Living Zero Waste in Saigon

last updated January 10, 2019

Ever since pitching a plastics-alternative marketplace at the YSEALI Summit 2018, I can’t stop seeing our copious waste of single use plastic. It’s estimated that 1 billion straws are used everyday worldwide, enough to cover the earth’s circumference 5 times. And that’s just straws.

In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where I live, 9 million plastic bags are used every day – double the amount that was used 4 years ago. And Vietnam is a growth market for plastics. The country’s per capita consumption of plastic products (40-45kg/capita) is half that of Thailand’s and one-fourth that of Japan.

Plastic is difficult to separate, clean and recycle, and has a limited number of recycling life cycles compared to glass and metal. About 6 billion pounds of plastic bottles get thrown away every year worldwide, and only about 30% is recycled. Of that 30%, just one-fifth is processed to create fresh plastic bottles. So only 6% of recycled plastic bottles become new plastic bottles.

Plastic is not biodegradable, so plastics clog landfills and seep into groundwater. In Ho Cho Minh, 20% of plastics ends up in landfills, and given the city’s shortage of recycling systems and facilities, we can assume most of the remaining 80% ends up in the rivers and ocean where it takes hundreds of years to decompose, leeching toxins into the food chain.  

This problem is deeply personal to me because I love Vietnam, its people and its amazing food, much of which comes from the water. Just in this little corner of the world, growing plastic use could harm the livelihood of millions and threaten the country’s food security. Vietnam is already the fourth worst ocean polluter of plastics in the world.

Highlands Coffee, the most ubiquitous coffee chain in Ho Chi Minh, uses one plastic cup, lid and straw for each serving of coffee. And you know how much Vietnamese love their ca phê sũa đá. The current rage is bubble tea, which all popular chains serve in single use plastic. All this plastic, used for 5 minutes and then discarded, where it will take hundreds of years to degrade.

I find it maddening that there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 – all this less than 100 years after we began mass consuming plastics. 

Reducing waste will require government policies, innovation in packaging and recycling industries and most importantly, consumer behavior change. In this post, I’m focused on the latter. It might be a small difference, but if enough of us can change our habits, we can show an alternative way forward that wastes less.

The 5R’s of Zero Waste Living

The first step is to become aware of our habits of consumption.

I got this 5R model from Zero Waste Home:

  • Refuse what you do not need
  • Reduce what you do need
  • Reuse by using reusables
  • Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse
  • Rot (compost) the rest

The key insight of this framework is that awareness of consumption – not recycling – is the key to sustainable living. We should question each purchase and the entire life cycle of the products we use. Do you need it? Can it be reused? And then if necessary, recycled or rotted?

Identify Your Use Patterns

Each person’s situation is different. Most critical is to identify your common single-use patterns and find replacements or work arounds.

My Living Situation:

  • Live alone
  • Eat mostly plants
  • Carry a backpack for work
  • Ride a motorbike for transportation
  • Travel a lot so want to minimize stuff

My 4 Most Common Single-Use Plastic Scenarios (and Workarounds)

  • Late night convenient store runs (carry extra bag in backpack and motorbike)
  • Grocery shopping (bring reusable mesh produce bags, find wet markets that sell in bulk)
  • Using plastics to store food (buy glass and silicone containers, beeswax wraps, and re-usable silicone microwave covers)
  • Food delivery (eat AT restaurants, order less delivery and takeout, carry extra bag in backpack and motorbike)

So What if You’re Not Perfect? Just Get Started

I have found the following items to be indispensable wasting less on a daily basis:

Starter Pack

  1. Bag with reusable bags (less single use bags)
  2. Drink Thermos (less single use drink containers)
  3. Handkerchief (less single use tissues)
  4. Mesh bags (less single use produce bags when grocery shopping)

I don’t use straws and never pack food to eat at work, so I don’t need to carry reusable utensils or a lunch pack.

