How to Avoid Empty Calorie Time

Have you ever spent hours doing something and then realized later that it was a complete waste of time? This is especially frustrating when the activity itself had absolutely no purpose or benefit. I call this empty calorie time or nutrition less activities. With the advent of technology I find that I am constantly being sucked into activities—or non-activities where hours flitter away and nothing is accomplished or felt. However, it is important to note that play time is not empty calorie time. Having fun, doing sometime to lift your mood or enjoying yourself is not empty calorie time. This means that sometimes certain activities can be fun, and sometimes they can be nutrition-less.

Facebook is a perfect example of a potentially empty calorie activity. Sometimes spending time on Facebook is beneficial—I chat with friends, get updates on what is going on with distant relatives and watch funny videos. Other times however, Facebook is simply a giant, nutrition-less time suck. I look at albums I have seen a thousand times before, read other people’s wall posts just to make myself feel FOMO (fear of missing out) and generally waste time clicking around on nothing.

Empty calorie time is also not mind-wandering time. It is actually very important for our brains to have time to wander. Recent studies have shown that during mind-wandering time our brain completes essential activities for growth and recuperation.

Empty calorie time is typically exhaustive. Meaning, we spend hours doing something and come out of the activity feeling drained. It’s interesting that it can take more energy to do nothing than to do something. We are actually sucked into empty calorie activities because we are either:

  • Too tired to do anything productive.
  • Want to stop working, but feel to guilty to take a real break.
  • Are bored.
  • Are procrastinating from a project or activity that we dread.

The reasons why we get into empty calorie time are actually essential for knowing how to avoid it. Think about the last few times you have experienced empty calorie time. What caused it? We can actually let plan ahead and take precautions so you know what to do the next time it happens:

1)    Make a list of activities that always get you excited, motivated or in a good mood. This list will look different for everyone and sometimes it takes a little creativity. For some reason, organizing my make-up drawer always makes me feel productive. For my mom listening to oldies on high volume can get her re-energized. Think of 3 activities that help get you energetic and keep the list on hand (I have a word document in my computer).

2)    Plan breaks. When we feel like we have to keep working, no work ever gets done. If you are bad at taking breaks, empty calorie time can be a problem because we often fall into time wasting activities when we are feeling too tired to work. If you plan your breaks, you will have less need to do time wasting activities.

3)    Make an anti-boredom list. I have a list of funny websites, logic games and people to call when I feel bored. This really helps me avoid mindless Facebook checking or channel surfing.

4)    Learn to break difficult projects into small chunks. The best way to get over a project you do not like is to break it into 10 minute small projects. If you can do just 10 minutes at a time or start on a small part of the project you will often have enough momentum to keep going.

As more and more devices, games and social networks enter into our lives we have to protect our time. Being aware of and taking steps to avoid empty calorie time not only can make us more productive, but also make sure we only spend our time doing things that make us happy—not sap our energy.


Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering


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