I’m a big fan of Cal Newport’s work, and after hearing an interview with him recently on the subject of digital minimalism, it got me thinking about my social media habits. I’m not an addict, not even close, but it takes up more time than I’d like. More than the time I spent on it (which actually isn’t a huge amount), what bothered me was that anytime I was bored, I’d break out my phone and have a scroll. I felt the need, as do many others, to post stuff on Instagram. And when it comes to news, I checked it multiple times a day, just out of habit. So after hearing Cal talk, I thought I’d give it a shot. Complete social media shutdown, complete news abstinence for 30 days. After that, I’d reevaluate my habits.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the results. I haven’t missed it at all, and even during the first week when you’d think it would’ve been the hardest, I was already thinking that I might never go back. I do have a fairly strong hypothesis as to why though, and that is because I filled the social media time with other more worthwhile things:
- Time playing with my daughter
- Time spent working on my book
- Time doing yard work and other stuff that I could never be bothered to do
- Taking more meetings at work
- Reading long form articles
If you take nothing else out of my experiment, take this: don’t try and go cold turkey if you have nothing to fill the time with. Have you ever done a fast from food for 24 hours? It goes by really quick and painlessly if you’re actually out and about doing things. If you sit at home, all you can do is think about how hungry you are, and it’s awful. I can almost guarantee abstinence from social media would be the same thing. Don’t fill it with shit like Netflix either. Don’t fill it with anything that is consumption of more information or entertainment. Fill it with real life relationships, activities, work, projects etc. You know, stuff that you can actually get satisfaction out of.
So, how did it work out?
First of all, I noticed a significant difference at work. I’m a very focused person when I work regardless of social media — I throw my headphones on and can not come up for air for a couple of hours no problem. But in those breaks, I used to check social before getting back into it. During my abstinence, instead of scrolling I made sure I either took a walk or chatted with someone. What I found interesting was just the fact that I didn’t have social media there as a crutch energised me. I never realised it before, but social media is another distraction that takes up mental space. When that mental space is clear, it can be used for better purpose. The result is that I’ve felt on fire for the last month at work. Ideas, purpose, energy. It’s fantastic. If you’re one of those people that finds it difficult to stay focused at work, imagine what a social media fast will do for you.
Outside of work, the biggest thing I’ve realised is that social media adds literally nothing to my life. I didn’t have FOMO during that 30 day period, I didn’t miss out on anything and in fact, I actually gained out of the equation. Apart from the energy I talked about above, I gained the realisation that I don’t need the validation of having stuff I post liked or commented on. We all know that dopamine hit we get from our posts being interacted with, but the satisfaction of living life without social media is even better. When I go climbing and do something really cool, I no longer feel the need to post a video of it on Insta. I don’t care what anyone thinks about what I do anymore, because I’m there doing it and gaining the satisfaction from the activity itself, not people’s opinion of it. It’s a pretty amazing feeling.
Even better is that for those 30 days, I was completely cut off from all the arguing and toxicity that pervades everybody’s feeds nowadays. No scrolling awful comments sections, no seeing stuff that annoys me, no petty dramas between people. It was utterly refreshing. It’s no wonder people are feeling more stressed than ever. The daily stresses we endure can be dealt with when we keep our focus there. As soon as you start spending time on social, well that level of negativity just adds to your stress, and you’re not getting anything out of it. It’s just dragging you down for no reason.
So now that the experiment is over, what’s changed?
We had a federal election a couple of weeks ago, and being the election junkie that I am, I was all over the news for the week after. That’s never going to change and I’ll always allow myself that indulgence every 3 years. Apart from that, my thrice or more daily checking of news websites pre-experiment has gone down to zero since. On the odd occasion I feel like scrolling Insta (like on a weekend morning in bed, for example), I’ll install the app and scroll for a couple of minutes, not even making it to the end of my feed. Then when I’ve had enough I’ll delete the app. Facebook I haven’t had the app for a long time, and my checking of that has atrophied off to maybe once or twice a week.
The thing is, after my break, I actually feel an aversion to spending any more than a couple of minutes (and I literally mean 2–3) on it at a time. Especially Facebook, because there are so many comments on there that you can just get lost for ages. I notice it straight away now and just exit. If you’re on Twitter, god help you, get off. I cut that particular piece of crap from my life about 6 months ago, and I’m so glad I did. It’s such a dumpster fire of negativity that I honestly believe it’s worse for your mental health than watching 3 hours of news every day.
I guess the biggest takeaway of the experiment is that social media is a negative influence for anyone who wants to go and live a full, happy life. It’s not just the negativity online, it’s the fact that it’s taking up precious mental space that can be used for so many better purposes. That’s not to mention the fact that Facebook, Insta, Snapchat et al are always looking to make you more addicted to your phone.
Consider this: Steve Jobs never intended the iPhone to have such catastrophic influence over the human mind. It was supposed to be a cool device that would allow you to take calls, store music, and search things online. It wasn’t supposed to be an attention sucking black hole that always wanted more.