I’ve saved countless plastic bottles (and money) by carrying my thermos. And bringing along a few mesh produce bags while grocery shopping is easy.

Living Zero Waste in Saigon

So back to the 5Rs. In Ho Chi Minh, this could mean:

Refuse what you do not need

  • Learn these Vietnamese sayings
    • không cần ống hút, cảm ơn (don’t need a straw, thank you)
    • không cần túi, cảm ơn (don’t need a bag, thank you)
    • không với đồ nhụa, cảm ơn (no plastics, thank you)
  • Join Zero Waste Communities in Ho Chi Minh for support and inspiration

Reduce what you do need 

Reuse + repair goods 

  • Reuse what you have
  • Buy reusable, recyclable containers practical to your living situation
  • Get stuff fixed and support local craftsmen
    • Get your bags fixed at Thành Tâm, 784 Nguyễn Định Chiểu, Quận 3 (8am-12:30pm, 2:30-6pm)
    • Clean your shoes with Mr. Laundry for 60,000 VND. 42 Đường 54, Thảo Điện

Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce or reuse

  • Studying Ho Chi Minh’s recycling system to get a better understanding – stay tuned!

Rot the rest

“With every purchase, the entire life cycle of a product should be evaluated, including recyclability. When buying new, we should choose products that not only support reuse but also are made of materials that have a high postconsumer content, are compatible with our community’s recycling program, and are likely to get recycled over and over (e.g., steel, aluminum, glass, or paper) versus downcycled (e.g., plastics).”

Bea Johnson, Zero Waste Home


Zero Waste Mindset + Tips

Moving towards zero waste in Saigon will forever be a work in progress, so please let me know your suggestions, resources and additions in the comments below. I will keep this guide as up to date as possible!

Top up your cleaning solutions, soap and shampoo at Refill Station
Perfect Day

Jennie, Tech Consultant

“I’m a project based person but I need a clean process… My perfect day has to be different everyday. It has to have flexibility to support my interests and necessities at the time… Having a process allows me to introduce variety and spontaneity in a much more specific and clear way and allows me to assess it.” (Jennie, 29, USA)

Over cocktails on Sao Beach in Phú Quốc – hence the jet skis! – Jennie shares her perfect day:

  • Wake up without an alarm, get up slowly, nem nuống i.e. roll in bed like a bbq pork on a grill
  • Coffee to warm up – “without coffee I’m not a real person”
  • Morning rituals – front load morning with structured tasks
    • Meditating
    • Journaling – free write 750 words
    • Daily Update – report important metrics daily, weekly in Excel sheet
    • Bibliotherapy – read books on philosophy, self-help, psychology
    • Movement
    • Learning Vietnamese – listening to podcasts in Vietnamese
    • 5-minute Journal – what you’re grateful for and what you can improve upon
    • Making something
  • Flexible 9-5 job, not tied to office
  • Evening highball or beer
  • Read, relax, comfortable with doing nothing
  • Be in bed by 10pm, sleep by 11pm
  • At the end of the day, she would want to feel relaxed and unbothered, free to shut down, knowing that she did her work, that she had a “fulfilling day.”

Jennie’s recs


Eating Mostly Plants

“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”  

– Albert Einstein

I eat mostly plant-based food because doing so is good for my health, good for the planet, and good for animals.

Luckily, I’m not a foodie. So it’s easier for me to eat to live, and not live to eat.

Good for Health

Eating a plant-based diet defends against heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes.

