Screen Sucking

by Krishna on February 28, 2009


I first came across the phrase “screen sucking” in Edward Hallowell’s “Crazy Busy”, an otherwise forgettable book. It is an apt term for how we spend hours online surfing without any end instead of getting on with our work. Not simply idling away in the office, but also at home, when we could be doing something more productive.

This kind of behavior existed before the Internet too. People would browse tabloids and magazines. They would sit glued to the television watching any show that happens to be on it. However, the Internet is different because the supply for your addiction is unlimited and easily available. It is like TV, but with hundreds of millions of channels to switch to, and a very convenient remote in the form of Google.

If you want to kill time, you can pick any topic you are interested in (sports, news, movies, politics, arts, stocks, etc.) and visit different sites to satisfy that interest. With RSS subscriptions and email newsletters, you can get them delivered to you: a slight productivity gain in not having to visit websites that is obliterated by the huge time loss in processing the delivered information. We are also seeing heavy increases in more rich information in audio podcasts and video streaming sites.

Let me be clear about one thing: This information overload is not because of noisy information. That is a problem in a different context, but here the problem is that there is too much GOOD information. Any average person has the tools and knowledge to differentiate between good and poor sources of information. People migrate towards sites that provide high quality, relevant, meaningful and authoritative content. The problem is that there are too many of those sites.

For example, if you are a conservative, liberal or moderate, you will find many tens or hundreds of political sites with highly competent writers providing commentary tuned to your views. You may not have enough time in the day to process all the information that they collectively produce every day. The average person’s reading speed is around 250 words per minute. Let’s assume 250 words is the average length of a blog post (this entire post is more than 750 words). You can perhaps read 60 blog posts every hour. Now add video content, podcast content, Twits, daily news on TV, etc. You just cannot catch them all.

Of course, few people set out to waste their time like this. But the quality of available information is high and people get drawn into spending more time than they had planned to. I talked about politics, but a similar case can be made for any subject, because almost every niche has websites and blogs on the Web. Some people may be spending time on content related to music or movies, others may be doing so for gardening or mystery novels.

How to get out of this kind of addiction. Some ideas.

  1. Disconnect yourself from the network while using your computer for offline tasks. Shut down the TV and audio sources when you are working. It also saves energy and is good for the environment.
  2. Use RSS effectively to get information sent to your reader (such as Google Reader) and only open it at a specific time during the day. Treat your feed reader as a 30-page newspaper. Just like you would never read the entire newspaper, you don’t have to read every single word you receive.
  3. Online conversations can be useful, but understand your purpose and how much time and effort you can spend. If it is not worth it, stop using Instant Messaging and services like Twitter except in special circumstances. Display your status as offline in IM clients so that you don’t get interrupted.
  4. If there are sites that you visit manually (such as your personal email or bank account), designate a specific time in the day or week for such activity. Stop continuously checking information on sites that you can do nothing about. An example would be checking on your stock portfolio every few seconds.
  5. Close your email program and check it only at regular intervals. This is usually practical only at home, but even at work, try not to check non-urgent emails while you are working on your regular tasks.

Now that everyone is moving towards greater Internet use on the phone, some manifestations of screen sucking will come into existence for smartphone users. Wasting time is the same whether it is on a large monitor or a 2x3 inch phone display. Use your phone not only for consuming information, but for producing it.

[Photo licensed from Stefan Neagu]


Anonymous April 17, 2009 at 1:38 pm

The term "screen sucking" caught my attentions. I was reading your post and thought you might want to know that Dr. Hallowell is going to be on the hot seat sometime soon. Just in case you are interested.

- mike

Krish April 17, 2009 at 2:31 pm

Thanks for the information, Mike

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: