Written by Jennifer Stephens, DO, MBA, FACP
Time. It’s funny, always there but you are not always aware of it. Kind of like breathing. Unless you focus on it, it can fade into the background. The interesting thing about time is its consistency. No matter what, we still have 24 hours in a day. And let’s forget about daylight savings time for now … thankfully this year we can really forget about it when it is stopped for good [i]. But let’s talk about the constant pattern of time, in a world where few things don’t change… time marches on.
So, what about that? The very nature of time… how we perceive it, use it, spend it, look at it, waste it. There are sometimes I wish there were more hours in a day, like on vacation. Then there are other days I wish that the day would be over - like when everything seems to be going wrong and pulling the covers over my head is the best solution. Then… there are days I want to pause time, like when I am sitting on the couch, holding my growing up too-fast kids, with their arms around me.
Nothing changes the fact that no matter what, there are still
only 24 hours in a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The perception of time is a funny thing. The cliche is that time flies when you are having fun. Well, it certainly does seem to go faster. When you are bored, you are acutely aware of every minute passing by. You perceive time exactly as it is occurring, in a linear, methodical, metronome, ticking, constant pattern.
Then, when you are having fun, or crazy busy at work, you don’t focus on time just as you forget about breathing… and you look up to find hours gone without awareness. Do you know what else does that? Technology. Curious if you ever noticed what happens when you look at your phone and start scrolling through apps and social media. Do you ever find yourself doing that in the morning and suddenly you look up and are late for wherever you need to go? Or take the phone to bed and stay up hours later than you intended because you were too absorbed in social media…or is that just me?
So, apparently, there is research about humans’ use of technology and our brain’s perception of time[ii]. Technology moves super-fast… faster than our brains can ever go. Think about it for a minute. When you are sitting alone or talking to another person, your brain works at a certain speed. It is a normal ‘brain’ speed. Human thought and understanding have a certain speed. The normal time it takes our brain to process things is different from the speed of technology. Consider how quickly a smartphone processes your google search or how quickly those TikTok videos go from one to the next. By the way, I remember when the term “Smart Phone” just came out… makes you wonder how we lived with dumb phones all this time. But, back to processing speed. How fast is technology? It’s wicked fast. Faster than we can ever process in a normal human brain.
So, here we are … normal humans. Using devices that process and present constant information at a super-fast speed. What does that do to us? Research shows what it does. It creates anxiety[iii]. It changes our perception of time. We mentally move rapidly from one thing to another, creating a false feeling of ‘activity’. Why? Because we are thinking about so many things in our human brain, trying to follow technology speed. Our perception of time changes when we use technology. We must be having fun because time flies when you stare at a screen.
A few weeks ago, I realized my 16-year-old daughter’s grades were slipping. Her use of the phone has always been something we battled about. This time, I looked at her average daily usage…7.5 hours per day. She does go to school (I confirmed), so this essentially meant she was on her phone the entire rest of the day. No question about where her time was going and why her grades were not stellar.
When I was thinking about how I was going to try and guide her I learned that on average, teenagers spend 7.5 hours per day on their phones [iv]. So… this is NORMAL. Let’s pause on that for one minute. Our teenage population essentially spends a working day looking at a screen, not interacting interpersonally with others or in physical activity, or even in their own headspace. They are spending most of their waking hours trying to keep pace with technology speed and losing all sense of time. No wonder the rates of anxiety in this group are so high! And do you find it the least bit ironic that the app so heavily used is called “Tik Tok” … just how much time can you waste during your life watching videos other people create?
So, let’s go back to the idea of time. Some people have accomplished amazing things in their life, right? Like, Albert Einstein. You wonder how some people do it. Like, do they have MORE time in their day somehow? Well, I think we all need a wake-up call. Everyone, ever, has the same amount of time in their day. It is all about how we use it. And, just to remind us… we all only get one shot at this life. That is another constant that we don’t like to hear often - that time will stop for all of us… eventually. When I look back at the end, what would I want to be able to say? I don’t want regrets, I want to know I lived my life as fully as possible and made as best an impact I could, in my way.