  • In 1974 Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai directed the government to undertake most comprehensive cancer study in history, tracking every reported cancer death for 10 years. The study examined the diets, lifestyle, and disease characteristics of 6,500 people in 65 rural Chinese counties. “The major message from the China Study is a plant-food-based diet, mainly cereal grains, vegetables, and fruit, and very little animal food, is always associated with lower mortality of certain cancers, stroke, and coronary heart disease.”  Why? The enzymes and hormones found in meat create inflammation and high acid levels, which lead to cancer, stroke and heart disease.
  • U.S. and Italian researchers tracked ~6,400 adults during nearly two decades and found that those who ate a diet high in animal proteins during middle age (aged 50 and over) were four times more likely to die of cancer than contemporaries with low-protein diets — a risk factor, if accurate, comparable to smoking. They also were several times more likely to die of diabetes, researchers said.
  • The Harvard School of Public Health, oversaw a study that charted the health of a group of nurses over a twenty-year period. The study found that nurses who drank one or more glasses of skim or low-fat milk had a 69 percent increase in ovarian cancer over women who rarely or never drank milk. The study also found nurses who ate yogurt five or more times a week had almost double the ovarian cancer rates of nurses who never ate yogurt.
  • Also from the Harvard School of Public Health: consumption of more than two glasses of milk per day was associated with almost twice the risk of advanced and metastatic prostate cancer. Drinking a lot of milk and eating a lot of yogurt leads to higher rates of prostrate and ovarian cancer.
  • You’re not just what you eat. You’re what you eat eats too. “Farm animals get 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States.” Chickens are fed antibiotics, prozac and painkillers to maximize production and yield.

Good for the Planet

“Livestock production is one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.”

– UN Report, “Livestock Impacts on the Environment”

  • Because methane is so effective at trapping heat, scientists at the UN now believe that gasses produced by animal agriculture are responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Conversely, the combined fossil fuels (coal, gas, oil, etc.) used to power the automobile, train, and airline industries account for only 13% of greenhouse gas emissions. That means by eating beef, you’re actually contributing to global warming more than you are by driving cars, riding trains, or flying in planes.
  • 91% of the rain forest that’s been destroyed has been due to raising livestock.
  • A study published by the USDA found that 80% of agricultural land in the US is used either to raise animals or to grow the crops—corn, grain, oats, and so on—to feed them.
  • Across the globe, the numbers are just as staggering. According to the United Nations, the land used for grazing “occupies 26% of the Earth’s terrestrial surface, while feed-crop production requires about 33% of all arable land.”
  • “If the current world population at 7 billion were to adopt North America’s meat-based diet, it would require four planet earths to support this demand.” —Vancouver Sun
  • According to the USDA, private homes represent about 5 percent of the water consumed in the United States. Animal agriculture, on the hand, represents 55 percent of the water we use.”
  • According to the PETA, 660 gallons of water were needed to produce that one single burger. If you buy a pound of ground beef, 1,799 gallons of water were needed to produce that single package. Animals raised for food have to eat as many as 13 pounds of grain to create just one pound of edible flesh. Compare that to 700 gallons to produce 1 pound of cheese; 475 gallons for 1 pound of eggs; 132 gallons for 1 pound of wheat; 119 gallons for 1 pound of potatoes; 108 gallons for 1 pound of rice.
  • You could float a battleship on the amount of water that’s needed to raise a single thousand-pound beef cow.
  • Animal poop, antibiotics, and chemicals leak into streams, creeks and rivers, and ultimately our drinking water.  “Cutting back on meat consumption would protect waterways from pollution caused by fertilizer production, runoff from chemical fertilizer and manure, and soil erosion. Of course, producing more fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts still would require water, but far less than is needed to produce animal products.”

Good for Animals

At grocery store ask: “Am I going to make a selfish choice that causes pain? Or am I going to make a compassionate choice?”

