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in: A Man's Life

March 5, 2019 Last updated: March 19, 2019

4 Lessons From a 4-Week Social Media Fast

The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run. —Thoreau

February 4, 2019 

Dinner was mostly cleared from the table, but there were still a few random dishes out, and stray crumbs on the floor from the kids. Cleanup was 90% done, and I was tackling that last 10% in a slow, unhurried manner. As I was at the sink, I heard a giggle or two from the kids, who were playing in the living room. Then those giggles grew into full-on belly laughs, and my wife’s laughter joined the chorus.

I smiled, instinctively, at the noise.

As a parent, noise of any kind is often the last thing you want. Silence — the complete lack of commotion — is a kind of beautiful non-music to our ears.

And yet, to hear my family laughing together on the floor . . . that was truly an enchanting sound.

So I turned around to get a look at the action. My 3-year-old son had piled some pillows on the floor, and he and my 11-month-old daughter were taking turns gleefully throwing themselves onto this fluffy mountain. As soon as my wife laid down on those pillows, she became part of the landscape upon which the kids wrestled and rolled. The sublime, joyous, unforced laughter continued.

And so I just stood there in the kitchen, for a few full minutes at least, taking it all in, the Lumineers providing a movie-like soundtrack for the scene. I know that doesn’t seem long, but in the moment it felt like a rapturous eternity. I simply soaked it in and tried as hard as I could to absorb every detail; I immediately knew this was a moment I’d never want to forget. This is the stuff that life, and parenting, is made of.

After my wife caught me looking, I told her that if I had a heart-o-meter, it would have nuclear exploded.

____________________

This particular evening took place a few days after my social media fast ended.

Before giving up social media for the month of January, I’d spend maybe an hour on it a day, mostly in 5 minute snatches of time scattered through my waking hours — quick work breaks, waiting in lines, while watching TV at night, etc. I wasn’t “addicted” to social media; I mostly used it as a boredom killer and to entertain myself at night when the kids were in bed. (Late night comedy clips are one of my weaknesses.) I would also spend probably another hour or so dinking around on news apps, sports apps, games, etc.

After dinner, while the kids usually play for a little bit before bed, was a common time for me to pick up the phone and fool around a bit. I could peruse social media, check sports scores, see what sort of new idiocy Washington, DC was ginning up. I wasn’t necessarily neglecting my family; if the kids called my name or needed their dad’s attention for a minute, I’d easily put the device away and join the rumpus. But then I’d go back to the phone and putter around some more. I wasn’t fully absorbed in either activity; it was more of a scattered presence that didn’t feel fully in the moment to be sure, but also didn’t feel particularly nefarious. It wasn’t like I was holed away in a corner of the house or zombied out on the couch, oblivious to what was happening.

And yet I have to wonder how many perfect moments — like the one described above — I missed out on being fully present for. It was quite a sobering thought, to say the very least.

After deciding to spend 31 days off of social media (and other time-wasting apps, too), and realizing the immense benefits of curtailing my tech use, I’m fully in the camp of what Cal Newport calls the “Attention Resistance.”

During those 31 days I kept a weekly journal about how the fast was going, and a lesson I took from that particular week.

While my own insights aren’t prescriptive in nature and won’t apply to everyone in the same ways, I do think they are rather instructive as to what can happen when you radically change your social media and smartphone use.

Week 1: Realizing Social Media’s Habitual Nature 

During the late evening hours of New Year’s Eve 2018, after the kids were in bed, I took some time to make a few final scrolls through Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I didn’t mention or post that I was taking January off; I wanted to disappear in silence.

And that’s what I did. I deleted the Facebook app. I deleted the Instagram app. I logged out from all accounts on my phone’s browser (which was where most of the Twitter damage was done).

I went to bed at 10pm, truly looking forward to starting 2019 on a social media-less foot.

