No one wakes up and thinks, “If I spend 52 minutes today scrolling through TikTok, it'll be an awesome day, and I’ll feel great about myself.”

But we do exactly that anyway!

Despite our best intentions to stay present, knock everything off our to-do list, pick up a hobby, etc., we waste precious minutes scrolling when we’d really rather do almost anything else.

The stats prove it: Users spend an average of 52 minutes a day on TikTok and 53 minutes a day on Instagram. That amounts to 13 consecutive days (plus a few hours) spent on TikTok or Instagram per year. If you use both apps, that’s 26 days of scrolling.

Now, imagine getting:

26 more vacation days
26 more days to finish a project
26 more days in the fiscal quarter
26 more days to travel the world
26 more days to make a big decision
26 more days to brainstorm new ideas
26 more days with your family and friends

That’s life-changing.

Yet it’s not your fault that you’re using this time to stare at a screen and scroll. Our lives are full of things designed to derail us from what we want. Companies gather information about our brains and our emotional states, then mold our everyday experiences around that information.

Most of us don’t want to spend 26 days a year on social media, but a lot of us are doing it. There are roughly 1 billion active users on both Instagram and TikTok. So, yeah, a whole lot of us are doing it. And even though it’s a shared societal problem, we’re quick to blame ourselves. We're disappointed when we get distracted or lack the willpower to do something more productive.

We’re the product of our environment. We can blame ourselves to some extent, but we can also blame the companies who make money from our lack of agency. Deliberate design features like endless pages encourage infinite scrolling. Notifications give us instant dopamine hits, keeping the question, Did anyone like my photo? on our minds until we check, experience a brief moment of satisfaction (or disappointment), and repeat the cycle.

It’s like a single song on repeat in our minds forever—a catchy chorus of Did she answer my DM? How many likes did I get? Did he post a story? People go to therapy and take medication for ruminating thoughts without realizing that social media usage causes rampant rumination. I’ve already checked my phone 6 times while writing this.

Incidentally, that’s why we created a side-project, cognitive behavioral therapy app called Zenaholic. It uses machine learning to help identify cognitive distortions that lead to negative thoughts/feelings, then gives tips for challenging those specific distortions. You can record your feelings before/after each check-in and watch your happiness levels rise!

Anyway, we’re forming habits that make us unhappy and spending time doing things we don’t want to do. We're making choices based on the design of our products and surrendering our own agency every day, whether we’re conscious of it or not.

I used to visit this dive-y coffee shop in Brooklyn that I only found because I’d walk by it to get to the subway. A Google search for coffee shops in the area returned a list of "cooler" places, with mine ranked on the third page.

Sure, Google was trying to help by showing me the most-reviewed, top-rated spots in the area. But I valued the human connections I formed at that shop far more than the trendy decor and mushroom-based lattes at another. It’s a shame more people won’t experience that interaction because they won’t click beyond the first page of results. Google makes the choice for them. We’re conditioned to think algorithmically generated lists, curated content, and more options make our lives better, but that’s not always the case. What's shown to us skews our perception of what exists.

We’re derailed from our original intentions all the time. In 1966, researchers found that shoppers spent more time in grocery stores that played quiet music than loud music. A follow-up study in 1982 found that average gross sales increased from around $12,000 per day with fast-paced music to nearly $17,000 per day with slow-paced music.

So, after 35 minutes of wandering the aisles, you might end up at checkout with a basket of items you didn’t want or need. And it’s all because supermarket chains play soft slow-jams to convince you to do so. Scientists continue to gain insights into how our brains work. Technology increasingly guides our behavior. Our decisions are being made for us at a much higher rate since this study from the ‘80s.

Today, you go on YouTube to watch one video, but another related video plays right after. The videos keep playing until the end of time...or until you close out YouTube. Online subscription services make it impossible to skip orders or cancel memberships, so you continue paying for something you don’t want because canceling takes too long. You’re not deciding to keep watching videos or keep your toothbrush subscription. You’re getting played into doing it. Just like you’re played into spending more money at the supermarket and visiting the places Google picks for you.

Uber got backlash a few years ago for manipulating its drivers into working more hours. When drivers want to end their day, they receive a notification that they're so close to meeting their earnings goal or a bonus incentive. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But I question how many drivers would feel happier going home than making a little money off a couple extra rides.

I tried to deactivate my Instagram—couldn’t do it on the app. I had to log in on a computer and go through the process there. I wasn’t near a computer at that moment, because no one uses Instagram on their computer, so I decided to keep it.

Except I didn’t actually decide that. Instagram decided for me. And then I found myself checking it yet again out of habit. What’s more, when you try to delete an account for good, it remains active for 2 more weeks, during which time people can still like your photos and DM you. You can’t get rid of it when you want to.

The examples are infinite. The popular narrative goes that, with capitalism driving the big companies that produce our technology and experiences, it makes sense that they’re hell-bent on hijacking our behavior if it means they’ll turn a massive profit. And unfortunately, executives at those companies are so short-sighted that they believe this too.

In reality, it seems like it would make as much sense, if not more sense, to do the opposite. Instead of manipulating users, companies could make products that help users do exactly what they intend. That'd make customers happier and more loyal to the product, store, or company. With all the knowledge we have about decision making, habit formation, and what brings us true satisfaction, there's endless opportunity to make our existence as humans amazing through the products we build.

It makes better business sense too. Many companies trick their users into doing certain things so they can make money in the short term. But sooner or later, their users resent them for it and ditch the product anyway. Treating customers right and giving them agency over their own purchases creates more loyalty, and in turn, greater profit.

Some companies do maximize their users’ agency and make life easier, and we love them for that. Electric SMS is one such company. Founder and former AE project manager, Wesley Magness, noticed how much of a pain subscription management is for both consumers and company owners, and built a product that makes it easier. Knowing the simplest and most popular mode of communication is SMS, Wesley created a tool that allows people to simply text a phone number to change, pause, or cancel subscriptions. Customers no longer have to deal with interrogations about why they want to cancel or jump through 12 flaming hoops and answer a series of Final Jeopardy questions just to change their delivery date. They can just handle it, and save time and money in the very simple process. (Full disclosure: Electric SMS came out of AE Studio’s Skunkworks division, where we scaled it significantly before we sold it to Recharge. Read how we built & scaled the startup here.)

But many companies don’t care about helping customers save time and money. So as a user, consumer, and human being, it’s worth thinking about a few things when you pick up your phone: What do you value? What are your goals? How do you want to spend your time? How do you make decisions?

Let those factors shape your interactions with technology and the world around you—instead of the other way around.