What does it mean to spend our time well? I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to spend my time. Probably too much—I probably obsess over it. My friends think I do. But I feel like I kind of have to, because these days, it feels like little bits of my time kind of slip away from me, and when that happens, it feels like parts of my life are slipping away.
Specifically, it feels like little bits of my time get slipped away to various things like this, like technology—I check things. I'll give you an example. If this email shows up—how many of you have gotten an email like this, right? I've been tagged in a photo. When this appears, I can't help but click on it right now. Right? Because, like, what if it's a bad photo? So I have to click it right now. But I'm not just going to click "See photo," what I'm actually going to do is spend the next 20 minutes.
But the worst part is that I know that this is what's going to happen, and even knowing that that's what's going to happen doesn't stop me from doing it again the next time. You know, or I find myself in a situation like this, where I check my email and I pull down to refresh, all right? But the thing is that in, like, 60 seconds later, I'll pull down to refresh again. Why am I doing this? This doesn't make any sense.
But I'll give you a hint why this is happening. What do you think makes more money in the United States than movies, game parks and baseball combined? Slot machines. How can slot machines make all this money when we play with such small amounts of money? We play with coins. How is this possible? Well, the thing is...my phone is a slot machine. Every time I check my phone, I'm playing the slot machine to see, what am I going to get? What am I going to get? Every time I check my email, I'm playing the slot machine, saying, "What am I going to get?" Every time I scroll a news feed, I'm playing the slot machine to see, what am I going to get next? Right? And the thing is that, again, knowing exactly how this works—and I'm a designer, I know exactly how the psychology of this works, I know exactly what's going on—but it doesn't leave me with any choice, I still just get sucked into it.
So what are we going to do? Because it leaves us with this all-or-nothing relationship with technology, right? You're either on, and you're connected and distracted all the time, or you're off, but then you're wondering, am I missing something important? In other words, you're either distracted or you have fear of missing out. Right?
So we need to restore choice. We want to have a relationship with technology that gives us back choice about how we spend time with it, and we're going to need help from designers, because knowing this stuff doesn't help. We're going to need design help. So what would that look like?
So let's take an example that we all face: chat—text messaging. So let's say there's two people. Nancy's on the left and she's working on a document, and John's on the right. And John suddenly remembers, "I need to ask Nancy for that document before I forget." So when he sends her that message, it blows away her attention.
And that's what we're doing all the time, bulldozing each other's attention, left and right. And there's serious cost to this, because every time we interrupt each other, it takes us about 23 minutes, on average, to refocus our attention. We actually cycle through two different projects before we come back to the original thing we were doing. This is Gloria Mark's research combined with Microsoft research that showed this. And her research also shows that it actually trains bad habits. The more interruptions we get externally, it's conditioning and training us to interrupt ourselves. We actually self-interrupt every three-and-a-half minutes.
This is crazy. So how do we fix this? Because Nancy and John are in this all-or-nothing relationship. Nancy might want to disconnect, but then she'd be worried: What if I'm missing something important?
So design can fix this problem. So let's say you have Nancy again on the left, John on the right. And John remembers, "I need to send Nancy that document." Except this time, Nancy can mark that she's focused. Let's say she drags a slider and says, "I want to be focused for 30 minutes," so—bam—she's focused. Now, when John wants to message her, he can get the thought off of his mind—because he has a need, he has this thought, and he needs to dump it out before he forgets. Except in this time, it holds the messages so that Nancy can still focus, but John can get the thought off of his mind.
But this only works if one last thing is true, which is that Nancy needs to know that if something is truly important, John can still interrupt. But instead of having constant accidental or mindless interruptions, we're now only creating conscious interruptions.
So we're doing two things here. We're creating a new choice for both Nancy and John. But there's a second, subtle thing we're doing here, too. And that's that we're changing the question that we're answering. Instead of the goal of chat being: "Let's design it so it's easy to send a message"—that's the goal of chat, it should be really easy to send a message to someone—we change the goal to something deeper and a human value, which is: "Let's create the highest possible quality communication in a relationship between two people." So we upgraded the goal.
