Incentives Matter, The SenKulkarni Household Edition

The other day, I, the wife, and the daughter were driving somewhere in the car. We stay near Baner Road in Pune, and with the ongoing Metro construction, and the top-notch condition of Pune’s roads, traffic was inching along at best.

And so I wondered how to pass the time.

I keep fiddling around with the home screen on my phone. The row of icons on the dock stays the same, the folders above it stays the same, but I like trying out different widgets every now and then. And one of the widgets that I had tried just that morning was a rather sobering one. It was the Digital Wellbeing widget.

Three hours isn’t, I suspect, all that bad. But that was on a Saturday. As you can see from the graph, Tuesday and Thursday were particularly bad days for me this past week – nearly six hours on both these days!

Now, in my defence, I read a fair bit on my phone. Feedly, Chrome and the Kindle app are all part of the six hours, so it isn’t quite as bad as all that. But, I must confess, I am being rather manipulative in my reporting. The biggest culprit is YouTube.

YouTube’s accursed algorithm has figured out that I like watching cricket, tennis and football videos, along with recipes. And so the damn thing will parade an endless list of videos for my viewing pleasure, and I will happily watch ’em all. And don’t even get me started on YouTube shorts.

My phone addiction, in other words, is a major problem, and my YouTube addiction is a rather large chunk of my phone addiction.

“So how about this”, I said by way of conversation in the car the other day. “How about we have a contest to see who has the highest amount of screentime between the three of us?”

“We can all check our stats, Monday through Saturday, both days included. The person who has the least amount of screentime can decide where we go to have lunch on Sunday afternoon.”

We’re big on celebratory Sunday meals in these parts. It’s usually either mutton at home, or pigging out at some suitably gourmandish restaurant. A lavish Sunday brunch, in other words.

This idea was met with wholehearted approval on part of the rest of the car’s population, and all would have been well if that’s where we had stopped.

But do I even deserve to call myself an economist if I don’t complicate a simple fun game?

Positive incentives are all well and good, but with the carrot should also come the stick. What about the person who has the most amount of screentime? What “punishment” should that person get?

And by the way, it’s not just because us economists don’t know when to stop. Negative incentives work better than positive ones (of course).

And so we spent a pleasant few minutes thinking about what punishment would work best for all three of us. And after some moments of mirth, this is what we have:

  1. If the daughter should end up having the most screen-time, she will have to take the most ugh vegetables ever in her school tiffin for three days running. Most ugh vegetables ever is an intensely subjective call, of course, and I’ll spare you the gory details. (We all agreed that karela would be taking things too far, if you were wondering).
  2. If the wife should end up having the most screen-time, we will remove a protective drape over her favorite piece of furniture in the living room. Said drape protects a particularly cozy sofa in our living room from being liberally festooned with our dog’s fur. I, the daughter and the dog are perfectly fine with fur on the sofa, but the wife isn’t. So for three long days, she can’t clean the sofa of all that fur, and nor can she cover it with a protective rug. Oh, the horror.
  3. And me? If it is me, then I have to make the first cup of chai in the morning, three days running. This is a horrific punishment, since I only take on a somewhat human form about ten minutes after the first cup of chai in the morning. And even that, my near and dear ones will tell you, isn’t a guarantee.

Phone calls are fine, they do not count towards screen time. Ordering groceries, ditto. But everything else does, and today onwards, we’re off to the races.

I’ll let you know come next Monday who won, promise.

But half a day into the contest, here’s where we stand:

  1. My daughter doesn’t even have her tablet with her. She’s kept it in our car, rather than at home.
  2. I’m at 19 minutes for the day (of which 11 minutes have been on the phone, so 8 in all)
  3. The wife was at 20 as of three hours ago.

God help that sofa.