1:30am. Where did the time go? I hadn’t text replied to my girlfriend. And now I was too tired to send one.
Last month was a blur. I was working… or was I? I’d open Youtube to research something and spend 45 minutes watching NBA highlights. After lunch on Facebook, I’d bounce around like a ping pong ball from Trump to an ex-flame to another update that made me roll my eyes. Then I’d find out an acquaintance just sold his business for 1 million dollars. That would wake me up. What’s my problem, what am I doing with my life? Why am I on Facebook when I should be working?
I’d try to work. But it would get harder each time. If I couldn’t make progress I’d return to that half-finished podcast or investigate that guy who made a million dollars – how did he do that? He wasn’t even that smart. I’d end day after day feeling unaccomplished.
After a few weeks, I needed an intervention. I was in a bizarre no-mans-land where days would fly by and I seemed busy and occupied but nothing in my life would move. I’d compulsively reach for my phone when I was bored, lost, and frustrated, as if it held the answers. My friends tell me I am horrible at keeping at touch. Ironically, social media wasn’t helping. I would spend hours on stories of acquaintances and celebrities, but still hadn’t replied to my best friend’s email from 3 months ago.
In April I recorded a memo: “I feel in touch with everyone who matters the least and out of touch with many who matter the most to me.”
6 months later I hadn’t changed a goddamn thing.
“How to quit Facebook” on Google led me to Cal Newport’s TED talk about quitting social media. This led me back to his book, Deep Work, which I had been circling for years. I finally pulled the trigger, hoping the $16 price tag would stop the insanity, and force me to reflect, at least for a few days.
I spent the next 3 days reading and digesting the book.
I took immediate action:
- Deleted Facebook and Instagram off my phone. Try using Instagram on your computer. It sucks.
- Committed to 5 days off Facebook and Instagram unless for business purposes. If I did use them, I would close them immediately after my task.
- Committed to 5 days of deep work on a personal project. For me this was spending 2 distraction-free hours per day writing a short story.
- Set a daily time limit for work activities: 7pm. No work allowed after!
- Limited my online / chat / social media time during the work day to 11:30am – 12pm, and then 5-7pm. To help, I turned off ALL phone notifications during the day.
After a few days, I felt a quiet sense of accomplishment. It had been awhile since I gave myself the gift of working undistracted. Deep focus was a strength of mine, helping me become valedictorian of my high school. I was giving myself that gift back, growing that latent power.
I felt less annoyed and more focused. In fact, I started to cringe at just the idea of logging on to Facebook or Instagram. When I did, I’d see beautiful pictures of beautiful people in beautiful scenery and laugh. It was all a big joke. It was insane.
Cal Newport asks readers to consider 2 questions after their social media fasts:
- Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
- Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?
I concluded that my 5 days had been noticeably better without social media. I had written half a short story; I started my Perfect Day project which I had been mulling over for 2 years; I met new people and had deep, interesting conversations. Remember, no work after 7pm!
I did have a few hiccups. I went to the wrong place for a salsa event (the organizers announced the last-minute change on Facebook). My friends would talk about people on Instagram and I couldn’t see the latest juicy photos on my phone (I’d make one of them show me). As far as I know, only my girlfriend cared that I wasn’t on Facebook (“Less social media is a good thing but me having to pay the price of hearing from you less isn’t.”)
I still fell into the late-night Youtube rabbit hole, my guilty pleasure and reward for a hard day’s work. Hours would fly by. Again, it would be 1:30am and I hadn’t messaged those most important to me.
So I must find rules to end this addiction. The reward is mindless relaxation. What other activities would give me a similar or better feeling? Meditation? Reading? Talking to friends? Maybe I need to set a cut off time too, say no social media after 11pm.
I write this to say that I am still working through this addiction. I expect this to be a lifetime effort. Tech behemoths will continue spending billions to monopolize my attention. And my priorities will change with age and circumstance.
Have you ever signed onto Facebook and forgotten why? That’s how addictive it is. With distance, I started to see Facebook for what it is: attention skittles. Login, get a skittle. Use Facebook more, get more skittles. Maybe some days you get only 1 skittle, but others you’ll get 100 (like on your birthday)!
The problem, of course, is that unless you sell them, skittles don’t contribute to your long-term goals. They distract you and steal time from your most important work and relationships. You get addicted to sugar and forget the taste of real food.
I liken social media to other pernicious addictions: potato chips, alcohol, and porn. Thoughtful parents limit their kids screen time each day. Shouldn’t we do the same for ourselves?