Social media – as both a personal and professional tool and its effect on human psychology – is a topic I’m very interested in. Probably because I suspect I’m mostly kidding myself around how useful it is, while I’m simultaneously losing control of it.
Some of you might find my thoughts on this topic hyperbolic and unnecessary. Either you’re one of the people who are kidding themselves about their true relationship with social media or you genuinely don’t find yourself succumbing to its deliberately addictive qualities.
Either way, here’s my experience.
The Reasons Behind the Experiment
I decided to give up social media completely for the month of January.
I had a variety of reasons for trying this experiment. I wanted to see:
- if going cold turkey would help me reset my habits (and break my addiction)
- if my happiness and anxiety levels would change by cutting social media from my daily life
- if I could improve my concentration levels by not being constantly distracted by social media
- if there would be a negative effect on my business (which I would measure as fewer visitors to my website)
This last one I was particularly interested to test because I often tell myself I can’t quit social media since my business relies on it. Deep down I suspect this isn’t true, but I was eager to test the hypothesis.
The Rules of the Experiment
My first step was determining how I could and couldn’t use my smartphone, and which ‘digital communication tools’ I could and couldn’t use. Here’s what I decided:
- No social media apps allowed on my phone. Deleting these apps is a common first step for people trying to reduce their phone and social media usage.
- No web browser app allowed on my phone. It was too easy for me to use social media directly in-browser instead of through an app. I figured if I needed to look something up online, most of the time it could wait until I was at my laptop.
- No password manager allowed on my phone. Again, it was too easy to access my social media accounts directly through my password management app. I also used to use this app to check my work emails.
- No games allowed on my phone. Because why not – let’s not give myself any other reason to have my face glued to the screen.
- No email app allowed on my phone. I was a bit worried I would need my emails every now and again (e.g. to prove a reservation), but I figured I’d test this assumption.
- No Facebook allowed at all.
- No Twitter allowed at all.
- No Instagram allowed at all.
- YouTube allowed, but not on my phone. I figured since I only consume media on YouTube (rather than interact with people or post to it), it was kind of like my version of watching TV (since I don’t watch ‘normal’ TV).
- Messaging apps, all allowed. This included Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Apple Messages and texts. I wanted to keep my usual text-based channels of communication open with my friends and family.
- Podcast app, allowed. I love listening to podcasts while out for a walk or on a train, and they don’t keep me looking at or compulsively checking my phone.
What was the point in having a smartphone without all these apps? Well, it stripped the phone back to the reasons I wanted a smartphone in the first place. It still acted as, you know, a phone. It also acted as a fantastic digital camera, a GPS device and a music player. I’d just got rid of the less-valuable add-ons.
I used a piece of software called Self Control to block Facebook and Twitter from my web browser during the day. I knew my muscle memory and ingrained habits would lead me to mindlessly type these URLs into the browser before I even knew what I was doing (and yes, this happened). It also stopped me just ‘having a peek’ to satiate my FOMO (fear of missing out). Annoyingly, though, I had to reset the software every day as it had a maximum limit of 24 hours.
The First Week: Breaking the Muscle Memory
The first week was particularly strange. I would wake up in the morning, reach for my phone, then just stare at it for a few minutes because I couldn’t use any of the distracting apps I usually looked at while my brain woke up.
Instead of just putting my phone down again when I picked it up in that first week, I would look at the weather app or Google Maps or my photos – anything to keep the phone in my hand. It was … surreal.
Even without all the apps I’d deleted, I was still conditioned to pick up and stare at my phone on a regular basis. I hadn’t expected that to be quite such a strong impulse.
Even so, I found it easy to keep off of social media sites during this period. In fact, I found myself relishing the sense of quiet it provided me with. The absence of background chatter was a relief I didn’t know I needed.
A Few Weeks In: Replacement
Eventually, I started picking up my phone less. I thought that without shoving my phone into my face as soon as I woke up, I wouldn’t stimulate my brain enough to keep me awake. That was … a dumb thought. It wasn’t true at all.
I noticed, though, that I had started replacing my social media activity with other things. Instead of typing ‘f’ into the address bar of my browser and ending up on Facebook, I ended up on the Society for Editors and Proofreaders’ forum. Like, a lot. I would check it multiple times a day.
I had also started watching a lot more YouTube videos. I was listening to even more podcasts than before. But I was reading a lot more, too. And I also did a little bit of journaling when I felt the urge to consolidate my thoughts:
Monday 14th January 2019
Halfway through my social media detox and I’m starting to miss the camaraderie (and distraction?) of a few Facebook groups and generally seeing what other editor-friends are up to. But I suppose the positive side of this is that I’m not comparing myself to others’ achievements, and I’m feeling more inspired to work on my own stuff. It’s interesting because you’d think that feeding your mind would give you fuel for inspiration, but I think that doesn’t leave enough air for your own idea-flames to ignite and grow.
I visited my family more than usual during this month, and I reached out to a few friends I hadn’t seen for a long time and got the ball rolling to meet up with them. I also relished attending the local SfEP meet-up at the start of the following month, whereas usually I would have felt tempted to skip it.
