How much time do you spend in front of a screen each day?
An honest answer might make most of us uncomfortable and more than a little ashamed. At this point, it might be easier to calculate how much time we aren’t looking at screens.
Screen time started as an office necessity, but it’s carried over into other aspects of our lives. Now, nearly everything we do—working, socializing, being entertained—happens in front of a screen.
Ten minutes here, a half hour there. Most of us haven’t even noticed the transition because it’s happening so gradually. But the implications for our lives are profound. We’ve reached a point where the average American adult spends over 11 hours a day in front of screens.
It’s a new year, and with it comes a bundle of resolutions and newfound resolve to improve. If you’re committed to change, one of the first steps is coming to terms with how you’re currently spending your time.
Why Tech is the Greatest Threat to Your Goals and Productivity
Technology helps us build communities, learn, and do business across the globe. The value is incredible—as long as we’re using it intentionally.
Unintentional technology use is a huge threat to our New Year’s resolutions. And that’s exactly the kind of use social media companies and app developers design products to encourage. Their business models depend on keeping your attention as long as possible, regardless if it’s helpful for your long-term goals.
If you find yourself wasting hours on screens and struggling to find time to do the things you value, it’s easy to blame yourself. Shouldn’t you have more willpower? Why is this so difficult?
We have to resist the temptation to blame ourselves. Popular platforms and apps exploit our brain chemistry by creating habit-forming products and neural feedback loops. There’s a reason why product “stickiness” is a key metric for Silicon Valley investors.
Each interaction with an addictive technology gives us a burst of dopamine, a neurotransmitter related to the mental reward we receive for certain behaviors. It’s the same satisfied feeling you get from eating when you’re hungry, achieving a goal, or winning big on the roulette wheel.
Technology gives us those dopamine bursts on overdrive. But instead of triggering natural signals that it’s time to stop the rewarding activity (like feeling full once you eat), the quick bursts of dopamine just continue. That’s why you might feel guilty in the middle of an Instagram binge . . . but it’s impossible to stop.
Even minor distractions can put a major damper on your productivity. It takes about 23 minutes to refocus the mind after an interruption because part of your attention (“attention residue”) remains on the previous task.
Aligning Your Screen Time with Key Values
Most of us already know what matters most to us. The challenge lies in figuring out how to use our limited time, energy, and willpower to work the “important stuff” into our busy schedules.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably found yourself wishing you had more hours. But as Charlie Gilkey’s excellent article on Medium pointed out, that probably isn’t the most empowering way to look at it. Assuming you haven’t discovered how to bend spacetime, managing your time comes down to managing your priorities.
The first step to fighting the battle against digital distraction and addicting tech is understanding your current habits. You can use tools like Screen Time or Moment to track your phone use and see where you’re spending most of your time. You’ll start to notice patterns. You’ll see the ratio between time well spent and unproductive use.
Tech isn’t inherently evil. When used intentionally, it can improve your quality of life. The main thing is to detach ourselves from unconscious habits of mindless scrolling and consuming and see what kind of (and how much) screen time has a place for a life lived intentionally.
Facing these screen time numbers can be humbling, but don’t worry. Simply understanding how many hours you could recover each week can be motivating.
Once you understand how where you are spending your time, the next step is deciding what amount of screen time is right for you.
Deciding How Much Screen Time is Right for You
Now that you know how much time you spend on screens, you can take action to live a life more aligned with your New Year’s vision.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. How much time you need to cut depends on how much time you’re spending on screens now and how mismatched your behaviors are to your key values.
If you want to cut back but are intimidated, remember that small changes can have impactful results. For many of us, cutting our screen time by just 25 percent is all it takes to see amazing results. This frees up a whopping 19.25 hours a week, assuming the 11 hours a day average, and the modest goal keeps it from being too painful.
When deciding how much screen time is right for you, try to ask yourself a few questions about your online activities. For example: Which ones leave you feeling unhappy or unproductive? Which digital activities align with what you value? Which ones slyly steal your time?
Simply having a weekly screen time quota gives you clarity. Willpower matters in the beginning, but time-tracking and website-blocking apps help to form new habits that last. You can set different quotas for different days, which will help you be realistic with your goals. Remember, this is your system—make it work for you!
Catherine Price, author of “How to Break Up With Your Phone” recommends prioritizing your apps on your phone based on how much you want to use them. Tidying up your apps and putting them into folders can help reinforce your priorities and remove the temptation of distraction.
And finally, when cutting back on screen time, it’s important to remember to replace your scrolling with activities you value more. Most of us underestimate the lengths we will go to avoid being bored, which is part of what makes our phones so appealing. If you truly want to cut back on mindless scrolling try to create a list of activities that you would rather be doing. For example, reading a book on your commute instead of scrolling through social media or learning to play guitar instead of binge-watching Netflix.
Following these steps, you’ll be amazed at all the free time you find. You’ll also find joy in pursuing your goals, increasing face-to-face interactions, and being intentional with how you spend your time. After a few months of using screen time more deliberately, you’ll want to reflect and adjust your screen time quotas as part of an ongoing review. Because you’ve been thoughtful about your usage, you’ll now be able to make an informed choice about how you spend your time.
This week’s post is brought to you by Corey Pemberton, a freelance writer at Freedom. Freedom lets you block distracting websites and apps across all of your devices so you can focus on what matters most.