Time sinks and the struggle for focus

January 21, 2023

The modern world is full of distractions. It’s jam-packed with media and technology whose sole function, as far as their manufacturers are concerned, is to get you to focus on them to the detriment of everything else.

Advertising is consistently one of the biggest expenditures of any company large enough to understand the importance of it, from Apple to Home Depot and everything in between; the primary function of the $154 billion industry is to break down into a science the concept of holding the attention of the masses and conditioning them to think of them before any competitors.

While many of the legal battles regarding ethical advertising and the standards we now hold businesses to have come as a result, legality has not yet had time to catch up with the digital age, allowing for the proliferation of systems like Facebook which, in recent years, has been the subject of leaks and whistleblowers that have exposed practices related to amplifying misinformation, intentionally making their platform as addicting as possible and other unethical practices.


Video games in recent years have borrowed heavily from the mobile gaming market and begun to utilize loot boxes and other gambling elements, intentionally exposing their often underage audiences in an effort to increase their interaction with the game in an unhealthy, addictive way.

The concept of a time sink is a game or other activity that produces little to no tangible rewards, which accurately describes these new forms of entertainment. But the way they keep the user interested is by providing a positive feedback loop within the brain and trying to get it to associate the excitatory response of the brain to novelty with their platform or product.

The brain releases chemicals associated with pleasure and excitement at the new experience and seeks out more of it, this creates the natural feedback response rewarding curiosity and, as is often exploited, can create addictive behavior in pursuit of these novel experiences. This is where stories of children stealing their parents’ money for video games often come to the forefront of conversation.

As someone who struggles with executive dysfunction, a condition characterized by a difficulty controlling executive functioning, namely working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibition control, the world we find ourselves in now is, to me, a minefield of time sinks.

The ability to easily swap from task to task and to tackle boring assignments is one of the key aspects of attending academia, and my already reduced ability to self-regulate has led to problems developing for as long as I’ve been attending school and particularly after taking a few years to work before coming back to college.

I have significant difficulty getting started on a task, but I have no issue focusing on that task for hours at a time when I feel I’m doing well at it. But, for my part, it can sometimes take days, weeks or even months to work up the motivation to begin a task, resulting in problems making deadlines and sticking to desperately needed schedules. In short, schooling is difficult for me, especially with the delayed gratification associated with waiting years for a degree.

I’ve found I feel much more motivated when it comes to a workplace as opposed to a classroom though, mainly because of the money acting as a motivating factor. But my favorite job I’ve held isn’t my favorite because it paid the most (it did not) or because it was the most enriching (it wasn’t) but because I was free to move and do tasks at the same time.


I worked as an assistant manager at the bowling alley in my hometown, and carrying out the day to day chores of keeping the stockroom full and the floors clean acted as a good outlet for my energy every day. While I was engaged in the physical actions of lifting and pulling and pushing, my mind was free to wander and ask questions of myself and the world around me.

Kinesthetic learning, according to Houghton University, is a “style that requires you to manipulate or touch material to learn.” They recommend writing or creating tools to help you learn information like designing charts or creating models.

As a kid in middle school, I found writing down my notes helped me memorize the information easily, as the association of writing and thinking about the subject helped to tie the two together in my mind and always helped more than just sitting and reviewing material for hours on end.

When I left school to go into the workforce, it was, as expected, much easier to focus on the tasks at hand and motivation wasn’t really an issue. I was able to do well for myself, but in February of 2021, I moved to San Diego, and a few days later the job I managed to find at Greenpeace let me go as the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic was just setting in.

After months of not doing anything and being unable to find a job, I decided to go back to school and first finish my associate’s degrees from my first attempt at college. I found that typing notes and outlines of the chapters I would read helped me to recall the information I needed, but I still found myself unable to always focus my attention on my classes as opposed to any of the multitude of time sinks around me every day, especially video games and their manufactured hits of novelty and interactivity.

I managed to achieve those two degrees, but since starting at the university level, I’ve found it ever more difficult to break away from the daily distractions of social media and video games as routines set in and it becomes harder to dislodge the bad habits that develop.

Fortunately, I’ve been lucky to have understanding instructors who may overlook my bad routine of cramming assignments and tests into the last few weeks of the semester, but these bad habits, which formed due to a combination of difficulty with impulse control and allowing myself to get caught up with hobbies that explicitly prey on that weakness to maximize that screen time.

To those who may be struggling with focusing: if you want my advice, the best thing you can do is try to develop a healthier relationship with the technology you have the most issue with.

Limit screen time to a certain time of day or save it as a reward for yourself for completing a task. Keep in mind your biggest time sinks and save those for the end of the day so you don’t get caught up with them when you have other tasks to tackle. Be mindful of yourself while you’re using the media you’re using, and don’t be afraid to ask for help with being aware of how much time you’re spending on your particular time sink.

The modern internet and all its affiliated extensions are full of entertainment at the tap of a finger, but now we run the risk of being overwhelmed by all the easily accessible stimulation around us at any given moment.

For those of us struggling with focus in this brave new world, be strong. It may not get much easier, but we can control our environment and make it easier for ourselves if we’re mindful and careful with the tools we have available to us.

Staff reporter William Box can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @William17455137. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.


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