What Cutting Down on Screen Time Taught Me About Creativity

I begin and end my days like so many of us do: scrolling through my phone. The act feels far from mindless: if I’m checking emails and my bank balance in between spending hours looking at memes on Instagram, it means I’m being productive, right? Apparently not, according to the numbers.

A few months ago, Apple rolled out their new Screen Time feature, which allows users to see how much time they spend on their iPhones, including the specific minutes they allot to each app. My numbers were harsh: nearly three and a half hours on Instagram daily, totaling up to a full 24 hours a week. I was spending a full day of my week just on Instagram — and that’s not even considering all the time I spent taking and editing photos for Instagram, texting and emailing, and wasting other endless hours with my eyes glued to my iPhone screen.

After asking around to see how much time other people were spending on their phones, and specifically on Instagram, I decided it was time to make a change. My boyfriend, who does social media work primarily on Instagram for two separate accounts for a living, spent less time on his phone and on Instagram than I did. So I immediately limited myself to two and a half hours a day, an amount that now feels laughable given that I currently cut off at an hour a day.

It’s even more comical given the fact that for the first week or two that I set limits for myself, I kept pressing the “15 more minutes” feature that pops up when you’ve met your Screen Time limit for the day. At times I even chose to press “Ignore for today,” which got rid of the pesky limit altogether.

Screen Time is a bit flawed in the way it measures time you spend on your phone. The only way to cut back on the total amount of Screen Time is through limiting “All Apps & Categories.” You can create exceptions for certain apps, but there isn’t a way to remove an app from being considered within your daily total.

I spend anywhere from half an hour to an hour and half a day on Waze, which I use to navigate myself to work or elsewhere and avoid as much traffic as possible in Los Angeles. It’s a must for me when I’m driving, but it feels silly and punitive that I can’t exclude it from my daily total. For me, it’s separate from the hours I spend wasting time on my phone, and it’s frustrating that a day spent driving around town running errands will dramatically shift my daily total of Screen Time.

Realizing this made me take stock of where exactly I’m wasting time. I deleted Facebook, Messenger, and Twitter off my phone months ago, so I was spending most of my time on Instagram, Messages, and Mail. Looking at my daily totals made me realize I needed to stop opening up the Mail app just to refresh it — it’s unnecessary since I have notifications turned on for the app, and opening it up is just something I do mindlessly. In other words, it was time that was easily reduced, and becoming aware of that helped me utilize my phone more mindfully.

I didn’t feel the need to cut back on the time I spent on Messages — it’s how I communicated with work or with loved ones, which is literally the point of having a phone if you think about it. My only real problem was Instagram.

I took note of when I used Instagram the most — another thing the Screen Time feature allows you to understand visually, with bars going up on a timeline, showing you how much time you spend, divided up by time of day. Once I realized I spent most of my time scrolling through my feed right when I woke up and right before I went to bed, I decided to cut those down. Looking through my feed really does wake me up and prevent me from falling back asleep, so I let myself look at my phone first thing in the morning. I just stay mindful of how much time has passed, and after a few minutes, I put my phone down. In the same way, I also genuinely enjoy looking through posts, stories, and photos on my discover feed before bed — I just don’t need to do it for an hour to fall asleep.

I’m wary of the rhetoric that time spent on your phone is automatically bad. Though I hear many friends talking about how time spent on social media can feel toxic for them, I don’t necessarily feel the same way for myself. I am much happier without Facebook and Twitter on my phone — those feeds really do feel draining, and I’m happy to no longer be inundated with notifications. But while Twitter is a platform I am on for work, and Facebook is a habit I have yet to kick, Instagram is my space. Unlike with other platforms, I am very mindful of who and what I follow on Instagram. I unfollow often, and mute accounts when doing so is more appropriate. Instagram is where I go for updates from accounts that share local to international news; friends and family whose photos and videos I look forward to seeing, especially those from loved ones that live far away from me; and creatives that inspire me both visually and verbally. As someone hoping to grow as a cook, interior designer, visual artist, and writer, many of the accounts I follow are professionals in those realms that inspire and educate my amateur self. So while I won’t be spending a full day a week on my feed, I’m happy to spend some time enjoying inspiration where I find it.

Image via Who What Wear

Virali is a writer, frequent plant killer, and burrito enthusiast based out of Los Angeles. You can find some of her previous work at The Ringer and Girlboss, and follow her adventures here.



  • I would love to hear more from the author about how cutting down affected her creativity! It’s clear she became more mindful about her phone use but I would be interested to hear more about what else she noticed.

  • I found this post extremely captivating since I relate to these same issues of spending too much time on my phone. Lately, I have been trying to be more present in situations by putting my phone down, but it can be hard when it’s a main type of communication. I love how you took note of what apps you spent the most time on and what time of day took up most of your screen time. I think once we realize where we are putting all of our time and energy into, we can be more aware of our actions.