What would you want to say at the end of your life? Fascinating to think that we all have values we live by and yet, we don’t necessarily line that up with how we spend our time. What are your values? Values guide us because we find them fundamental to who we are and what we believe. For everyone, values are unique. For me, my values align with faith, family, service, and love. But I realize that I don’t spend my day mostly doing things that align with those core values.
Take a minute and think about your values, what do you find most important in life? Now, think about how you spend your time every day. And - be honest, how much time do you spend on your phone? I recommend you try and predict how much time you spend on your device first. Then, find out. There is a way to look at how much time, on average, you spend using your devices (it is in settings). Sit down when you go look…
My family was all sitting around one evening, and every one of us was on our devices. After a long day, we were in the same space, but no one was connecting. We were preoccupied, doing nothing of real value, on a device that creates anxiety and forces our brains to speed up instead of slow down. Pardon my language, but what the hell were we doing? Being with the people I love the most, in the place I want to be over all others… and I am wasting time staring at a screen. Not only that, I am modeling behavior that says it is okay.
It doesn’t take much to see that our society is struggling, in so many ways. I see polarized, disconnected, angry, disrespectful behavior, lacking a moral compass. Most, if not all, of that perception, is what I see through a screen. When I lift my head and look at my fellow friends, colleagues, community neighbors, and strangers in the street or in stores… I see a different world. I see people smile, hold doors, say please, thank you, and interact positively. Don’t get me wrong, not everything is sunshine… but it isn’t like what I see on a screen.
I worked with my daughter to go on a 30-day hiatus from her phone (because it takes 30 days to build a habit). She is midway through this disconnecting and already has changed dramatically. She is reading more, journaling about how she is feeling and is more interactive than she has been in years. The whole family observed something else… she is happier. It is transforming her in ways I didn’t expect but am so thankful to see.
Her experience was so impactful that we all have decided to look at how we can stop using screens more intentionally. My youngest son is 8 years old and previously told me he wants to be a "YouTuber" when he grows up (file that in the category of things you never said as a kid). We just set a schedule and wrote it on a board in the kitchen for him. When he comes home at night, he has blocks of time that limit the screen and help him wind down better. Amazingly, he is now reading (how about that!) or playing with the toys in his room that were honestly collecting dust. My husband and I are trying to intentionally put the devices down and make dinner device free. Spending time just talking with each other has been absolutely wonderful, it is an often-under-appreciated gift after a long day at work and school.
Time. How we live our days is how we live our lives. The most powerful and ultimate gift is giving someone your time. It is constant. It is limited. We cannot get it back once it is spent. And candidly, it is so much more worthy of focus than we ever give it… just like breathing. I encourage you to spend more time in human speed, less time in technology speed, and look up more than you look down.
Live your life more aligned with your values and break free from things that take that away from you. Thank you for sharing your time with me and reading this blog! I hope you consider disconnecting and being more intentional about how you spend your time… you may just be surprised by what you discover.
About our author:
Jennifer Stephens, DO, MBA, FACP
Chief Value & Ambulatory Care Officer, Lehigh Valley Health Network
Chief Medical Officer, Lehigh Valley Physician Group
Dr. Jennifer Stephens is a practicing Internist and the Chief Value &
Ambulatory Care Officer for Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) as
well as the Chief Medical Officer for Quality, Patient Safety and Value-
Based Care at Lehigh Valley Physician Group (LVPG). Dr. Stephens’s
career includes twenty years of different leadership and
administrative roles within LVHN, with a focus on patient-centric,
team-based, high-value care. She is a proud wife and mother of three
children (plus a lovable dog).
She wrote this blog enthusiastically when given the opportunity because reading and
writing are passions for her. After an extensive focus on medical manuscripts, she is trying
something new. Cheers to everyone finding time away from digital distractions to chase
[i] S.623 - 117th Congress (2021-2022): Sunshine Protection Act of 2021 | Congress.gov | Library of Congress
[ii] Technology is Speeding Up Our Perception of Time | The Science Explorer
[iii] Feeling More Stress and Anxiety? Your Smartphone May Be to Blame (healthline.com)
[iv] Teens spend more than 7 hours on screens for entertainment a day: Report - ABC News (go.com)