Just after graduating from college, I started getting into money management. I read about a simple rule to use to reduce spending: before buying anything I didn’t absolutely need, I’d write it down on a post-it note. I’d keep the post-it note wrapped around my debit card, blocking the magnetic strip, so before I used it, I’d be reminded of the rule. Instead of receiving the instant gratification of buying the unnecessary thing, I would wait a month; if I still wanted it at the end of the month, I’d get it. Most of the time, thought, I would end up thinking of it as a waste of money, so I wouldn’t get it. Instead, my money would go toward things that I actually really, really wanted.
This morning, I was brushing my teeth and was seized with the urge to watch this old Patagonia video about a surfer who kept patching up his board shorts. Why? I have absolutely no idea why it entered my head, or why I wanted to watch it.
Normally, I’d just pull my phone out, open YouTube, do a search, and spend five minutes watching it. That would turn into thirty minutes, because I’d see three or four other videos I’d end up watching, then I’d switch over to another channel, and an hour would go by – mildly enjoyable, perhaps, but ultimately empty, unproductive, and unrewarding. But this week, I’ve been turning my phone off during the day, so it has become a long, drawn-out process if I want to use it: I have to turn it on, then enter my passcode, then start up whatever program I want to use. A three-second process takes two minutes.
So when I wanted to watch the patched-up boardshorts video, I thought about it, and decided that no, I really didn’t need to watch it right at that moment; it was too much hassle. Then, I thought, why not apply the money-saving lesson from before? Why not write it down for later, in case I wanted to watch it when I had time and connection?
Then, I thought: why not ALWAYS do that, for whatever instant-gratification time-wasting activity I might want to do?
We’re in an age where access to information is instant, and we can get that access at any time we want, and our attention is becoming fractured, and that’s a really really bad thing, why not retake control of my attention the same way I did with money: by writing down whatever I wanted to waste time on and delaying the gratification?
So here’s the experiment I propose this week: I’ll be keeping my phone off except during lunch or evenings. If I am seized by the urge to use it to access information – a video, to check Facebook, etc. – I’ll stop and write down that activity on a list, which I will keep in my pocket. Then, later, I’ll look at the list to see if I still want to do whatever it is that I wrote down. If so, I’ll do it. If it turns out to be a waste of time – an unnecessary task that will take up time I’ll never get back – then I’ll cross it off the list and count those five minutes as saved.
I anticipate that, over the course of a week, I’ll be taking back a few hours of time – minimum – for things that actually matter. My attention will be a bit more focused and productive, and that time well saved can be time well spent.