So, naturally, the 10-month-old baby woke up screaming at about 11:30pm, and wouldn’t go back to sleep until about 1:30am. I didn’t intend to ring in the new year on a conscious level, and yet there I was, rocking a baby to sleep when the clock struck midnight. I’ll admit that my first instinct was to check Facebook. Or Instagram. Anything. I didn’t even want to, really. Just my rebellious human nature coming through there. But I held fast and just closed my eyes.

And so that first temptation passed without incident.

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In the days that followed during week 1, I wanted to check in on my accounts to see how friends and family had rung in the new year. Instead, I texted a few close friends and had nice “conversations” that way. Much better than scrolling through a feed and not interacting at all — which is generally what happens.

The most interesting thing about this first week was what not having those apps on my phone did to those habitual boredom-busting tactics. Normally, I’d unlock my phone, and almost instinctively tap on the blue “f” or the purplish camera icon, just to see if any notifications came in, or if anyone in my network had some major life event.

Now, I’d unlock my phone and just sort of stare at it, not really sure what to do. Eventually, I’d click around on various apps — weather, games, Amazon (shopping, not reading) — and quickly get bored and shut ‘er down.

On social media, you don’t have to make any decisions about what to do. The infinite scroll keeps you engaged for . . . well, ever. When you open a weather app, you check the weather for about 10 seconds, and that’s it. When you shop online, you have to intentionally look for something; endlessly clicking on related products gets old pretty quickly. Without those infinite scrolls beckoning for your attention, you realize that your phone isn’t such an alluring device. It’s just a little brick that’s supposed to make your life easier; it’s not supposed to enslave your attention.

(Games of course offer plenty of time-wasting opportunity, but something about being 30 has made me sort of cringe at myself when I play games on my phone, so it doesn’t happen too much, and I in fact just recently deleted the last of those games. I’m a grown man for crying out loud!)

The Lesson: This first insight is in truly learning that social media is much more of a mindless habit — and a very strongly ingrained one — than a pleasurable or fulfilling activity. We do it out of compulsion rather than intention.

Week 2: Missing the Benefits of Social Media

Week 2 started as a breeze, really. To be honest, I had been turned off by social media for a while, and it felt pretty easy to step away from it. To my mind, this meant I was actually quite ready for a break and just needed an excuse to do it. Perhaps that’s all you need too — an excuse to cut it out of your life.

The reality of the world we live in means that I wasn’t actually missing much. My wife would text or email me memes, which was almost more of a fun and personal way to encounter them. Hangouts with friends would inevitably bring up newsy topics that I hadn’t really been privy to. And sometimes, things just fully slipped over my head and turned out to be entirely unimportant. (I had no awareness of that Gillette ad and the mushroom of reaction it caused until, like all flash-in-the-pan sparks of outrage, it had almost completely disappeared from the pop culture spotlight, leaving nothing of real significance behind.) It was nice to run into these things tangentially in the course of conversation rather than having spent hours online.

But then, I ran into a few instances where being on social media — particularly Facebook — would actually have been beneficial.

One morning I was texting with a good friend about biscuits and gravy. Weird, I know, so a little bit of context: I was having some at home, and back in our college days this friend and I would have boatloads of the stuff together. Little did I know that his daughter was actually in the ICU at that very moment. Had I been on social media, I would have known, and I wouldn’t have texted about biscuits and gravy. I only knew about the sick daughter because my wife said something, and I ended up feeling like a bit of a cad (though it is possible he welcomed the silly distraction). I then of course texted him that we were thinking about their family and would do anything we could to help; I also called after realizing that texting wasn’t quite the right medium for conveying those thoughts.

In a similar narrative, I had a different friend from college with a young son who’d been dealing with cancer for much of 2018. Ten years out of college, we weren’t close enough to be on texting or calling terms, but I was certainly interested in what was going on with his family. Without being on social media, I was missing those updates on how he and his kid were doing. (The little guy is now doing very well and pretty much has a clean bill of health!)

