Chances are you spend way too much time staring at screens every day

Takeaway: If you’re average, you spend six to seven hours in front of your phone, tablet, computer, and TV screens every day. This is harmful to your productivity because it causes you eyestrain, and prevents you from becoming bored. To combat this, take more frequent breaks, reflect on how much you actually accomplish when you use your phone/tablet/computer, and don’t be so afraid of boredom—it has been shown to actually make you more creative and productive.

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes, 13s.

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If you’re average, you spend a crazy amount of time staring at shiny rectangles every day. 

Here’s a fascinating breakdown from Mary Meeker (an Internet Analyst at Morgan Stanley) that shows exactly how much time people around the world spend looking at their TVs, computers, smartphones, and tablets every day:1

screen-usage

To save you some time in interpreting the data, here are the totals for the five countries that most ALOP visitors come from:

  • United States: 444 minutes (7 hours, 24 minutes of screen time every day)
  • United Kingdom: 411 minutes (6 hours, 51 minutes)
  • Canada: 376 minutes (6 hours, 16 minutes)
  • Australia: 396 minutes (6 hours, 36 minutes)
  • Germany: 379 minutes (6 hours, 19 minutes)

In my opinion, these numbers are crazy. If you live in the U.S., assuming you sleep for 6.8 hours a night (the national average), you spend 43% of your waking hours in front of screens.2 And these are average stats; my guess is that the average reader of this website spends way more time than that staring at screens. (I recently kept a time log and found that I spend 10–11 hours in front of screens every day.)

The effects of staring at screens for too long

Since we spend so much of our time in front of our computers, TVs, phones, and tablets each day, it’s worth exploring just how much staring at screens impacts our productivity.

The answer? A moderate amount, but not how you’d expect.

Staring at screens for extended periods of time every day impacts your productivity two ways:

  1. It strains your eyes (which can have a moderate impact on your productivity)
  2. It makes you less creative and productive (which can have a huge impact on your productivity)

1. Too much screen time strains your eyes

According to experts, staring at screens “can strain [your eyes] or make the symptoms of existing eye conditions worse.” Looking at screens for too long with- out taking breaks can also lead to difficulty focusing, headaches, eye discomfort, blurred vision,   dry eyes, and itchy eyes.3 This happens because looking at a screen for an extended period of time causes you to blink less, which deprives your eyes of moisture.4

When you don’t deal with these symptoms, they can have a huge effect on your work performance, but eyestrain can be prevented by simply looking away from the screen   you’re working on every 20 minutes or so (more on that below).

As I’ve written about before, staring at your devices can also be detrimental to your sleep. TVs, computers, smartphones, and tablets all emit a lot of “blue” light, which prevents your body from releasing melatonin, a chemical in your body that helps you sleep. This holds especially true when you use your devices in the two to three hours before you go to bed.

2. Too much screen time makes you less creative and productive

While the physical effects of staring at screens for too long can be great when you don’t take breaks, I think excessive screen time can have an even larger impact on your creativity and productivity. This is because too much screen time prevents you from feeling something that can make you tremendously more creative and productive: boredom.

Whenever many people (myself included, up to a month or two ago) feel themselves becoming bored, they immediately reach for their phone, tablet, or web browser to try to escape that feeling and distract themselves.

I used to have a terrible habit of trying to beat boredom by mindlessly tapping through the same sequence of apps on my phone to make sure I stayed up to date with what  was happening on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, email, and about five other apps.   This helped me stave off boredom and may have made me more “efficient” by some people’s standards, but I think it made me a lot less productive. Mindlessly spending time on my phone prevented me from coming up with more creative solutions to problems, distracted me from working on more important tasks, and prevented me from reflecting on my work so I could not only feel more engaged with what I was doing, but also come up with ways to work smarter, instead of just harder.5

Your mind has a built-in aversion to boredom, but I think that resistance actually makes you more productive and creative; so much so that I’d go so far as to say boredom is a state you should pursue. When you’re bored, your mind wanders, and looks around for exciting and interesting ideas. I personally find that my best ideas come from when I’m not doing any work and I give my mind time and space to  wander, daydream, and explore. When you’re bored, you unconsciously organize your life, connect dots, step back and come up with creative solutions to problems, and ultimately become more productive. Your smartphone, tablet, computer, and TV can all highjack your attention and prevent that if you’re not careful.

What to do about it

If you’re among those who spend more than seven hours a day staring at shiny, rectangular screens, first of all welcome to the club, but second of all, here are a few great strategies to help you prevent that screen time from compromising your productivity:

    • Use the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes or so, take 20 seconds to look at something that’s 20 feet away. Break for longer than 20 seconds and stand up to move around if you can.6
    • Aim to be bored at least twice a week. If you’re never bored, chances are you’re a lot less creative and productive than you could be. In small doses, boredom can make you much more creative and productive, and according to one research report, boredom is “central to learning and creativity.”7 Be mindful of how often you experience boredom, and dial back how often you use your smartphone, computer, tablet, and TV if you find yourself bouncing from distraction to distraction. (Something that’s worked well for me: make a game out of it! Set a timer, and see how long you can let your boredom last before giving in to another distraction. Try to beat your old record.) If you find yourself bored all the time you could probably be working on better tasks, but it’s a good thing to be bored every once in a while.
    • Take more breaks. Breaks have been shown to make you insanely productive because they let you step back from your work, recharge, come up with better ideas, slow down, reflect on your work, and ultimately make you a lot more productive. They also help you rest your eyes after staring at your screen for hours on end. Take more breaks—your body and mind will thank you for it. (I take a five minute break every 30 minutes, which works wonders for my productivity.)
    • Reflect on how much you actually accomplish when you use your phone/tablet/computer. During my productivity experiment to only use my smartphone for an hour a day (for three months), I realized that most of the tasks I completed with my phone were a waste of time, and involved diluted social interactions, bite-sized status updates, and other things that had a very short shelf life. Whenever you pick up your phone, tablet, or computer, reflect on what you actually plan to accomplish, and whether you are mindlessly checking what’s new in order to stave off boredom.
    • To reduce eyestrain, position your computer monitor correctly (20–26 inches away from your eyes and a bit below eye level), reduce glare, and clean your computer monitor regularly. ((Source: http://www.webmd.com/eye-health/eye-fatigue-causes-symptoms-treatment))

If you’re average, you likely spend a lot more time in front of screens than you think. By taking breaks and allowing yourself to become bored every once a while (as opposed to always looking for a quick fix), you can learn to manage your attention better and become a lot more productive.

 


  1. Source: http://www.kpcb.com/internet-trends 

  2. Source: http://www.gallup.com/poll/166553/less-recommended-amount-sleep.aspx 

  3. Sources: http://www.nhs.uk/livewell/eyehealth/pages/eyesafety.aspx; http://www.webmd.com/ eye-health/computer-vision-syndrome 

  4. Source: http://www.princeton.edu/uhs/healthy-living/hot-topics/ergonomics/#computers 

  5. Sources referenced in this section: http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ779866; http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/05/health/research/05mind.html?_r=1&; http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beautiful-minds/201102/why-daydreamers-are-more-creative; http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-winner-effect/201401/embrace-boredom-become-more-creative 

  6. Source: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/eyestrain/basics/prevention/con-20032649 

  7. Source: http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ779866 

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