One of the eternal mysteries of life is how it is possible to know full well a given activity is terrible for you and yet do it anyway. And I don't just mean big, dramatic bad habits like drugs. I mean all those everyday times you lose hours to Twitter or the "Next episode" button knowing all the while that you're just going to end up feeling regretful.
Countless doctors and philosophers have spent their entire lives wrestling with humans' propensity for self-destructive behavior. No blog post can explain, let alone eliminate, our drive to darkness (or longing for just a few more Cheetos). But if your addiction is more toward the too much Netflix side of the severity spectrum, Harvard Business School professor Arthur C. Brooks has a trick for you to try.
How much is an hour of leisure time worth?
Brooks is the author of the How to Build a Life column for The Atlantic in which he shares research-backed advice on how to be happier and more productive. Oftentimes his insights will be familiar to anyone who follows the self-help/personal success genre, but his latest, pointedly titled "Stop Spending Time on Things You Hate," offered one clever idea I, at least, had never come across before.
After confessing to recently staying up until 3 a.m. to watch Howard the Duck, Brooks ticks through tips for avoiding wasting your life on whatever your own equivalent bad habit might be. One novel way to do that is to assign your downtime a monetary value.
Back in 2012, Brooks explains, researchers at the University of Toronto had volunteers calculate their hourly wage and then asked participants to keep that figure in mind while engaging in leisure activities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers found people enjoy noodling around online a whole lot less after being reminded how much they could have earned in the same amount of time.
"The researchers interpreted this finding as a negative consequence of monetizing leisure, but such a method can be of great value for dissuading us from engaging in addictive pastimes we dislike," Brooks claims. "Say, for example, that you find yourself bingeing on social media. ... If you consume the average amount of social media in America (about 142 minutes per day) and earn the average hourly wage (about $29.92), you are effectively 'spending' about $71 worth of time per day on this activity."
Is wading through the craziness in your Facebook feed worth anything close to $71 a day to you? Probably not. So consciously reminding yourself of the value of each hour in cold, hard cash just might nudge you to make decisions that are better in line with your values.
Your goal, Brooks reminds readers, "should not be to squeeze every second of distraction and leisure out of our days. Rather, it should be to manage our days in accordance with our priorities." Activities that relax and please you aren't a waste of time. The only way to waste your life is to spend it doing things you don't value.
So don't remind yourself of the price tag of each hour to push yourself to work more. Do it to remind yourself life is precious and fleeting and how you spend your hours is how you spend your life. Make sure you're using them for activities that genuinely bring you joy, not legendarily bad '80s movies or just a "few more minutes" on Instagram.