– Russell Simmons

  • In the US 10 billion animals are raised and killed every year for food. Animals killed for their meat in America: every minute: 38,000 Every hour: 2.3 million Every day: 55.6 million
  • Worldwide 65 billion land animals are killed every year for food (this doesn’t count the billions of marine animals killed every year).
  • “The average person will chomp down on 7,000 animals during their life.” – USA Today
  • Broiler chickens (those raised for meat): Today, broilers reach the slaughter weight of 5 pounds after just 47 days. To help understand just how unnatural a growth spurt that is, a report by the University of Arkansas says the human equivalent would be a human weighing 350 pounds by the time he or she turned two years old. Despite enjoying a life span of up to fifteen to twenty years in the wild, most broilers are ready to be slaughtered after just six weeks.
  • Layer chickens (those raised to lay eggs): Artificially inseminated to start laying eggs after 20 weeks of age. Industrial egg-laying hens have been bred to produce more and faster, laying about 320 eggs over a life span of about 72 weeks, compared with a productive life of around four years in more traditional breeds that lay at a fraction of the rate. In nature, wild hens lay only 10 to 15 eggs annually. Like all birds, they lay eggs only during breeding season and only for the purpose of reproducing. This high intensity of production tends to affect their bones, which can become brittle and easily broken; the birds become stressed – which is why beak clipping is necessary – and listless.
  • “Don’t have your grandkids or great-grandkids looking at you the way a kid today would look at segregationist. When they look back at you years from now, be seen in the same light as the abolitionists who fought against slavery, or as a protestor who spoke out against Hitler. Don’t let history count you as one of the sheep who stayed quiet and looked the other way while people around them were being sold in chains or thrown in the ovens.” – Russell Simmons, The Happy Vegan

But What About Protein?

As a former college athlete, this has been a tough hurdle for me to overcome.  Even though I’m getting plenty of protein from plant-based foods, I still equate animal protein with muscles, strength and vigor.

But the truth is few of us are weight lifters or olympic athletes – we don’t need the extra protein. Most Americans eat too much protein, which comes with additional potential disease risks. “32 studies were identified. The adverse effects associated with long-term high protein/high meat intake in humans were (a) disorders of bone and calcium homeostasis, (b) disorders of renal function, (c) increased cancer risk, (d) disorders of liver function, and (e) precipitated progression of coronary artery disease.”

For an active adult, eating enough protein to meet the recommended daily allowance would supply as little as 10% of his or her total daily calories. In comparison, the average American consumes around 16% of his or her daily calories in the form of protein, from both plant and animal sources.

The DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, so the average amounts would be 55 grams / day for an average man, 46 grams / day for a woman. As I’m slightly more active, I give myself a slightly higher range – 0.8-1 grams of protein/kilogram guideline.

My ideal weight is 150 lbs = 68 kg = so protein target for me is 0.8-1gram/kilo so 55-68 grams.

My strategy to get this daily amount?

  • 3 servings carbs = ~15 grams
  • 3 servings vegetables = ~10 grams
  • 2 servings nuts & seeds = ~15 grams
  • 2 servings beans = 15 grams
  • Total = 55 grams
  • (optional) 1 scoop protein powder as a supplement = 24 grams

Meat every once in a while is okay – just be thankful to the animal

I also keep a grocery list of protein rich foods for carbs, beans, nuts, vegetables, fruits and spices. I bold what I need, then shop once a week. A full pantry at home helps prevents late night binge eating, which has been the hardest part of sticking to a healthy diet.

Useful Rule of Thumbs for Measurements

  • 1 tablespoon = 1 large spoon
  • 2 tablespoons = 2 large spoons = 1 ounce = 1/8 of a cup
  • 1 cup = 236 ml = one average size coffee cup = 1/2 pint = 8.1 ounces
  • 100 grams = 0.1 kilogram = 3.5 ounces
  • 1 gallon = 4 quarts = 8 pints = 128 ounces = 256 tablespoons = 768 teaspoons

Meat / Eggs / Dairy Protein List

(High Protein but Comes with Higher Cost)

  • 3 ounce Chicken / Steak / Pork – 28 / 26 / 22 grams protein
  • 1 egg – 6 grams
  • 1 cup skim / 1% / 2% milk = 8 grams
  • 6 ounces Greek Yogurt – 17 grams
  • 1 cup regular yogurt – 11 grams

