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"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats."
― Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays
The average American spends five to six hours each day on their phone. Some people never knew a world in which there weren't cellphones, but for those of us who do, it's reasonable to consider what we did with all those hours. Myself, like many people, work on their phone, substantially increasing the daily time spent on devices. I use my phone to call (actually call) customers, log activities in Salesforce, occasionally text customers, check email, etc.
I am also of a generation that didn't grow up with cellphones. We had a box TV and a boxy computer with very slow internet. We rented VCR movies from the local grocery store or library, rewinding them before we returned them to avoid any unwanted scolding. I read hundreds of books and wrote dozens of stories and poems. Without constant distraction, my mind was free to wander. Creativity could flourish (and did). There is substantial evidence that creativity is stifled by technology in that we are endlessly distracted and prone to copy others' creative works.
What I wanted to know though, is what Americans are spending their time on, and where we could free up space for more productive activities. The depth of lost potential lives in the time we've all lost. Where though, has all that time gone?
The following statistics came from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and represent annual averages from working Americans:
- 9.7 hours on "personal care, including sleep"
- 6.07 hours working
- 1.5 on household activities
- 4.05 on leisure or sport
- 0.56 purchasing goods/services
- 0.48 caring for household members
- 0.20 on religious/civic activities
- 0.21 on "other"
On average, those who worked at home did so for 5.4 hours on days they worked, and those who worked at their workplace spent 7.9 hours at work. Our use of cellphones isn't isolated however-you probably use your phone for driving directions, answering emails, speaking, or any number of other, quite useful things.
Most phones have an app tracker, and according to mine, I utilize social media an average of 57 minutes a day. Although I am busy, I don't have children or a family, which means I probably have more free time than many of my peers. Most of my free time is spent running, writing, or reading (lately, I'm positively addicted to reading the Bridgerton series).
If we think about time as if it were money (which we should), then wasting time is one of the most damning things we can do. Conceptualizing time as if it were money is useful when considering how to spend your time, because you ought to spend your time on stuff that counts. However, time is a limited resource. You can always make more money, but you can never get back wasted time.
I like to think about time in terms of opportunity cost. Opportunity costs represents the potential benefits that an individual, investor, or business misses out on when choosing one alternative over another; what thing are you giving up to have another thing right now? Because opportunity costs are unseen by definition, they can be easily overlooked. When applied to time, opportunity cost can be pretty straightforward. Instead of spending 57 minutes of each day online, I could easily spend that time writing, learning a new skill, etc. In this example, I'm giving up time to be distracted or entertained right now.
Time spent scrolling is not time spent reading, time spent working, time spent with a loved one, time spent thinking, or time spent engaging in any of your other interests. Opportunity cost can also be used to consider questions like: should a new mother go back to work right away, or in a year or two? What is she giving up, and what is she gaining? Is it worth the time and energy to go back to school for an MBA? Is it worth staying up late watching videos online instead of getting a full nights rest?
When considering the inherent potential in each person to fulfill their own creative or industrious endeavors, there are hundreds of possible roadblocks any of us may encounter, financial, physical, emotional, psychological, or otherwise. But one roadblock that is perhaps the easiest to remedy is the roadblock of wasted time. None of us had any choice about the hand we were dealt in this life, but we do have a choice about what to do with the time we have. The depth of lost potential is bottomless. And the cost of wasting time is measured only in what could have been.