Every Sunday morning, a notification pops up on my phone alerting me of how many hours and minutes I’ve spent using the device that week. The first time it happened (automatically, after a software update,), I was shocked by the report: one hour and 58 minutes per day, on average. I figured that it was an unusual week, but in subsequent weeks, the numbers remained roughly the same. It turns out that I spend a lot of time looking at my phone screen.
About one month after this realization, I downloaded the Kindle app, hoping that it would help me read more since there are a lot of times when my phone is more convenient than toting a big book around. That week, I read anytime I needed a quick break at work, waited in line, or couldn’t sleep, so I expected my screen time stats to increase, but when my Sunday morning notification dinged, the numbers hovered around my usual two hours per day.
This new habit showed me that I often reached for my phone when I was bored, procrastinating, or in search of relaxation — essentially, when I wasn’t being intentional with my screen time. When I chose to spend that time reading, however, I noticed it reaped different results. Reading gave me food for thought, made me feel more productive, and provided a spark of joy. While I love catching up with my friends’ weekend getaways or the dessert they just made from scratch, I’ve never finished time on Instagram thinking, “I’m so glad I spent four of my precious weekend hours looking at pictures of how other people spent their Saturdays!”
This revelation helped me discover other satisfying ways use my phone, rather than scrolling through social media. Reading is just one of them. Here are three more:
Sorting and sharing photos
I take a lot of photos on my phone, from screenshots of recipes that I want to try to pictures documenting my dog’s daily antics. Previously, most of those photos ended up in the black hole of my iCloud storage, but a few months ago I created “print,” “future photo book,” and “save” folders in my photo app. Now, whenever I have a free minute or two, I sort my recent photos, deleting a lot (I don’t actually need 20 pictures of my dog resting his chin on his paws), sending some to friends or relatives (who must see my dog’s chin on paws), and filing the rest into their appropriate folders.
Photo sorting takes about zero ounces of mental energy, so it’s a great activity when I need a break at work, and it ensures that my photos actually get shared and printed, which is why I took them in the first place.
Meal planning saves time, money and sanity, but I wasn’t great about doing it until I created a dinner schedule and grocery list note on my phone. When I have a few minutes, I’ll pop onto Pinterest, look for some fun seasonal recipes to try, and start creating my meal plan for the next two weeks. After selecting a few new choices, I’ll fill that in my old favorites and slot a few leftover days, and I construct my grocery list as I go along. Not only does meal planning help me complete a task that I might otherwise neglect, but also it makes everything food-prep-related feel less like a chore and more like a fun way to fill downtime.
Memorizing a poem
Maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned, but I love having poems ingrained in my memory to add words to my experience on a gloriously sunny day or to encourage me when I’m feeling despair. Mentally tucking words away is a great scroll-time project, and this is my strategy: After choosing a poem (poetry.org and poetryfoundation.org are helpful resources), I read a line over and over until it’s stuck, and then I practice reciting it without looking at my screen. Once I’ve gotten the line down, I add another, memorizing it alone at first, and then building on the previously memorized lines. This task slows my train of thought and calms me, making it the perfect nighttime, pre-sleep activity.
By becoming more intentional about what I do when I reach for my phone, I’ve made my 14 or so weekly screen hours productive and satisfying. Maybe my next step is to try to cut back on screen time altogether, but for now I’ll enjoy the benefits of a photo-filled, meal-prepped, and poetry-infused life.
Originally published on November 26, 2019.