How You Keep Time Determines How You Spend Your Time

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A recent study conducted by dScout found that the average user touches their phone 2,617 times a day. And that was just the average. Heavier users topped out at over 5,000+ touches a day.


But what I found even more disturbing than the sheer amount of phone interactions was when those interactions were happening. About 1 in every 10 users checked their phone in the middle of the night between 2am-6am.

This was a small study, only 94 people, so that equates to about 10 people. But my gut (and my own behavior) tells me that this is probably relatively representative of much of the population.

Check out this visualization of phone touches for two users in the study:

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Note that Lori, aged 45, seems to have significantly more of an addiction than Elizabeth, aged 25. This supports another recent finding that older folks are actually much more addicted to their phones than young people.

Though I sure as hell don’t interact with my phone as much as Lori—seriously what is she doing on that phone??—I do keep my iPhone on my bedside table at night. This is a relatively recent change, and one that I seriously regret.

Prior to about 3 months ago, I had a rule to never bring my phone into the bedroom at night. In order to make this possible, I had a small Braun clock that I used to keep track of time and wake me up in the morning.

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I made this choice deliberately because I didn’t want to get into the habit of checking my phone before bed or first thing when I woke up. Then, my clock broke.

Since then, I have been toting my phone into the bedroom and—in just a few months—my habits have changed vastly. I now look at text messages and check my Twitter feed before bed. While checking social media is typically entertaining for a few minutes, it becomes more toxic as it goes on. Leaving me feeling irritated, “less than”, or empty by the time I sign off.

When I wake up, I am again tempted to check my texts and open my email. If I do decide to peek into my inbox, then I inevitably start the day focused on someone else’s concerns: I’m contemplating how to respond to an unexpected request, or mulling over how to deal with an update that sparked some anxiety. I haven’t even gotten out of bed, and my thoughts are not my own.

There is much discussion about how much time we now spend on our phones, but significantly less discussion about how and why we choose to spend so much time there.

I think part of the problem is that we’re not making a choice at all. Because our phones offer to be our time-keepers, we let them. Forgoing wristwatches and clocks in favor of consulting this device that we already carry around with us everywhere.

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But when we default to using our phones as timepieces, we don’t calculate the repercussions. If your phone wasn’t on your bedside table, would you check social media before bed? Or play games? Or watch videos? Or would you do something else?

If you didn’t use your phone for a watch, would you refer to it less often? Or perhaps even leave it behind when you went for a walk in the park? Would you not get sucked into a blackhole of text/notification/email-checking when you just wanted to know what time it was?

The science of choice architecture is all about defaults. Want people to invest in their 401k? Automatically enroll them, and make them opt-out if they don’t want to participate. Want people to become organ donors? Don’t make them choose to participate, just make it the default.

Defaults have a powerful influence on our behavior. And defaulting to using your phone as a timepiece has a serious impact on how you use your time in general. When you check a wristwatch or a clock, there is no further option for action afterwards. When you check the time on your phone, a whole box of tricks opens up.

It’s worth considering the ripple effects of keeping your phone by your bedside. Or the ripple effects of looking at Instagram before you drift off to sleep. Or the ripple effects of checking your email as soon as you awake. Does it add meaning to your life? Or does it make you feel anxious, or perhaps a bit empty?

How you keep time influences how you spend your time. And I, for one, am going to go buy a new clock right now.

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Hi, I'm Jocelyn. I help people find more creativity and meaning in their daily work.


I host the Hurry Slowly podcast — a new show about how you can be more productive, creative, and resilient by slowing down — write books that will help you reclaim your time, and give uncommonly useful talks.

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