Now, do designers actually care about this? Do we want to have conversations about what these deeper human goals are? Well, I'll tell you one story, which is about a year ago, a little over a year ago, I got to help organize a meeting between some of technology's leading designers and Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh is an international spokesperson for mindfulness meditation. And it was the most amazing meeting. You have to imagine—picture a room—on one side of the room, you have a bunch of tech geeks; on the other side of the room, you have a bunch of long brown robes, shaved heads, Buddhist monks. And the questions were about the deepest human values, like, what does the future of technology look like when you're designing for the deepest questions and the deepest human values? And our conversation centered on listening more deeply to what those values might be. He joked in our conversation that what if, instead of a spell check, you had a compassion check, meaning, you might highlight a word that might be accidentally abrasive—perceived as abrasive by someone else.
So, does this kind of conversation happen in the real world, not just in these design meetings? Well, the answer is yes, and one of my favorites is Couchsurfing. If you didn't know, Couchsurfing is a website that matches people who are looking for a place to stay with a free couch, from someone who's trying to offer it.
So, great service—what would their design goal be? What are you designing for if you work at Couchsurfing? Well, you would think it's to match guests with hosts. Right? That's a pretty good goal. But that would kind of be like our goal with messaging before, where we're just trying to deliver a message.
So what's the deeper human goal? Well, they set their goal as the need to create lasting, positive experiences and relationships between people who've never met before. And the most amazing thing about this was in 2007, they introduced a way to measure this, which is incredible. I'll tell you how it works. For every design goal you have, you have to have a corresponding measurement to know how you're doing—a way of measuring success. So what they do is, let's say you take two people who meet up, and they take the number of days those two people spent together, and then they estimate how many hours were in those days—how many hours did those two people spend together? And then after they spend that time together, they ask both of them: How positive was your experience? Did you have a good experience with this person that you met? And they subtract from those positive hours the amount of time people spent on the website, because that's a cost to people's lives. Why should we value that as success? And what you were left with is something they refer to as "net orchestrated conviviality," or, really, just a net "Good Times" created. The net hours that would have never existed had Couchsurfing not existed.
Can you imagine how inspiring it would be to come to work every day and measure your success in the actual net new contribution of hours in people's lives that are positive, that would have never existed if you didn't do what you were about to do at work today? Can you imagine a whole world that worked this way?
Can you imagine a social network that—let's say you care about cooking, and it measured its success in terms of cooking nights organized and the cooking articles that you were glad you read, and subtracted from that the articles you weren't glad you read or the time you spent scrolling that you didn't like? Imagine a professional social network that, instead of measuring its success in terms of connections created or messages sent, instead measured its success in terms of the job offers that people got that they were excited to get, and subtracted the amount of time people spent on the website. Or imagine dating services, like maybe Tinder or something, where instead of measuring the number of swipes left and right people did, which is how they measure success today, instead measured the deep, romantic, fulfilling connections people created. Whatever that was for them, by the way.
But can you imagine a whole world that worked this way, that was helping you spend your time well? Now to do this you also need a new system, because you're probably thinking, today's Internet economy—today's economy in general—is measured in time spent. The more users you have, the more usage you have, the more time people spend, that's how we measure success.
But we've solved this problem before. We solved it with organic, when we said we need to value things a different way. We said this is a different kind of food. So we can't compare it just based on price; this is a different category of food. We solved it with Leed Certification, where we said this is a different kind of building that stood for different values of environmental sustainability.
What if we had something like that for technology? What if we had something whose entire purpose and goal was to help create net new positive contributions to human life? And what if we could value it a different way so it would actually work? Imagine you gave this different premium shelf space on app stores. Imagine you had web browsers that helped route you to these kinds of design products. Can you imagine how exciting it would be to live and create that world?
We can create this world today. Company leaders, all you have to do—only you can prioritize a new metric, which is your metric for net positive contribution to human life. And have an honest conversation about that. Maybe you're not doing so well to start with, but let's start that conversation.
Designers, you can redefine success; you can redefine design. Arguably, you have more power than many people in your organization to create the choices that all of us live by. Maybe like in medicine, where we have a Hippocratic oath to recognize the responsibility and this higher value that we have to treat patients. What if designers had something like that, in terms of this new kind of design?
And users, for all of us—we can demand technology that works this way. Now it may seem hard, but McDonald's didn't have salads until the consumer demand was there. Walmart didn't have organic food until the consumer demand was there. We have to demand this new kind of technology. And we can do that. And doing that would amount to shifting from a world that's driven and run entirely on time spent...to a world that's driven by time well spent.
I want to live in this world, and I want this conversation to happen. Let's start that conversation now.