Carbs Protein List = 3 servings = ~15 grams

  • 1 cup cooked brown rice – 7 grams
  • 1 cup white rice – 4 grams
  • 1 cup cooked pasta – 8 grams
  • 1 cup cooked oatmeal – 6 grams
  • 1 cup cooked quinoa – 8 grams
  • 1 slice wheat bread – 3 grams
  • 1 sweet potato – 2 grams

Vegetable Protein List = 3 servings = ~10 grams

  • 1 cup broccoli = 5 grams
  • 1 cup cauliflower = 2.4 grams
  • 1 cup spinach = 5 grams
  • 1 cup red pepper = 3 grams
  • 1 cup tomatoes = 2 grams
  • 1 medium zucchini = 2.4 grams
  • 1 avocado = 4.2 grams

Nuts and Seeds Protein List = 2 servings = ~10 grams

  • 1 ounce pumpkin seeds = 9 grams
  • 1 ounce peanuts = 7 grams
  • 1 ounce cashews = 4 grams
  • 2 tablespoons almonds = 4 grams
  • 2 tablespoons peanut butter / almond butter / cashew butter = 8 grams

Legumes & Beans Protein List =  2 servings = ~20-30 grams

  • 1/2 cup firm tofu = 10 grams
  • 1 cup garbanzo beans = 15 grams
  • 1 cup white beans = 17 grams
  • 1 cup pinto beans = 15 grams
  • 1 cup lentils = 18 grams

Drinks Protein List 

  • 1 cup soy milk = 8 grams
  • 1 cup almond milk = 1 gram
  • 1 cup beer = 0.8 grams protein
  • 1 cup coffee / tea = 0.3 grams / 0.1 gram protein
  • Protein Powder =  1 scoop/ serving = ~24 grams

How to Eat More Plant-based Foods

“Realizing that most American families tend to rotate through the same eight or nine meals, step one suggests that you think of three meals you already enjoy that are plant based, like pasta and marinara sauce that could be easily tweaked to whole-grain pasta with some added veggies. Step two asks you to think of three meals you already eat that could be adapted to become a green-light meal, like switching from beef chili to five-bean chili. Step three is my favorite: Discover new healthy options.”

– Michael Gregor, How Not to Die


How Not to Die by Michael Gregor

The Happy Vegan by Russell Simmons


Perfect Day

JJ and Rola, Teachers

“To create something is to add to the world. Something to show for your day is always something you can look back on, and if you hadn’t done it that day maybe that song, that writing would have never happened or will never happen the same ever again, so to create something is really special.” (JJ, late 30s, Ireland)

I hadn’t seen Rola, a close high school friend, in years. She was touring Vietnam with her finance JJ. We connected over craft beers at Heart of Darkness.

JJ’s Perfect Day: “I’d feel like I’ve achieved something”

  • Wake up beside someone special
  • Coffee
  • Write in journal – “you can think out your thoughts. if there are negative things happening and little things annoying you – if you write them on paper you realize how silly they are. Especially if you look back a couple pages and see that silly thing from 2 weeks ago has gone away.”
  • Write a song
  • Carry a notebook around for ideas, plans, randomness
  • Work out
  • Dinner with friends – “a small group of friends having fun and telling stories in a safe setting.”
  • Beers with friends
  • Finish with a “walk on the beach, a splash in the sea”

“I’m the happiest when I’m connecting with people who elevate my consciousness and make me feel connected and with purpose. I love the feeling of wonder and learning and embracing whatever comes my way.” (Rola, late 30s, USA)

Rola’s Perfect Day: “I surround myself with people who make me feel strong”

  • Waking up next to someone special, in an awe-inspiring natural space “hearing birds, waves”
  • Meditating, morning alone time
  • Connecting with people
  • Trying new foods
  • Teaching strategies of well-being and seeing the effect in children – “this is the highest feeling of purpose”
  • Learning something new – “that I’m growing constantly.”
  • Surrounded by people who make her feel emotionally, mentally strong
  • Leaving people with more connection, more joy, a smile
  • Ending day in a grounded space, through yoga or deep conversation

As a couple:

