THE BLOG

Forty Days and Forty Nights: What I've Learned From Wasting Time on Facebook

02/11/2014 02:53 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2014

Since 2007, I've wasted more time on Facebook than Noah spent on the ark.

Recently, Time Inc. created a bot that estimates how much of your life you've spent on Facebook. First, it asks for the average number of minutes you dribble into the site each day, then it adds them up over the days, months and years. Not one hundred percent accurate, perhaps, but unsettlingly close.

This bot came to my attention a few days ago, but I had been putting off using it. I told myself I just didn't want to distract myself from studying (ha-ha), but really I was terrified of what it would reveal. Maybe I'm scared that I've spent more time Facebook messaging my friends than talking to them. Aren't we all terrified? We are the Facebook generation. And our obsession with how our relationships look on a screen has begun costing us the depth of those very relationships.

Although all the Time app asks of you is an estimate, I spent minutes deliberating. Once I finally got up the guts, I entered 30 -- a forgiving number, I'm sure -- and watched my computer screen roll the numbers by, watched the years tick backwards. When it finally spit out the numbers, my body flooded with shame.

40 days, 18 hours, 22 minutes.

More than 40 days and nights of putting a screen over the world when I could have been in it. Eight climbs up Mt. Kilimanjaro. Six round trips to the moon. One thousand afternoons I could've spent jogging along the shore, watching the sun drop into the lake.

Immediately I exited the 5 separate tabs of Facebook open on my interface, deleted the Facebook app on my iPhone and, perhaps most effectively, set my iPhone background to a snapshot of the shameful 40-day statistic. Now whenever I make a compulsive grab for my phone, I get a reminder I'm wasting time.

Hopefully this is adequate weaponry for the battle I've pledged to fight against my own distractedness: To spend 5 minutes on Facebook every day, from 8 to 8:05 p.m., and to spend the extra 30-35 minutes engaged in some form of extracurricular writing -- a post, a poem, a short story, whatever. And any other time my brain flutters away from the task at hand, I'm going to read something -- something beautiful, something thought provoking, or some piece-of-shit thought piece that compels me to think better than its author (like this one).

Sounds pretty transcendent, right? Well, it's only been two days and I've entered and exited Facebook more split-second times than I can count. But it's starting to feel good. Recently my brain has been feeling like an overstuffed attic -- filthy, cobwebbed and cluttered. But now, instead of letting it go skipping off to compare pics and event invites, I'm challenging it to work through its own internal bullshit; instead of nourishing my neuroses, I am force feeding my focus.

A psychologist named Daniel Kahneman has a theory I really like -- that our brains operate according to two systems: System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. For me, System 1 is the mental equivalent of choosing a McFlurry over a cup of lentil soup. But since mindfulness isn't measurable the way calories are, it's tougher for many of us to measure the flabbiness of System 1 thinking. Facebook, on the other hand, allows you to count your friends and experiences. Maybe that's why our numbers-obsessed society loves it so much (that, and the dope hit each notification delivers). But that quantification comes at a cost of real experience, or it has for me.

Forty days and forty nights. I didn't even know what that cost was until the app added it up; I didn't even know I was sick of paying it.

So thank you, Time Inc., for living up to your name -- now that you've crunched those numbers for me, I can start trying to reclaim them. But the road to recovery is steep. Already I can feel the System 1 junkie in me clamoring for a deep hit of the old FB, even as my System 2 scrabbles to keep me in the here and now.

Now, I am sitting in a café. I meet the gaze of a friend I made today; she smiles and, with a nudge of her head, indicates to the table on my left, where a tiny kid in snow pants is resting his head on the table. He's shutting his eyes and counting to himself, his lips moving soundlessly. One, two three. What is he counting?

I still want to go on Facebook.

My thirty minutes are up.