Note: This is part 1 of a series I’ll be doing on how to spend your time well. This first part will be focused on identifying areas of your life where time is not well spent, and understanding the factors that contribute to that.
Tell me if this story sounds familiar. You’ve just spent several hours doing one of the following things:
- Surfing Instagram, TikTok, Reddit, YouTube, Whatsapp, Facebook, Messenger, Snapchat, or (for you career-obsessed folks) LinkedIn.
- Binging several shows or movies on Netflix or a similar streaming service.
- Playing a lot of video games on your PC/console/phone.
- Passively browsing the internet, consuming content from news websites and blogs.
Despite having “relaxed”, you find yourself drained and tired. You feel regret and chastise yourself for wasting the last several hours. You feel like you haven’t spent your time well.
If the aftertaste of these experiences is subtly bitter, why do we spend so much time on them? Is it normal to invest such significant amounts of time in ways that are at best, neutral, in their impact on our lives? Is it possible to live a life where the overwhelming majority of our time is invested in ways that are clearly positive? And perhaps most importantly: How do you maximize the amount of time well spent in your life?
Defining time (not) well spent
Now, everyone will likely have a slightly different version of how they define “time well spent.” At this point, I’d like to offer my personal definition to you.
Time well spent: Time that you can look back on retroactively and view positively, rather than negatively or neutrally.– My definition of time well spent.
I like this definition because it leaves room for subjectivity. It’s not about what other people define as time well spent. It’s about creating time that you can look back on and feel good about. For some people, it might mean achieving more in their careers. For others, it may be making time for hobbies or spending time with their loved ones. Either way, the true definition of this definition will be defined by you (try that for a tongue twister!).
With this definition in mind, please take 5 minutes to stop and jot down answers to the two questions below.
- What are the areas of your life where time is not well spent?
- What are the areas of your life where time is well spent?
After you’ve jotted down some answers, read on!
Technology and time well spent
For most people, at least a few of their answers to question one will relate to the way they use technology. This is probably due in part because I injected my bias into the beginning of this post, but also because it’s just generally true.
“Beyond a relatively low threshold, most of the time we invest in any of the four activities I mentioned earlier will feel totally and utterly meaningless.”– Me randomly injecting my own quote and shamelessly supporting my own biases.
To be clear, I’m not saying that surfing social media apps, watching TV, playing video games, or consuming news are inherently bad ways to spend your time. Nor am I saying that they are the only ways where time is not well spent. I will, however, argue that they are the most common areas where time is not well spent.
The problem is not that we spend time on these activities. The problem is that the difference between the amount of time we want to spend (intentionally), and the amount that we actually spend is often far too high. Here’s a simple equation you can remember to think about how much time you’re not spending well.
Nt = At – It
Time not well spent = Actual time spent – Time you’d intentionally spend– An equation for thinking about how much time is “not well spent”.
* This isn’t a proper equation because you end up with nonsense if you move the variables around, but you get the idea.
What’s the reason for this difference? Why do we so frequently end up spending time in ways that are not meaningful to us? My answer: it’s largely due to a combination of external factors (behavioural loops that are baked into the products we use) and internal factors (procrastination, escaping from things that are uncomfortable to us).
Here’s another made-up and totally fake equation to think about what your Nt (time not well spent) is composed of.
Nt = Et + It
Time not well spent = Time not well spent contributed from external factors + Time not well spent contributed from internal factors– Another pseudo-equation from me. I hope there are no math majors reading this.
The attention economy (Et)
For those of you in Silicon Valley, you’re probably already familiar with the various techniques used by companies like Google, Facebook, TikTok and others to capture as much of our attention as possible.
Tristan Harris, a former Design Ethicist at Google, refers to this trend as a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” By combining a variety of behavioural science principles like choice architecture design and variable reward effects, technology companies can exploit natural vulnerabilities in our biological wiring to keep society hooked on their products.
The resources I linked above dig into this in detail, but here’s the punchline: institutions with billions of dollars in funding, and the smartest minds of our generation are working nonstop to design products to addict us.
If you find yourself floating from video to video, story to story, and in general, spending time in ways you don’t necessarily want, it’s not purely because you lack self-control. It’s because all of these apps are designed to be addictive. There have been a few early steps to reform ethical design standards for technology companies, but there’s a long way to go here.
Takeaway: Don’t assume that technology is neutral in its stance towards how much of your attention it takes. It isn’t.
Looking within (It)
In his book Indistractable, Nir Eyal outlines an argument that I very much agree with. That is, that technology is merely a “proximate cause” of our tendency to get distracted – not the root cause.
The root causes are what Nir Eyal describes as “internal triggers”. From my experience, internal triggers usually fall into one of two broader categories.
Category 1 – You’re avoiding something
You’re either consciously, or subconsciously looking to avoid something because facing it is uncomfortable. This could be a task for work, an assignment for school, or confronting deeper personal issues that have been sitting in the back of your mind.
In order to avoid the discomfort associated with facing that “thing”, your mind will naturally seek distraction. The most common examples are usually associated with technology – binging TV shows, escaping into mindless social media browsing, playing video games.
However, it’s important to note that you can escape into anything – even activities that most people would regard as generally positive. A senior Zen monk once told me that a lot of people come to Zen (and meditation more broadly) to escape from their day-to-day problems. You can escape into exercise, reading, talking to friends, or any number of other activities. When you escape into these “positive” activities, it’s often more difficult to realize that what you’re doing is just a coping mechanism for avoiding something else.
Takeaway: Journalling, meditation, and speaking to friends (in moderation) are all healthy ways to surface, and identify things in your life that you may be avoiding.
Category 2 – You’re bored
Boredom is a subtly unpleasant feeling. Most of the time, our immediate reaction to feeling bored is jumping into an activity or pursuit that kills the feeling of boredom. Technology is an all too convenient way to do this, especially in the era of smartphones.
In a sense, when you’re bored, you’re still trying to avoid something – the feeling of boredom. However, boredom is in some ways more benign than the previous category, given that you’re not avoiding a specific task, duty, or deeper issue.
Takeaway: When you feel boredom, simply observe the feeling for some time before reacting to it. When you do react, do so by engaging in meaningful, healthy leisure activities that are gratifying to you. Try a new hobby, spend time with people you care about, and in general, find ways to spend time in a way that doesn’t leave you with regrets.
The goal of part 1 was to accomplish the following:
- Define “time well spent” in a way that is easily, and practically connected to the way you live your life, day-to-day.
- Provide a framework for measuring the amount of time in your life that is not well spent (what is your Nt?).
- Understand the contributing factors that lead to an Nt > 0.
In part 2, we’ll explore how we can decrease Nt while simultaneously increasing Wt (time well spent, another variable I pulled out of thin air ).
Lastly, please send over questions, comments and feedback you have. I’d greatly appreciate it.
Until next time.