Facebook, for the enormous unethical cesspool that it is, actually provides some benefit to my life; it’s not fully just mindless entertainment. I can keep up with people who are important to me without having to send a dozen “Hey what’s going on?” texts. If you cull your friends list to just those you truly care about (rather than those you barely know or people you only follow because you sort of like to hate their posts), you’ll end up with a newsfeed that provides some value.

The real trick with social media is actually weighing those benefits vs. the costs. Before my fast, the amount of time spent on Facebook was not in line with what I was getting out of it. My time on Twitter and Instagram were in the same boat. I was spending too much life — in Thoreau’s words — on the minuscule benefit I was getting. So after the fast, as I’ll dig into a little later, I ditched Twitter completely and reduced my time on Instagram and Facebook to better match the benefit they were providing.

The Lesson: Social media does have actual benefits; it takes a break, though, to realize what they are. Once you’ve had a break, and found some of those real benefits, you can go back to it in a far healthier, and assuredly less time-consuming way. After my fast, I quickly came to realize I could legitimately keep up with the more significant updates my friends’ and family post on social media in just 10-15 minutes per week.

Week 3: Dealing With Boredom

The novelty of the fast was quickly wearing off by week 3. I was finding myself more often in the throes of boredom. At first, the fast was kind of exciting — almost a self-righteous feeling of knowing I wasn’t wasting my life on scrolling. But by week 3 that feeling was waning. I noticed it mostly while waiting — waiting in line anywhere, waiting for my young son to finish going to the bathroom, waiting 5 minutes for my pour over to finish up at the coffee shop, waiting at Walmart for a tire to be patched (I forgot to bring reading material), waiting for the gas tank to fill up . . . 

These small bits of time began to feel excruciatingly long — embarrassingly so, actually. What did it say about me, I wondered, that I get achingly bored after just a couple minutes with nothing to do?

I quickly realized that life offers plenty of waiting, and social media is seemingly the perfect antidote — which is why those companies are some of the world’s most valuable. There’s always something new and it doesn’t take any of what I call “ramping up” to get into. (With reading, for example, it can take a few minutes to get into the flow of it, but many times the wait you’re in the midst of only lasts that long.) Social media can be accessed and de-accessed in mere seconds, and the result is no boredom ever again. In theory, at least. Of course you still get bored with your feeds, you just don’t realize it, because you keep on mindlessly scrolling.

The problem is that boredom can actually be good for you. It fosters thinking. Real thinking. With your brain! What a novel idea. I know that sounds silly, but it really is a bit unique in our world. Instead of diverting to social media with every minute that doesn’t have an allocated activity, I’ve learned to try to actively be thinking about something — planning my day/week, thinking through a decision that needs to be made, “writing” in my head and working out ideas, or even just plain zoning out. While I’m still bored when waiting around in line, and it’s still sometimes a little painful, I’ve come to embrace it as best I can. And my mind truly feels more focused — less scattered and more on top of things — because of it.

The Lesson: Embrace the boredom. Use it to think about something. Or not. It may be painful, but your brain will thank you. If nothing else, keeping your phone put away while waiting for stuff will break the hold that your phone has over your every spare moment (and those spare moments are dang valuable — if used intentionally).

Week 4: A New Philosophy of Social Media & General Phone Use

As my experiment was coming to a close, I started to think seriously about how to let social media back into my life. Cal Newport accurately writes in Digital Minimalism that as consumers we just sort of slid into using these services and apps. They seemed to offer some benefit and some entertainment, so there wasn’t a need to be all that thoughtful and intentional about their use. But now, a decade or so after their introduction, we’ve seen how much time and attention those devices and services can take from us. It’s time to step back and think critically about the role they should play in our lives — to develop a real philosophy around our use of technology.

Newport argues for putting pretty stringent “rules” in place for yourself when it comes to social media and device usage. Make them as specific and in-depth as is necessary — setting time limits on things and limiting your access (with other apps, like Freedom, if needed). The small caveat is that if you’re naturally pretty disciplined about this stuff, you may not need to be as specific. This is the case with me; after making a living on the internet for the last 6 years, I’ve had ample practice in self-discipline in that particular realm. So my own rules didn’t need to be so hard and fast, but yours very well may.

