life. Who knows—maybe you’ll even be able to retire the phrase “Where did that hour go?”
Here are some ideas to get you started:
If you can easily while away entire evenings with just YouTube or Hulu to keep you company, consider trying to cut back on your solo video wanderings by three or four hours a month. Then use that “reserved” time to start a monthly movie party/club at your house. (Bonus: People to laugh with and get worked up with in real time. Also: Snacks!)
If you love books but seem to spend more time reading about them on Amazon and GoodReads than reading actual books, it might be time to get old school again. Plan a date with a friend or spouse to a local bookstore—or better yet, a used bookstore. Share your finds over coffee, then head for the sofa or a park to get some reading time in. (Bonus: Support local businesses while you’re at it.)
If your virtual food life is way more adventurous than the actual meals you cook and eat, plan a Pinterest potluck. Set some guidelines or a theme—maybe everyone has to make Indian food or has to try a recipe they’ve never made before. (Bonus: If people bring recipe printouts to share, everyone goes home with full bellies and new meal ideas.)
If you’ve built a strong local Facebook platform, use it to organize an event and bring people together in real life. Two of my friends recently did this. One friend with great fashion sense organized a clothing swap, transforming her living room into a hip boutique (and giving us all an incentive to clear out our closets). Another friend invited a dozen local foodies to a mustard tasting—everyone gave mustard-making a try on their own, then brought their creations together to taste with bratwurst and drink. (Bonus: Everyone went home with a small jar of each variety.)
If you love good conversation but spend more time interacting with Twitter pals than real-life friends, use Twitter to generate topic ideas that can be tackled in more depth in your living room or a café. My husband and I started a Bible & Beer gathering—a theology discussion group at a local bar. For a while, we were discussing Christian jargon, so I got a list of terms started by asking my Twitter followers what Christianese they think is most problematic. I loved seeing how the Twitter discussions added to the face-to-face discussions. (Bonus: Sometimes new Twitter friends end up joining the real-life gatherings.)
If you spend many hours researching music on Spotify and Pitchfork, put your findings to use. Create a dance party playlist, then invite friends over for a living room dance party. Give your guests a list of your curated music so they can check out and expand their own collections. (Bonus: Dancing burns calories!)
If you love making things but find you spend more time looking at what others have made on Etsy or Pinterest, organize a monthly craft night. Invite people to bring their knitting or collage-making projects along, or supply the materials for a simple project: Get some poster board, scissors and glue sticks, then have everyone go through old magazines and catalogs that need to be recycled and create old-school inspiration boards to hang by their desks—a collage all of the colors, images and ideas they love. (Bonus: Your creativity gets a boost when you’re surrounded by the ideas and feedback of other creative types.)
Of course, you’ll still be spending some time on your computer. Make that time more intentional and communal by packing up your laptop and heading to a library or café. Just being out in the world and surrounded by people is a great way to keep your online life rooted in the real world.
Kristin Tennant is a freelance writer and blogger at Halfway to Normal and The Huffington Post. She and her husband and their blended family live what she calls a“halfway normal” life full of stories, surprises and redemption inUrbana, Illinois.
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