If you feel like you have enough free time to relax and recharge—well, congratulations on being one of a very lucky few. Most people in what I call the “busy years” of building careers and raising families fantasize about having more time to read, do hobbies, or connect with friends.
Yet many of us have also had the jarring experience of checking the screen time tally on our phones and seeing a number so steep, it can’t possibly be true. But our phones aren’t lying: The average internet user now spends roughly two and a half hours per day on social media. Even someone logging only half that could easily displace much of the leisure time that would be available alongside a family and a full-time job. In the abstract, people might wish to do other things, but spending time on our phones — and to a lesser degree, streaming and television — generally wins out.
So how to solve this dilemma? The most straightforward answer, giving up social media (or even screen leisure in general), is also a prohibitively challenging one for many people. But shifting the balance of leisure time is a more doable solution—one that just requires building new habits that can work even in a connected world.
That’s what I found while doing research for Tranquility by Tuesday, my book on how learning new time-management habits can change people’s satisfaction with time. I had 150 busy people try out a handful of my favorite time-management rules over nine weeks and record their time, with the goal of helping them make more time for their priorities and spend less time on things that didn’t matter to them.
For pretty much everyone, mindless scrolling tends to fall in the latter category. As part of my time-use research, I’ve studied thousands of time logs, witnessing firsthand how even people with incredible discipline, limited discretionary time, and high aspirations for their leisure can lose hours online. As one participant in my most recent time study told me, “Even if the book is right there and I really want to read it, if I touch the dang phone, my plans go out the window.”
This time-vanishing act even has a name: the “30-Minute Ick Factor,” a term coined by computer researcher Alexis Hiniker. People mean to check in briefly, and then report feeling disgusted or disappointed with themselves when they see that, as another participant told me, “random scrolling just swallows time.”
Certainly, aspects of the online and streaming experience are designed to be addictive. But the initial act of choosing screen-based entertainment, before the addictive nature can suck you in, is a result of how easy it is to make that choice compared with choosing other forms of leisure. For many busy people, leisure time either comes in small uncertain chunks during the day (during a canceled phone call, or a few minutes while you’re waiting for the kids’ carpool to show up), or else it comes at low-energy times, such as at night after the chores are done or the kids go to bed. Scrolling slots right into the dead space, expanding to fill whatever time allotted. You can spend two minutes or two hours on Twitter. Most people always have their phones with them. Screens make few demands, which is helpful at the end of the day, and this effortless path is easily trod.
On the other hand, many analog forms of fun, like reading, puzzles, crafts, or calling a friend, require at least some effort or coordination. And so, when we are tired, or have not planned ahead, effortless fun wins out over the effortful variety.
That’s not to say there’s something wrong with easy entertainment, which certainly has its place and time. The problem is that leisure time is supposed to be rejuvenating, and phone time, well, isn’t—or at least, not to the same extent One 2006 study found that people were at least slightly happier while socializing and relaxing than watching television or using their computers. And the “30-Minute Ick Factor” suggests that people, in general, do not feel better after extended social-media sessions.
To overcome the small effort barrier that sends people to their phones or TVs, rather than the books or hobbies they’d rather be engaged in, just requires a small habit switch: Commit to doing an extremely small amount of effortful fun before effortless fun.It’s not a big deal to decide to read an ebook for two minutes before scrolling, or to do a puzzle for 10 minutes before seeing what Netflix is offering up.
Yet those few minutes can change the entire experience of leisure time. When I taught people in my study this new habit, one of two things happened. Many times, the inherent pleasure of the effortful fun kicked in. People wanted to see what happened in that Louise Penny mystery so badly that they never wound up opening Facebook. But even if they did switch over, they still got in a bit less passive leisure, and a bit more of the desired variety. Time is a zero-sum game; one crowded the other out. The balance shifted, making people more satisfied with their time. Over the course of my nine- week study, agreement with the statement “yesterday, I didn’t waste time on things that weren’t important to me” rose 32%.
“Time seemed to expand,” one person told me. “It was magic.”
This magic didn’t require being clueless about the latest meme. It just kept that impulse in check. “I am still doing the effortless things, but now in the evenings I try to prioritize the effortful and as a result have flipped the amount of time I spend on each type of activity,” one person told me. “Instead of 20 minutes scrolling and five minutes reading before bed, it’s now 20 minutes reading and five minutes scrolling most nights.”
In an incredibly busy life, that’s more than an hour of extra reading each week. It didn’t require a radical change to avoid big tech or making more time — just seeing the time that was already there.
Read Charter’s book briefing on Tranquility by Tuesday.