Elizabeth never considered herself an addict, much less a technology one. The 33-year-old prides herself on her healthy, balanced lifestyle. She regularly hikes and rides horses, eats well and gets enough sleep. She loves working for her easygoing, family-oriented company, and makes time to see friends, family and her boyfriend regularly. On weekends, she volunteers after going to church.
On the surface, her life seems full, but on the inside, she’s unhappy. “I reach the end of the day, and it feels like I just didn’t really do anything, though I did,” she said. She thought about talking to her pastor, or even seeing a therapist, but she doesn’t know the problem. Her career is fulfilling, her relationship is loving and her life has meaning — what more could she want?
The answer to her dilemma came from an odd place: a time-management seminar her company offered. Through it, she learned the way she was using her iPhone was sapping the small gaps of her life of substance and, ultimately, happiness.
We all complain, “I don’t have enough time.” Well, a “time audit” tracks exactly where each minute is actually going. If time is money, it’ll show what it’s being blown on.
As part of the time-management seminar, Elizabeth began to track everything — from doing her hair to sitting in traffic. Some co-workers balked at the idea of measuring for a month, but she looked forward to it. She thought she spent her time well, so she was curious what she could learn.
What she discovered was shocking. When she woke up, she’d pick up her phone and turn off its alarm. Then, she’d spend 10 minutes to check e-mail, the weather and browse the Web. At work, she’d take breaks and play a couple of games of Candy Crush. When she waited in line at the grocery store, she’d chat with friends or her boyfriend. At night, while watching TV, she’d flip through Pinterest. And before going to sleep, she’d fit in some light reading.
“I was mostly on my phone in 5 to 10-minute increments,” she said. “But it added up to 90 minutes to two hours a day.”
It turns out, her usage time is pretty normal. While studies vary — some focus on just smartphones, others include anything with a screen — on average, we spend one to over two hours a day on our devices. Or about 20 days a year.
“When you put it that way, it’s really depressing,” Elizabeth said. “That’s longer than most of my vacations.”
It’s easy to write off five minutes here and there. After all, if we’re already standing in line at the store, what’s wrong with a quick game of Happy Street? In the larger context a time audit, those small interludes of screen time add to some serious consequences.
“I always thought of myself as a certain kind of person — healthy, balanced, sometimes a little stressed, but still making time for family and friends,” Elizabeth said. “But doing the time audit, I saw I spend more time on my phone than I do preparing healthy meals, working out or even with my family. I can’t believe how much time I spend staring at a screen. Am I really a person who’s that attached to my phone?”
She had never been worried about those habits, but “the numbers don’t lie,” she said. “I didn’t have a solid sense of them until doing the time audit. And now that I do, it’s worrisome to me.”
Her anxiety mirrors concerns often shared by doctors, psychologists and researchers, who worry our increasing screen time, particularly among children, is tied to rising levels of obesity and diabetes, a link explored in the HBO documentary “The Weight of the Nation.”
Researchers are careful not to directly tie excessive screen time to its health consequences. Instead, they say our many devices might be a symptom of a larger problem. But even in this sense, our gadgets are filling the holes of our unmet needs of connection and self-esteem.
Most studies focus on long durations of computer, TV or mobile device use, which leads to inactivity and a kind of distracted mental state that pulls attention from our eating habits or families, but that’s not how Elizabeth and others use phones. Those habits fall under a different model of intermittent use — a minute here and there, between or during activities.
Studies show multitasking is an illusion — what we’re really doing is rapid “task-switching.” In fact, doing two tasks at once does the opposite of what we want: it slows us down, making us less effective and keeping our brains from absorbing information.
According to Fox News, multitasking can cause a 40 percent loss in productivity, and the University of California Irvine reported it can keep heart rates raised. The University of Utah also discovered that drivers who chat on the phone take longer to reach their destination. Furthermore, according to the New York Times, students who walked and talked on phones suffered from what researchers called “inattentional blindness” — while they technically “saw” their surroundings, they didn’t actually registering events, such as a clown riding a unicycle, in their brain.
In short, if we can’t fully pay attention, we can’t remember important details, according to the Wall Street Journal, and that can slice-and-dice our satisfaction with life. Elizabeth identified with inattentional blindness, realizing that her phone was siphoning her attention away from the moment, which led to a vague sense of dissatisfaction. “I need to look up from my iPhone now and then, and make sure that I don’t look back down at it,” she added.
A month after the time audit, Elizabeth sat at a cafe with a cup of coffee to study her time-use charts, as if to look at a self-portrait for clues. But instead of a visual image, her life was broken down in hours and minutes. She had a picture in her mind of who she was and wanted to be — but the way she spent her time was much different.
It wasn’t just her technology use — she realized, for example, she spent a lot of time inefficiently running errands — but her phone played a large part of her life, which didn’t square away with her idea of a life well lived. “I kind of beat myself up over that,” she said. “How careless and mindless could I be to be on my phone for that long without realizing it?”
In truth, Elizabeth isn’t as addicted to her phone as she fears — she doesn’t crave it, feel out of control when she hasn’t touched it or become unhappy when she can’t use it. Going on a digital detox isn’t really possible for her, nor would it ultimately help her.
Elizabeth represent the “autopilot” person in the middle ground, between the addicts and abstainers, who turn to the phones by default, whether it’s to fill in the gap of time they would find themselves otherwise wasting, or simply as a way to relax. Their minds are usually elsewhere as they turn on their phones.
The trick is to restore some mindfulness to how often and why we pick up our phones. A time audit will often give you an eye-opening sense of just how much time you spend on the phone, but then, the hard part of self-reflection and making small yet important changes comes next.
Elizabeth banned herself from using all gadgets in the bedroom. So now, she begins her day with some stretching, or uses the extra time in the morning to meditate or pray. At night, instead of playing a game or browsing the Internet, she talks to her boyfriend or reads a book.
While watching TV, she now knits or does sit-ups, but she admits occasionally she uses Pinterest. She still plays games while on breaks at work or standing in line, but overall, she’s more mindful of her casual phone use. “I do feel like how I use my time better reflects me,” she said. “Especially how I begin and end my days.”
More importantly, she’s more aware and conscious of when she chooses to use her phone. Now, when she picks up the phone, she asks herself why she needs it and what goal it meets. “Considering how many times a day I pick up my phone for something, I check in with how I’m feeling and what I need more often,” she added.
She was surprised by the results. For example, she realized she often feels bored at work, so instead of playing a game, she took on more challenging responsibilities. She also realized how disconnected she felt from her boyfriend at times, so instead of texting him more, they spend more quality time together. Her phone doesn’t fill the small gaps of yearning and dissatisfaction in her life anymore, and as a result, life feels fuller and more vibrant.
“I try to be aware of when I’m using it when I feel lonely or bored or just need some mental stimulation — and then remember there are sometimes better ways to meet that need than playing around on my phone,” Elizabeth said. “I try to remember my phone isn’t a companion, but a tool to meet my needs — sometimes it’s a good tool, but sometimes there’s something better.” ♦