  • Enjoy weekend breakfasts and mornings together
  • Give each other space for each other’s tendencies and interests
  • Have their own friend groups
  • Watch very little television together
  • Curate their environment and friends so they can be the best version of themselves
Perfect Day

Tomo, Developer


“I think there would be some drugs involved to be honest… and some elements of hedonism and a lot of music. I think I would enjoy a mix of those 3 things.” (Tomo, 39, USA)

Tomo’s perfect day:

  • Psychedelic drugs – “it’s not about feeling good or euphoric or numbing pain, but actually about changing the way you experience things. It would be a day where your senses are enhanced or altered. Because of that it would be a very abnormal day. It would also warp your sense of time.”
  • Music
  • Unplanned – “[music / psychedelics] are just the start. the perfect day wouldn’t be planned much further than that… ideally, you would be able to do what you want for the rest of the day.”

Tomo’s music rec

Perfect Day

Salah, Coffee Shop Owner

“People are greedy and always want more: lots of money, girls, fun nights out. When you’re young you want everything fast, you don’t know what’s important. As you get older, you realize that the things that matter are the small things, the things you take for granted. You never realize what you have until you lose it.” (Salah, 31, Yemen)

Salah’s perfect day:

  • Good health for him and his family
  • The people you love are okay
  • Being “home,” which means being with the people you love

In his early 20s, Salah made “perfect money” working for his family’s construction business in Yemen. He’d party weekends in Dubai. But then suddenly war forced his factory to close. He moved abroad, pursuing a childhood dream and opening coffee shops in Malaysia and Vietnam.

Perfect Day

Chew, Retired IT Professional


“I love my [retired] life right now. Life is good. I can’t complain. It’s wonderful.” (Chew, 69, USA)

Chew’s perfect day:

  • Sleep in, get up late
  • Have a nice breakfast, read the newspaper
  • Check the stock market
  • Play pickle ball
  • Have a late lunch
  • Sample free food at Costco
  • Stretch at 24-Hour Fitness
  • Take hot shower
  • Take a nap
  • Dinner with wife
  • Watching mixed-martial arts on TV
  • Taichi and go to bed late

He would want to feel:

  • Like it was a long day, so he’s tired and can sleep quickly
Perfect Day

Ramon, CEO


“I got to think about what I wanted to be and I got to spend it with the people I love.” (Ramon, 42, USA)

Ramon talked about 3 perfect days from his past, present and future.

Past: At 23 he flew with his brother and best friend to a gaming convention in Dallas. They had dreams of starting a business together. “I remember taking notes and observing everybody. The sky was the limit. I felt like I was young and could do anything.” Then Ramon flew to Las Vegas. He won enough money to pay for the entire trip, plus tickets to the musical Stomp for his best friends and crush.

Present: this year Ramon got married – “There are only 2 times you can get everyone in a room that matter to you, your wedding and your funeral.”

Future: doing charity work with his wife.

Ramon’s perfect days share 3 common elements:

  • A day of possibility
  • With the girl you’re in love with
  • Surrounded by good friends and family
Perfect Day

Grace, Retired Homemaker & Accountant

“A perfect day is totally relaxed and I can do whatever I want, whenever I want, spend whatever I want, and be with whoever I want.” (Grace, 67, USA)

Grace’s perfect day:

  • Spending day with family in relaxing way
  • Be on a cruise ship – “you don’t have to figure out where to eat, how you’re going to feed the whole family, what type of food everyone likes, and anyone can be anywhere they want but together.”
  • Thankful for what she has – “roof over head, food on the table, don’t have to worry about health and finances, being American”

She would want to feel:

  • Totally relaxed
  • Grateful for what you have
Blog Perfect Day

Off Social Media for 5 Days

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: 

  1. Deleted Facebook and Instagram off my phone. Try using Instagram on your computer. It sucks.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Set a daily time limit for work activities: 7pm. No work allowed after!
  5. 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:

  1. Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service? 
  2. 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?