The Time Hack Everyone Should Know
Just as Dorothy finds out at the end of The Wizard of Oz, the key to hacking time is a tool we’ve always had: choice.
I have a complicated relationship with my phone. So much so that I never used the screen time feature, choosing to live in denial rather than face the hard truths of our relationship. Imagine my horror then, when my 14 year old son surreptitiously turned it on and started reading my stats from the previous week. “How can you do this to me?” I begged, embarrassed, as he listed my time on phone calls, emails, and social media.
We all know that time is our most precious resource: it’s the one thing money can’t buy. And with smartphones in everyone’s pocket these days, we’ve never been better able to track how we’re using them every minute. With the press of a button or downloading an app, we can track how much time we spend exercising, sleeping, and even browsing our social media feeds.
This kind of tracking is desirable for many: recent surveys show that 21% of Americans (31% of those earning over $75,000) use a smartwatch or fitness tracker. And more than 80% have a smartphone, which often includes features to track usage across different apps. However, while many people have tried wearable trackers, few stick with them – abandonment is high. And when it comes to screen time trackers, research shows people are pretty open to using the technology, but they rarely change their behavior based on the data.
Apparently, information about how we spend our time isn’t always sought after, and when we get it, it doesn’t always cause change.
Take, for example, the US Time Use Survey. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has collected data on a variety of time-use markers for nearly 20 years. And their results are revealing. According to their 2020 findings, the average American has enough free time to indulge in many healthy and rewarding activities: 5.5 hours a day to be exact. Compared to 2019 statistics, this reflects an increase of 37 minutes per day, mainly due to fewer people working and traveling. But the survey also showed that we often shun healthy, happiness-generating activities for passive screen-based pursuits. The average American spends 22 minutes a day playing sports, exercising and being entertained; 32 minutes a day to socialize or communicate; and 26 minutes a day of relaxation or reflection. In contrast, they spend 211 minutes a day watching television. It’s 2.6 times longer watching TV than exercising, relaxing and socializing combined.
The compromise leaves us on our hunger. Studies have shown that heavy television viewing is linked to lower life satisfaction, and that people who use social media the most are also the most socially isolated. Compare this with findings that those who watch TV less than 30 minutes a day are the most satisfied with their lives, and those who limit social media use to 30 minutes a day or less have lower rates of loneliness and lower depression.
When we humans choose television or social media over other activities, we are making a “social trade-off”. To be clear: we are not entirely responsible for these choices. The technology and the screens were designed to captivate us. As a recent study suggested, we may become addicted to social media because of a delicate feature of our anatomy – a feel-good dopamine feedback loop stimulated by how these platforms work and how they reward our commitment and participation. It’s like we’re all sitting in front of a slot machine that pays out randomly, and we can never predict when we’re going to hit it big.
But research also shows that by taking steps to ensure our social trade-offs are our own choices — and not based on how technology makes us feel — we can use the best time hack of them all. It’s called social economyand that means we make active decisions about how we spend our time, then save and invest our time where we want it.
The good news about humans is that we are very good at quickly determining what we want. According to a study, it takes an average of 3.38 paintings to see if you like an art style, 1.5 small cups of a new drink to know if it tastes good, and two tries of a candidate for a employment to understand if you want to hire them. Even one of life’s biggest choices is made quite quickly: it takes only 173 days, on average, to decide that the person we’re dating is the one we want to marry.
Applied to the idea of social economy, this means two things. First, you can and do make social decisions all the time, and second, you already know what you want. Just as Dorothy finds out at the end of “The Wizard of Oz,” the Time Hack Key is a tool we’ve always had: Choice. We have choices about how to spend our 5.5 hours of leisure each day. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re sucked into your technologies. Instead, see your use of technology for what it is: you know what you like and you choose to engage in it (at the cost of other opportunities).
Now, to be fair, few of us could imagine an existence without our phones. They give us security, connection, and a lifeline for others. This is why I will never do a phone detox or advise anyone else to do the same. It’s normal to be dependent on your phone. But when it starts interfering with your life instead of helping you live a better one, you need to change. This is especially true if others (like my son) have noticed there is a problem.
According to stages of change model, this change consists of four phases: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation and action. If you have already started to think about it deeply (the first two steps), the next step is to prepare a plan and implement it.
There are two types of actions: omission — create intimate moments (eg, dinner) and intimate spaces (eg, night in bed with a partner) without your phone, and replacement — sspending passive time on your phone with something that has health benefits, like calling a friend or going for a walk. Then, whenever you interact with your phone, you’ll have three choices: use, omit, or replace. Remember: small changes can lead to big changes in our daily clock.
This does not mean that the social economy – if you have not done it – will be easy from the start. It takes about 66 days to solidify a habit. But looking ahead to your life two months from now can be all the motivation you need to make the change. You could exercise more, socialize more, and spend more time with the humans you adore the most.
Michel Drouin is a behavioral scientist and expert on technology, relationships, couples and sexuality. She is a professor of psychology at Purdue University in Fort Wayne and a senior fellow at the Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation, as well as the author of “Out of Touch: How to Survive an Intimacy Famine.”