The Last Week: Slipping Up
I had a bit of a busy week with a few deadlines and a few personal things to handle, and I was feeling the stress. I jumped on Twitter because someone had told me they were going to post a photo of the flowers I had sent them and I wanted to see it. I had also decided to close the Facebook group I run, and so I jumped into that to make the announcement. And then, of course, I kept checking it for responses.
Embarrassingly, I also developed a new crush on an actor and ended up on their Instagram profile for quite some time.
So I broke the rules a bit. I felt pretty bad for doing so, but I still hadn’t fully slipped back into my old habits. In fact, slipping up and peeking back into these online worlds made me realise I wasn’t missing much anyway.
What I Learned
Were the results what I had expected? Yes and no.
I DIDN’T FULLY BREAK MY HABITS
Slipping up at the end of the month didn’t help me break my habits. I certainly felt as though I had started to change, but those habits were deeply entrenched, and the apps I was trying to break away from are deliberately built to be addictive.
Now that the experiment is over, I find myself gravitating back to Twitter and Facebook in the same way I did before. I’ve kept my smartphone setup the same, though.
I FELT LESS ANXIOUS
When writer Alexandra Franzen gave up social media, she described it like switching off a fridge that you had grown used to buzzing away in the background. The noise in my brain lessened.
I also stopped being so harsh on myself. Social media turns everyone into a justice warrior, and I was going mad with the guilt of not leading a more ethically perfect life. Every time I would go on Twitter, I would be reminded that I could be doing more for the environment or animal and human rights. These little jabs of guilt had started to erode me.
I don’t want to be the kind of person who puts their head in the sand and does whatever they want, consequences be damned. But I noticed that without going on social media, I felt less judged and less … watched. Which is weird, because it wasn’t like I was broadcasting my life choices anyway.
Feeling as though my life choices weren’t being watched (and therefore couldn’t be judged) made me feel better about how I lived my life. I could feel good about the ethical efforts I made while not feeling bad that I wasn’t being perfect.
I can’t quite explain this shift, but it was definitely there.
I also felt less anxious because I didn’t have the means to compare myself to others. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is impossible to use social media without falling into the comparison trap. It’s just human nature.
Getting caught up in that celebrity’s Instagram feed just made me feel miserable about myself and my life. And not seeing what all the other editors in my network were doing made me feel better about my business.
I DIDN’T IMPROVE MY CONCENTRATION, BUT I DID IMPROVE MY OUTPUT
I don’t think my concentration significantly improved over the month. I think I’d need more time to develop that, especially because I found myself using replacement distractions, which kind of defeated the purpose.
However, by not having so many thoughts from other people crowding my head, I definitely had more time to think my own thoughts. I’d planned to write a blog post once a fortnight, but I ended up writing one every week.
I also noticed that I started having more creative thoughts. I would daydream more, and these daydreams would involve mentally testing out ideas for my business and sometimes coming up with stories and narratives in my head.
It was … nice. My brain felt more alive.
MY BUSINESS DIDN’T SUFFER
I had just as many website hits as any other month, even though I didn’t promote any of my four new blog posts on social media (or any of my old posts). I still had enquiries coming in, and even a few blog comments.
Google Analytics tells me that, on average, only around 3-4% of my website traffic comes from social media. This dropped to around 2% in January. Most of my web traffic comes from organic search, which likely means people are finding my site through search engines.
This tells me I’m better off focusing on writing new posts for my blog than I am spending time posting links to social media.
Changing My Relationship with Social Media
With what I know now, my next step is figuring out how I want my relationship with social media (and my smartphone) to change. It’s been a week since the end of my experiment, and I haven’t yet decided how I want to do things differently from now on. Because of this, I’m already slipping into my old habits – and I definitely don’t want that!
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport talks about how we’ve adopted the ‘any-benefit mindset’ with digital communication tools. That is, we embrace them fully because we see some benefit to using them, but we forget to weigh up whether the costs actually outweigh the gains.
In his new book, Digital Minimalism, Newport says:
… what you need instead [of ‘willpower, tips and vague resolutions’] is a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tool you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else.
He suggests that we don’t necessarily need to give up social media, but instead we should choose the tools that help us achieve the things we find valuable – and then optimise those tools.
As an example, there are a handful of Facebook groups I find really valuable for tapping into the collective wisdom of editors all over the world. But I also find the Facebook newsfeed a massive anxiety-inducing time-suck. So I’ve unsubscribed from everyone and everything on Facebook, which means my newsfeed stays empty but I can still jump onto Facebook to use the groups (without distraction).
I’m still working my way through Digital Minimalism (since it was only published a few days ago), but I’m already starting to form my personal ‘philosophy of technology use’.
I haven’t quite nailed down the details yet, but you can be sure of one thing: I intend to use social media a hell of a lot less.
By the way, something that DOES help my concentration is the Focus at Will online music player. Try it free for 30 days and see what you think.