For Geza Kovacs, our collective time-wasting on the web makes for precious data. A PhD candidate in Stanford’s human-computer interaction group, Kovacs studies bad browsing habits and researches what can be done to repair them. Like, when you flick open a new tab and reflexively navigate to Facebook, does it help to be reminded that you have other stuff to do today? Would you consider closing the tab if you saw a stopwatch, tick-tocking to remind you of how much time you’ve lost? And when you close a tab on your computer, have you actually regained your focus, or does that recovered time simply spill over to your phone?
To these ends, Kovacs and a team at Stanford have created an online laboratory to watch our procrastination in action. HabitLab comes in the form of a browser extension, armed with dozens of techniques to understand and improve our time spent online. Install the extension, confess to your bad habits, and watch the interventions spring up, encouraging you to stop scrolling and close the tab. For the thousands of people who have downloaded it, it’s a simple way to move through the web more mindfully. For the researchers at Stanford, it’s also a chance to study how to change our behavior online.
If the past year has been any indication, we are all desperate to disengage from our screens. Even the tech titans have taken note. Google now makes a feature to help you manage screen time on your phone. Apple does, too. Facebook and Instagram each have built-in dashboards to show insights into your time spent in-app, and there are a growing number of apps and services designed to release you from the prison of your phone and web browser. They range from the minimalist (like Momentum, a focus-oriented web dashboard) to the utilitarian (StayFocusd, which blocks distracting websites) to the truly eccentric (Forest, an app that grows a digital thicket of trees in the time you stay off your phone).
At best, these solutions are narrowly focused. At worst, they ignore a larger picture about what works for people on an individual level. “Everything that’s out there is a blunt instrument,” says Michael Bernstein, a professor and human-computer interaction researcher at Stanford, who worked closely with Kovas to build HabitLab. He compares features like website blockers and time limits on apps to intense and rigid diets. “What we know from the behavioral literature on this, is that people bring different motivations to behavior change.”
HabitLab includes over 20 different interventions, ranging from basic to bizarre. Some are platform-specific, like a tool that blocks the recommended video sidebar on YouTube or an algorithm-powered tool that hides clickbait on Facebook. Others can be enabled for any website, like a clock that measures the total time you’ve spent on that website each day. (Turn it on for Gmail and you may be stunned to find how long you spend grooming your inbox.) Many of the interventions borrow from behavioral theory, or look like the ideas that “time well spent” evangelists have recommended for years.
“I recall listening to a talk by Tristan Harris, and he had suggested some things,” says Kovacs. “I thought, ‘These are actually pretty easy to implement,’ so I went ahead and implemented them.” The team has tried more peculiar methods, too, like a “GIF reward system” that displays a celebratory GIF each time someone closed the tab, which Bernstein calls the team’s “most divisive feature.”
HabitLab rotates these interventions over time, so that users are exposed to a broad swath of strategies. Interestingly, Kovacs has found that the rotation itself seems to be more effective than any individual intervention. After a while, users acclimate to a certain tool, so switching it up may help people avoid reverting to bad habits.
Two years after HabitLab’s launch, the Stanford researchers are still far from producing concrete conclusions about how we spend—and waste—time on the internet. Attempting to solve the screen time dilemma can feel futile, with new problems and new solutions cropping up all the time. “Our approach is to say: Let people try out lots of things and the system will help them identify what works for them,” says Bernstein.