Reclaiming Time

If all goes well, I have about 2,000 weeks left to live, roughly speaking. That’s 336,000 hours, which is both very many hours and a vanishingly small number of hours left to be alive. Last year — better late than never — I started to think more deeply about the time I have available, and what I do with that time. Not to achieve any grand plans, but to use the time I have remaining thoughtfully and intentionally.

I started by checking my iPhone’s Screen Time. It showed I was spending an average of three hours on my phone every day, but I realized I had no clear memory of those hours. How was I spending three hours per day staring at my phone? Was it scrolling through emails, Twitter, or logging into LinkedIn for unknowable reasons? Endless HackerNews pages and failed attempts to read The New York Times without a subscription? Those idle moments before, during, and after work, plus whole weekends, vanished into the abyss.

A soothing drawing of an individual engrossed in their smartphone, blissfully unaware of the vast, endless abyss that opens up just behind them

iPhones do not make it easy to track screen time over long periods of time. Anything past four weeks ago disappears into the void, as ephemeral as the time you spent there. However, I feel confident saying that my phone use over time is steady without conscious effort to change habits. Assuming the rate of three hours/day continued into the future, every week I would send another 21 hours into the abyss. Willingly throwing a thousand perfectly good hours a year into the void is a bad deal. Keep that up for 2,000 weeks and 42,000 hours would disappear without a trace.

My phone was not connecting me to the world for three hours per day, or providing me with experiences that I valued. It was disconnecting me from my physical life and serving as a crutch to avoid the less polished experiences that make up non-digital life. Digital experiences, polished to a fine, engagement maximizing sheen require no effort to keep using. Staying engaged on well-designed apps requires no effort. Distractions only exist as heavily-tested interruptions that pull you deeper into the abyss.

None of this is new information: The Fogg Behavior Model, “growth hacking”, and the intentional capture of our attention for profit and for evil has been well documented by social scientists and thinkers for a decade.

Knowing that every interaction we have with our phone has been designed by thousands of exceptionally bright designers and software engineers does not make hours of the day disappearing into the abyss feel any better.

Perceiving time

Time disappearing into my phone was bad enough in isolation but the trigger for me to make real change was learning about how we perceive time while completing routine tasks compared to novel tasks. Mindless phone time is perhaps the ultimate routine task, perfectly designed to be engaging, addictive, and infinite while requiring absolutely nothing in return. Cutting out phone time means more time in the day for learning new things (novel tasks) and for more empty space that my brain gets to fill independently.

I decided not to settle for the bad deal my phone was selling me, and I started to work on replacing phone screen time with activities that I could be actively engaged in. The hope was that more engaging activities would keep my brain sharper, lead to more clarity and focus, and would make my days and weeks feel more like they had meaningful differences. I can’t stop time from moving, but I can change how I experience time.

A secondary hope was that replacing phone time (often filled with social media doomscrolling and reading bad news) with activities that weren’t designed to capture my attention and pull me into the abyss would have a positive effect on my mental state.

So, I started making some changes to my habits.

I started with the obvious recommendations that everyone writing about digital minimalism will tell you:

  • I deleted non-essential, time-stealing apps from my phone
  • I stopped using my phone before bed
  • I disabled non-essential notifications

These changes helped, but I still found myself on my phone for hours each day. The paths into the abyss were still wide open and time slipped away regularly. My biggest time wasting app became Safari instead of Reddit and I did not feel that I had made much progress.

Making real change

I tried a few more tricks — setting downtime hours on my phone helped, a digital detox was a failure — but the real, lasting progress came from two things.

  • I started wearing a watch
  • I filled the time that I had been spending in the abyss with activities I enjoy

Wearing a watch is pretty simple. Many of my phone spirals started with a quick glance at my phone to check the time. A watch, without notifications from my phone, gives me the information I want, without the risk of throwing time into the abyss.

The biggest miss in my approach to cutting screen time was not being intentional about using the time I had regained. I would put my phone down, but without something else to do, I would end up reaching for my phone again, and again. TV and laptop time were better than phone time, but not by much. My focus did not improve, and my experience of each passing day did not change much. There were still large chunks of time when there was no reason not to grab my phone, and those chunks of time tended to disappear into the phone abyss.

When I started using my time to do things that were interesting and engaging, my urge to grab my phone went down dramatically. Instead of plopping down on the couch after work, every day after work is workout time, prioritizing workouts that keep my brain engaged and my phone out of reach. Before making the switch, I was lucky to get 2 hours of exercise in a week. Now I exercise 7 - 8 hours each week, with almost all of that extra time coming from time that I previously filled decompressing after my work day by zoning out on my phone.

Being more fit was not the only benefit. I started writing again. I moved across the country and started exploring Los Angeles. I wrote a couple of (very bad) short film scrips. I read more books in a year than I had in the previous decade. I spent quality, engaged time with my wife every night, instead of waiting for date nights to connect with her. I took classes I would not have otherwise found the time to take, I tried out new hobbies, expanded our garden, and learned how to do home improvement projects of different shapes and sizes. I hiked more than ever. I had so much extra time!

The specific activities I filled the time with turned out to be less important than that I filled them with intention, and prioritized offline, analog activities. The goal is to have something that positively fills space that would have otherwise drifted into the abyss.

The final important mindset shift for me was that none of my effort to cut down on phone time was intended to make me more productive, or to get more work done, or to start up a new side hustle. More intentional leisure, a richer life, and a mind capable of creativity and focus are worthwhile pursuits on their own. As I have cut phone time, I have found more time to be productive, and to start engaging with writing programming content (that’s why I am writing this newsletter again!)

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