As a procrastinator, and in particular a procrastinator who is easily addicted, I frequently find myself in the middle of some activity or experience of questionable value. At that point, my usual response has been to ask myself “what am I getting out of this?” It’s good to ask something: every second I spend doing one thing is an irretrievable second spent not doing something potentially more valuable. However, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that “what am I getting out of this?” is the wrong question to be asking.
The problem with asking what you’re “getting” out of something is that it places the burden of responsibility on you. By suggesting that if you only worked a little harder, you might be able to get more value out of something, it makes you culpable for wasted time. It characterizes your relationship with media and experiences as exploitative, as though every time you read an article or attended a concert you were trudging down into some Experience mine in order to extract the raw Value ore therein and shape it into…something (swords?) If you’re not getting enough out of some experience then you could find another, richer vein, sure–or you could just work harder to get more out of what you’ve already got. This thrifty attitude is great for material possessions, or experiences you’ve already had or cannot avoid, but it’s entirely the wrong way to think about time and art. There is a cost to getting better possessions–there’s no cost to finding something better to do with your time.
The other problem with asking what you’re getting out of a given experience is that it encourages the idea that you might be “missing out” on something if you stop. It reinforces the mine fallacy by implying that there might be some hidden, gleaming gem of precious value buried under all that rock that will languish, forever hidden, if you don’t personally unearth it. This idea is especially problematic for perfectionists like myself–it’s the same impulse that makes me want to 100% every videogame I play, or watch all the bonus content on DVDs, or spend hours on Wikipedia or TV Tropes accumulating mountains of useless trivia. “Sure, the first half of this article was 98% crap, but there was that 2% I really liked! What if there’s another 2% in the second half? If I don’t finish it I’LL NEVER KNOW.”
Time for a reality check: you are always missing out on something. You can only do one thing at a time, and there are an infinite number of things you could be doing at any given moment. That’s just how time works: you are always, constantly, continually not doing something of potential value. So to ask yourself what you’re “getting” out of whatever experience you choose at any given moment is to implicitly task yourself with getting the most possible value out of everything. It can’t be done! There are an infinite number of experiences that might be more valuable, any one of which you could be doing instead. The task of creating value from an experience is not your responsibility–it is the responsibility of the experience.
Don’t ask “what am I getting out of this?” Instead, ask “what is this giving to me?”–and if the answer is “nothing” or “not much,” then move on! True, some experiences require an investment if you want to get their full value–a difficult book may be harder to read than a pulp novel, yet give you more to think about in return. But this is true of all experiences, because if nothing else they at least require the investment of your time. By focusing on the value the experience is giving to you, rather than the work you’re putting in to derive that value, you place the burden of responsibility back where it belongs: on the experience in which you have already invested.
Your job is to decide what art and experiences to spend your time on; once you’ve decided it is not your job to “make” those experiences work. If it bothers you that you have to read through two dozen tweets on your timeline before you see one that’s interesting, unfollow some folks! If you’re halfway through an article and you’re reluctant to read the second half, don’t! And if you keep giving a videogame your time (and/or money) because you want something from it that it seems reluctant to give you (story, content, “fun,” whatever), then get rid of that sucker! There are plenty of other experiences out there that will treat you with more respect–your time is valuable, and you should expect a high return for it.