From the November 2016 issue: The binge breaker
So why do millions still submit to the leash? Like any other addiction, heavy smartphone use hooks us by stimulating the brain’s reward system. This gives us immediate, but very short-lived, gratification, which quickly wears off and leaves us with regret as we crave yet another hit. Even if it doesn’t rise to the level of addiction, any compulsive time wasting that doesn’t make us happier in the long run—whether it takes the form of solitaire or cat videos—can similarly harm our well-being.
For the sake of happiness and productivity, our goal should not be to squeeze every second of distraction and leisure out of our days. Rather, it should be to manage our days in accordance with our priorities, by distinguishing between the time wasters we like and those we don’t—and ridding ourselves of the latter. Here are two ways to get started.
1. Schedule your downtime.
The best way to deal with the opportunity-cost problem is not to leave time-use decisions to the moment we begin an activity, when our decision making might be distorted by short-term comfort seeking (especially if it’s 1 a.m., when Howard the Duck is likely to air). In his book Deep Work, the writer Cal Newport recommends a productivity strategy called time blocking—making decisions about how to use time in advance, and sticking to the schedule.
Read: Work for 52 minutes, break for 17
Time blocking doesn’t have to be limited to work. For many people working from home during the pandemic, job and life have commingled in frustrating ways because there is no exoskeletal time structure imposed by a formal workplace. My answer is to block everything, including hobbies, leisure, and even daydreaming. For example, you might write “Goof off” on your planner from 1:30 to 2 p.m. tomorrow. Since goofing off is no longer an uninvited guest in your schedule, it doesn’t throw off your rhythm, and your odds of being back to work at 2 rise dramatically.
2. Give your bad habits a monetary value.
In 2012, two management scholars at the University of Toronto conducted a series of experiments in which they asked participants to think of their incomes in terms of an hourly wage, as well as assign a monetary value to the time they spent on leisure activities. For example, participants were asked to consider their (nonworking) time on the internet in terms of forgone wages. Thinking this way reduced the happiness people derived from their leisure activities.
The researchers interpreted this finding as a negative consequence of monetizing leisure, but such a method can be of great value for dissuading us from engaging in addictive pastimes we dislike. Say, for example, that you find yourself bingeing on social media, which research has clearly found lowers happiness when overused, especially for young people. If you consume the average amount of social media in America (about 142 minutes per day) and earn the average hourly wage (about $29.92), you are effectively “spending” about $71 worth of time per day on this activity.