How to limit screen time to 90 minutes a day (Intermittent Digital Fasting)


While we have more leisure time than 50 years ago, there is an important twist, according to Harvard professor Ashley Whillans (pictured above): “leisure has never been less relaxing, mostly because of the disintermediating effects of our screens“.

What to do

Stay away from your smartphone during the first and last 60 minutes of the day.

Why it works

I recently recommended employing a shutdown ritual to move from work mode to non-work mode at whatever time your workload permits. That ritual is necessary, but not sufficient for restorative downtime. The reason is what Prof. Whillans calls “time confetti”. As our leisure time gets fractured by digital technology, we use our free time for tiny bits of easy, fast distraction. Thus, our free time only comes in tiny snippets. This time confetti makes us experience time famine, or feeling hungry for time. Like in a hunger famine, we’re constantly triaging and stressed – even in our leisure time.

The major factor contributing to time confetti is our smartphone. It’s the biggest “weapon of mass distraction” in the arsenal. As Cal Newport argues in “Digital Minimalism”, this is due to two reasons: First, smartphones are ubiquitous. They turn every occasion into an opportunity to check for social media notifications and all the rest. Second, some of the most distracting attention traps – such as the “slot machine” action of swiping down to refresh a feed or alarmed notification badges – are smartphone-only.

One of the most powerful ways to avoid time confetti is similar to intermittent fasting (IF). With IF, you don’t eat food for some time each day. You finish your last meal a few hours before bed and wait a couple of hours after waking up before eating breakfast. IF works well because, for most people, staying away from food altogether is easier than portion control. Now, you can do the same thing with your smartphone. This is called Intermittent Digital Fasting (IDF). It’s highly effective because we spend most of our screen time in the first and last hour of the day. That’s why IDF is the best way I know to limit screen time to 90 minutes a day and avoid “time confetti”.

How to do it

In the evening, put your smartphone somewhere out of sight one hour before bedtime. Give it its own bedroom – in a room other than your own! Plug it into a charger (both of you need to recharge your batteries, right?) and get an old-school alarm clock to wake you up in the morning (here’s the one I use). You might even turn this into a fully-fledged “digital sunset” by avoiding all screens: the computer, TV, iPad – all of them (eReaders are the exception). Here’s why that’s a fantastic idea.

In the morning, let your smartphone “sleep in” for at least 1 hour after you wake up. While this might feel uncomfortable at first, it’ll get easier each day. During both mornings and evenings, having activities you can do instead of scrolling mindlessly is crucial. Here are some ideas. In the morning hour, get outside for 10 minutes to optimize your cortisol and melatonin levels, wake yourself up by cold exposure or cyclic hyperventilation, or timebox your day. In the evening hour, walk to get some mental detachment from work, relaxation and creativity, have plenty of the real-world conversation you need to thrive, or finally start that reading habit.

If you want to go pro on IDF, practice it during the day, too. Here are two excellent ways to pull this off. First, have device-free meals. When with others, turn it into a game. Eating at home? Agree on having the first person to check their smartphone do the dishes. Eating out? Consent that this person pays the bill. Second, remove social media from your phone. While that might feel impossible at first, using social media from your computer only will make staying away from your phone much, much easier — in the morning, in the evening, and in between. I’ve been doing this for years and never looked back.

I’ve got bad and good news for you. The bad news first: getting started with IDF isn’t easy. Your brain is probably used to the tiny bits of easy, fast distraction from your phone. Time confetti can be pretty addictive.

Here’s the good news: after practicing IDF (and avoiding time confetti) for three days, you’ll notice dramatic improvements in your sleep, stress levels and overall happiness. You’ll also cut your daily screen time dramatically. Can you make it below 90 minutes?