We made our time into a cheap commodity. And it’s costing our lives.

“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering tim ethey are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.” — Seneca

Time is precious to me. As it would be to anyone, if they stopped, considered its worth and value, and measured the weight of every passing second. We are running out of it; every single one of us. I’d call it the most finite resource that any and every human has.

But we’ve made it cheap. We’ve made it so, fucking, cheap. Rather than preserving it and dedicating it to the things that matter the most, to our families, to the people we love, to the pursuits, ideas and passions that move and drive us — we spend it with total reckless abandon.

We spend our time on swiping and tapping and using social apps that are little more than digital slot machines. We lose ourselves and the sliver of time we have left in watching endless streams of 60 second videos we’ll barely remember in a week’s time.

And we do it all at the expense of the things we actually want.

If you ask most people what’s important to them, what they really want out of life, and what they wish they had more time for, I think the answers would speak to the core of who we are; social, passionate, creative humans.

The answers would be about being present for their kids and sharing the little moments that they can’t get back. The answers would be about spending more time on their true sources of joy; playing a sport they love, being active, finishing that creative project, reading books, or just getting off their ass and dancing.

But if you look at the numbers, if you really examine what we’re actually doing with our time, none of that is reflected.

The average smartphone owner unlocks their phone 150 times a day.
Using smartphones for longer intervals of time changes brain chemistry.
71% of people usually sleep with or next to their mobile phone.
Smartphone use and depression are correlated.
75% of Americans use their mobile phones in the toilet.
20% of people would rather go without shoes for a week than take a break from their phone

It’s stark. It’s proof that we’ve cheapened our time by selling it off wholesale to rectangular screens that glow in our hands almost every hour of every day.

The easy answer here? Give up our phones. Give up our technology. Forge a new life that is disconnected.
…but that’s also a ridiculous answer.

It’s an answer that ignores the shift in our society, and the shift in our interactions and habits of consumption, that would isolate anyone who dropped completely out of step and abandoned their devices to their own devices.

The more complex answer is that we need to start making informed decisions about how and where we spend our time, making those decisions in advance, and making them consciously and carefully.

  1. Scheduling in the time we spend mindlessly scrolling, swiping and tapping. I don’t think there’s anything innately wrong with enjoying our devices and letting our brains take a vacation for a half hour. Where it becomes an assault on our time and our wellbeing, is in our inability to limit that engagement. If you want to go through every eligible single person in your area, dive into TikTok, or just doomscroll Twitter, go for it; but set a time limit. Literally, set a timer before you dive in. And if you can, schedule it in advance. Know that when 5:30 comes around each day, you can devote yourself to whatever’s on your phone and enjoy it.

  2. Prioritising what you actually want to do. You want to read that book. You want to finish writing that book. These are both excellent pursuits. But if you don’t actively set aside the time for them, the chances of actually doing it are slim to absolute fucking none. Before you start your week, sit down and block out time that you will dedicate to the things you really want to do; and then make that scheduled time sacred. Turn off your phone while you’re in that space. Let that time thrive and grow in value. Because you’re never, ever, ever going to just get around to it. Ever.

  3. When you’re with your family, when you’re with the people you love, recognise that that is exactly where your attention, care, focus and — yes — time ought to be. Put your phone somewhere safe and face down until dinner is done, until your kids are in bed, and until you’ve told your partner about your day and about how much you love them and appreciate them. Believe me, the world won’t end if you have to wait on your notifications between 6–8pm each night.

  4. On the subject of those notifications? Turn them off. You don’t need to be at the beck and call of everything happening everywhere in the world as soon as it happens. Turn off every single notification. Make a mental list of the apps you want to check for updates regularly, and do that whenever you want to. If you find yourself forgetting to check for a particular notification, guess what — you didn’t really give a shit about it in the first place. Congratulations, you just got your time back. My phone shows zero notifications except for texts and calls from my partner. I’m pretty happy with that approach.

I want to leave you with one thread to follow. It’s from a study by psychologists and researchers Kristen Duke, Adrian Ward, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten Bos.

“Think about the number of fatalities associated with driving while talking on the phone or texting, or of texting while walking. Even hearing your phone ring while you’re busy doing something else can boost your anxiety. Knowing we have missed a text message or call leads our minds to wander, which can impair performance on tasks that require sustained attention and undermine our enjoyment. Beyond these cognitive and health-related consequences, smartphones may impair our social functioning: having your smartphone out can distract you during social experiences and make them less enjoyable.

With all these costs in mind, however, we must consider the immense value that smartphones provide. In the course of a day, you may use your smartphone to get in touch with friends, family, and coworkers; order products online; check the weather; trade stocks; read HBR; navigate your way to a new address, and more. Evidently, smartphones increase our efficiency, allowing us to save time and money, connect with others, become more productive, and remain entertained.

So how do we resolve this tension between the costs and benefits of our smartphones?

Smartphones have distinct uses. There are situations in which our smartphones provide a key value, such as when they help us get in touch with someone we’re trying to meet, or when we use them to search for information that can help us make better decisions. Those are great moments to have our phones nearby. But, rather than smartphones taking over our lives, we should take back the reins: when our smartphones aren’t directly necessary, and when being fully cognitively available is important, setting aside a period of time to put them away — in another room — can be quite valuable.”

Joan Westenberg is an award winning Australian contemporary writer, Angel investor and creative director. She is the founder of branding and advertising firm Studio Self. Her approach to messaging, communication and semiotics has built her reputation as a writer, and she has been named as one of the leading startup voices in Australia by SmartCompany.

Her writing has appeared in The SF Chronicle, Wired, The AFR, The Observer, ABC, Junkee, SBS, Crikey and over 40+ publications. Her regular work can be found on Pizza Party, a blog about creativity, culture and technology. Joan is the creator of Transgenderinclusion.com, an open-source workplace inclusion hack.