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Is your smartphone a productivity device or a time waster?

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Is your smartphone a productivity device or a time waster?
While the question of the headline is an important one that I'll dive into a bit, it's probably fair to say at the start that the answer is that a smartphone is somewhere in the middle for most people (but nuance isn't always the most interesting lead, is it? That's why there are tons of headlines about smartphone addiction, but not so many about being mindful about using your phone.) Everyone will do some productive tasks on their phone and of course there are tons of options for wasting time -- social media, YouTube, gaming, etc. -- and the question is more about where we all fall on that spectrum. Maybe even more important isn't where we fall on that spectrum, but where we each believe we fall on that spectrum.

In general, humans aren't always the best at self-reflection and accurately rating themselves. Many people believe themselves to be smarter than they really are, better looking, or better at the tasks they enjoy than might be reality. And, when it comes to vices, it's often all too easy for people to misrepresent the truth, downplaying how much we eat or drink, or how much time we waste in various regions of the internet. The trouble is that Apple and Google are now making it much easier for users to see the breakdown of smartphone usage, face that honest truth, and maybe re-calibrate how we feel about our devices. 

Trackers like Screen Time and Digital Wellbeing can often show a stark reality. For example, while I know that my phone is primarily a time-wasting device -- my laptops are where the real work gets done -- it was jarring at first to be confronted with the real(ish) time I was spending in various apps. Top of my Digital Wellbeing list on my Pixel 2 XL is DC Legends: Battle for Justice -- an incredibly addictive strategy RPG combat game starring DC Comics characters -- followed by Candy Crush Friends and Twitter. For the past week, the new game AFK Arena was also in the top two, but I uninstalled it after realizing I wasn't having any fun, I was just stuck in a grind loop playing. 

Those apps alone made up 95% of my phone screen time and that's just the screen time measurements, because Android's Digital Wellbeing only tracks on-screen app time. That means it only registered one minute of Pocket Casts time for yesterday for me even though I listened to at least three or four hours worth of podcasts while running errands and doing work around the house. This does feel like the right decision by Google since the most common app to run in the background is a music or podcasting app and those activities are rarely the primary task being done at the time, so it's possible to still be "productive" while listening to music or podcasts. 

Looking at the Screen Time tracking on my iPad Pro, a different picture emerges in terms of usage, but maybe not so different in terms of time wasting. Gaming for me is relegated to my phone or my PS4, and while I have some games on my iPad, I rarely play there. Instead, my iPad's top apps are Chrome, YouTube, Apollo (a reddit app), Google Play Books, NYTimes, and Twitter. That collection of apps makes it a bit harder to tell if what I'm doing would be considered time wasting or not. At least part of the time in Chrome was spent researching various topics and some of the time in YouTube was spent on educational or cooking videos, which can straddle the line between time wasting and productive. As always, context matters. 

While these trackers can give a clearer picture of what you're doing on your phone or tablet and how much time you spend in each app, they can't tell you what was going on outside of that device. Was I watching YouTube during a lunch break or when I should have been working? Was I playing a game while waiting in line at the store or when I could have been prepping dinner for my family? Even within apps, things can get hazy -- When I was on Twitter: was it mindless scrolling, was it looking for news, was it trying to find professional contacts, or was it DMing with friends? Trying to stack up a picture that includes exactly what you're doing on your phone combined with what you potentially could have been doing away from your phone gets messy quick.

This is one of those reasons I often push back against the easy joke (older) people make about people being on their phones all the time when "they could be talking to each other," because quite often people are connecting with their friends through their phones (especially when friends are far away), so it's not fair to judge someone when all you see is that person looking at their phone. That's also what makes the whole "smartphone addiction" thing so fraught. Sure, there are some people who have compulsive needs to check their phones. Some people just can't stand idle time, so maybe they fill it with scrolling Instagram. Some people are constantly texting with friends or interacting with communities of peers on reddit or Twitter. The details of personal usage make it difficult for anyone to positively say that someone else is using their phone in an unhealthy way and even then, the gulf between unhealthy behavior and addiction is wide enough that the word shouldn't be used lightly. 

Often, it's less about what we're doing on our devices but when and what else could be done. Small breaks from work to scroll through social media can often be a healthy way to decompress a little before re-focusing on a task. On the other hand, ignoring responsibilities to get into arguments online about topics that are completely subjective (like your preference in phones, for example...) might be a sign of something else. Software can't tell you what you're ignoring to spend time on your phone, so it's up to each person to find the limits for themselves and to try to be more self aware. 

If anyone out there is a fan of CGP Grey, you may have heard him describing it as the difference between accidental goofing off and intentional goofing off. With accidental goofing off, maybe you picked up your phone to send a quick work email and stumble down a reddit rabbit hole. So, there is something else that you should be doing and you never quite enjoy the time you're spending with something that should be "fun" because there's always a tinge of regret that you're wasting time. But, intentionally goofing off means creating space with no other responsibilities just to have some fun, which is a perfectly healthy thing to do.

It's in this space where there are some interesting ways in which phone makers might be able to help steer people away from time wasting usage and to more intentional usage, and the answer doesn't seem to be with software controls to lock out certain apps. While Screen Time and Digital Wellbeing can highlight potential problem usage, there are two main drawbacks to these software solutions. First, they rely on users actively looking for the data. Both Screen Time for iOS and Digital Wellbeing on Android are stuck in the Settings, where the average user doesn't go often. Beyond that, the software controls to deal with those issues are often too limited to be useful. App lockdowns generally don't have granular enough controls to sequester app usage to certain times of the day, and even if you do surpass your daily usage time, the lockdowns also tend to be very easy to get around. Surprisingly, the answer might be in some intentionally limiting hardware design. 

One piece of praise about the (currently failed) Samsung Galaxy Fold that was repeated by multiple people who had a chance to review the device (before it inevitably broke,) was that the design of the device helped to minimize accidental goofing off. The screen on the front of the Fold was too small to comfortably use for much aside from quick tasks, whereas the large inside screen was too big to use one-handed. Whether intentional or not by Samsung, this meant the front screen discouraged goofing off because it wasn't pleasant to use, but the inside screen required two hands and demanded attention. 

Given the way my app usage is split between my iPad and Pixel, I can understand how those design choices could ultimately limit my gaming time in favor of other endeavors, but the question would still remain of if those other endeavors could be considered productive compared to what I might otherwise be doing. It's hard to say if those behaviors would adapt and revert to time wasting over the long haul, but I certainly hope more manufacturers toy around with the idea of intentionally clunky design, especially with foldables where the folded out display is the real focus of the device. If nothing else, maybe it will help us all be more intentional with how we use our devices.

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