What I came up with:

1. I would reinstall Instagram on my phone, but only use it to post pics 1-2 times per week (of books I’m reading, some of my baking creations, and weekend hikes). For me, it provides hiking/cooking inspiration and some beneficial personal branding without the vitriol found on Twitter and Facebook. I really wish Instagram was easier to post to from a laptop/desktop, but oh well. I’d spend no more than a few minutes every 2-3 days scrolling.

2. I would not reinstall Facebook on my phone. I’d use it only on my computer, for no more than a few minutes every other day. When I see something I want to “like” or comment on, I’ll shoot a text or an email instead. I want social media to be a supplement for my social interactions, not a replacement. I’ll occasionally post pics of the kids, because that’s what my family and close friends most like to see. (I do also really enjoy using the “On This Day” feature, which provides a nice dose of nostalgia from pics you posted on that day in years past.)

3. I would abandon Twitter altogether. It was clear during my fast that I received no actual benefit from it, other than stress- and eye-roll-inducing news items. I also came to realize that things that seemed important on Twitter — from “news” to overwrought outrage at various things — weren’t actually important at all in the real world.

4. I would buy a cheap smartwatch to give me notifications of texts and work emails. I’d always been mostly in the hater camp when it comes to smartwatches, so this came as a surprise even to me, but as I thought about it more, it made more and more sense. Part of my checking my phone so much was to see texts and important work emails that came through. My wife works in health care, and we like to text throughout the day when we can, and she often only has a few spare minutes at a time. So it’s important to me to see things from her right when they come in. Same goes for the occasional work email that requires immediate attention. That doesn’t happen too often, but when it does, I want to be on my toes. So, I ended up checking my phone a lot just to see if there were new texts or emails, which more often than not led to other time-wasting activities. In getting a cheap smartwatch that gives my wrist a little vibration on incoming texts and work emails, I can know within a second or two if something needs attention and if I need to reach for my phone or not. Pretty dang handy, actually.

The Lesson: Take the time to really think about your philosophy — and even specific rules — about your social media and smartphone usage.

Concluding Thoughts

My month off of social media was far more insightful than I thought it would be. After being away for 4 weeks, it oddly felt like it would be more work to jump fully back into the fray and keep up with what was going on. It sounded exhausting, actually. I’m now far more intent on using my phone for thoughtful, purposeful actions rather than letting it control how I use my time.

A month after coming up with the rules above, I can emphatically say it’s all worked without a hitch. I actually now just naturally get bored after more than a couple minutes on Facebook and Instagram every few days — a result that many of the social media fasters profiled in Digital Minimalism experienced as well. I know that sounds sort of holier-than-thou, but it’s the honest-to-goodness truth. And the smartwatch has been surprisingly useful; I’m not reaching for my phone nearly as much, so my overall usage of it has gone down drastically (to less than half of what it was before, according to Apple’s Screen Time app). It’s made a significant, appreciable difference in my life.

Everyone uses (and perhaps struggles with) social media and phone usage in different ways. While I think everyone should take a social media fast — of at least 30 days — what you find out about yourself and your digital consumption will vary from my own results. My lessons were very much individual to me; whether or not they relate to you will depend on your own social media habits, and the particular parts of it you’d like to see change.

The whole point is that I wouldn’t have learned any of this stuff without that fast. So the only prescriptive part of this article is to implore you to take your own 30-day break from social media and other time-wasting apps. As Newport argues, it’s only in temporarily wiping the slate clean, that you can figure out what really matters and what’s really important when it comes to your devices and apps. Then you can truly know what you want to re-introduce into your life, and be able to use what you do bring back in an intentional, fully conscious, life-enhancing-rather-than-life-squandering way.

Related Resources and Further Reading