Rethinking Time Well Spent
2018 was a banner year for tech addiction in large part because of the movement around “time well spent.” The time well spent movement started as an effort to encourage humane design that put users first. Unfortunately, as some are beginning to notice, time well spent has become a public focus for the tech giants and has seemed to lose some of its impact. If we want 2019 to build on tech addiction’s progress in 2018, we need to rethink time well spent.
Net Time Well Spent
The biggest deficiency in time well spent is that it can’t be considered on its own. Few, if any, applications allow only healthy, productive time to be spent by users. The ill effects of too much social media or entertainment are obvious, but news and email can just as easily devolve into sessions that create negative emotions from the content itself or from the effects of lost time due to overuse. Time well spent should be net time well spent to take into account the negative effects as well as the positive.
The calculation for net time well spent is:
(Healthy time * strength of healthy time) – (unhealthy time * strength of unhealthy time) = net time well spent
If the equation returns a positive number, the overall experience was time well spent. If the equation returns a negative number, the overall experience was time poorly spent. Strength of time spent is a subjective measure determined by the user somewhat analogous to marginal utility in economics. The determination of whether content is healthy or not as well as how strong may be different in the moment vs in the future. Specifically, physiological reactions will dictate strength of health judgments in the moment, but rational reflection, and the associated physiological reactions to those reflections, will dictate strength of healthy judgments in the future.
Consider an example of 10 minutes on Facebook. The first three minutes each have a strength of healthy time value of one, but the next seven each have a strength of unhealthy time value of one. In this example, net time well spent equals -4. Optimally, you would have stopped after three minutes, but you have no way of knowing that you hit your peak limit at three minutes because there is no physiological marker that notifies you. It’s actually the opposite—if the first three minutes made you feel good, then you expect another minute to make you feel better. When it doesn’t, then you’re chasing a fleeting feeling until the end of your session where you’re worse off than when you started.
In the above example, not only are you helpless to know if you’ve hit your limit for a healthy social media session, Facebook is disincentivized to help you figure it out. As long as there is money to be made from our attention, these platforms will try to encourage us to spend more time on them. Net time well spent more holistically considers the total time spent with any given application, not just the positive time.
Up to Users to Take Control
Big tech made time well spent a focus in 2018, but we can’t rely on them to solve the problem. Tools that help us track time don’t help us meaningfully change behavior. Humane design, while ethically commendable, is incompatible with businesses that have to monetize attention. In the digital ad business, control over the amount of inventory you can sell (time spent) is much easier than control over price. Users need to take matters into their own hands.
We see two avenues for users to better manage tech addiction with net time well spent:
- Manage sessions. Find third party software that figures out the net time well spent equation specific to the individual and can calculate it in real time for any given technology consumption session. Establishing the efficient frontier of any given session on social media or other abusable apps may be a difficult proposition, but with enough data and the right business model, this could turn into a big opportunity.
- Delete the worst offenders. Use net time well spent to delete persistent abusers. For our distraction-free Good Phone, we adhered to this concept. Social media, news, gaming, the browser, and email are all frequent creators of negative net time well spent. Eliminating these apps from your phone, where they are most likely to be abused, forces you to use these apps on your PC where the experience is less addicting.
All great products are addicting to some degree, but not all great products are endless. The Internet and smartphone solved the endless “problem” for tech, only to invert the problem. If we can embrace the realities of big tech’s incentives and view time well spent appropriately, then there’s reason to be excited about the next wave of potential solutions.
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