This is a story about how a small experiment lead me to breaking the habit of checking social media on regular basis. In my previous post I provided some back story of what lead me to consider this choice, which contained a bit about my experience on social media and how my experience has changed over the years. What I'm writing about here almost made it in that post, but I thought it might be interesting enough for a seperate post.
At some point, I learned about productivity shortcuts on my phone. To save you all the technical details, at a very generalized level Shortcuts is an app that automatically does things in other apps. The options are quite limitless, but it could be used for something as simple as responding to a text automatically to completely automating an entire workflow. As for my experiment, I started by creating a shortcut that would immediately close my social media app the moment I opened it. As you can imagine, this only worked for a short period.
As a preface: there are a handful of blog posts on the internet about similar efforts that individuals have gone into to kick their social media habit. That story is often followed up by some alternative or product they're attempting to market. That is not the case here. If you enjoy your experience on social media, please continue using it. I chose what works for me, and implore you to do the same!
As we were.. A couple of hours had passed since I created my initial shortcut, and out of habit I attempted to open my social media app. It immediately closed and naturally I tried opening it again. Remembering my shortcut to close the app, I put the phone down. Some time passed and I tried again. This time remembering my shortcut, I tried opening the app anyways. The habit was clearly very strong at this point. A third attempt, and I was cunning enough to outsmart myself by noticing the ability to disable the shortcut for 3 minutes. What a genius, right? Scrolling through an endless amount of information while hoping the next scroll would contain something with a bit more substance, I was distracted for long enough to completely forget about the shortcut I created. This repeated a few times until some days later I removed the shortcut as it was only acting as an unnecessary barrier between me and social media. It became nothing more than a slight annoyance.
More days passed and I decided that I would try again. Thinking about my previous attempt and where it went wrong, I acknowledged that there is a short moment in time when you hit your social media feed, and the possibly that the most relevant or meaningful content is likely presented to you at that moment. This claim was backed by absolutely no proof, other my very subjective experience on social media. With that in mind, I created another shortcut. This time I set the shortcut to wait 3 minutes before closing my social media app. This shortcut was noticeably more annoying than the previous one. By the time minute 3 rolled around, I had already viewed, reacted, or commented on the stuff that had any sort of meaning to me, and finally settled on some trivial thread of meaningless banter in which I would share my two cents. It could have been some non-moderated news channel's comment section, or the various DIY groups I've joined. The topic of discussion was either so rooted in emotion that civil communication is not considered, or so abstract that it had very little actual real world meaning to me. At any rate, re-opening the app would start my timer over, giving me just enough time to continue where I left off, and pick up something new. Bamboozled again. Needless to say, I eventually disabled this shortcut.
However, this was not the end. Instead of completely kicking the phone habit, i decided to take smaller steps. At this point in time I had already sought after some alternatives to social media. None of them really filled the void that social media occupied, but a relatively decent substitute was found. I gravitated towards an older technical forum which has a significant startup company culture interwoven into it. The community was old, but still pretty large. I felt like although much of the content was sprinkled with marketing for some startup company or another, the articles provided some educational value. Most of the startup companies interwoven into this community are attempting to solve common problems in the technical world. That coupled with moderately strict posting guidelines, lead to some interesting comment threads that centered around sharing information. If you can imagine, this was a completely different experience than social media. I learned a great deal about what is going on in the technical world outside my experiences, and was exposed to some tools that I still use at the time of writing this.
By this time, I would switch between social media and the technical forum. I found that my experience there was far better than the social media app, but I also still found myself endlessly scrolling on social media. There were some moments where I would switch from social media to the technical blog, but those moments were rarer than I'd prefer. Thinking back to my previous experiments, I realized that I hadn't given myself an outlet. I thought about years ago when we had a rottweiler puppy who would chew on anything solid. Telling her no would just send her into another room just to find something else to chew on. She was going to chew, and nothing I was going to do would stop that. The resolve? A dozen chew toys. When she started chewing on the kitchen table (seriously, this is something she did), I'd call her name and toss her a chew toy. After a few chews, throw her another. This process worked well enough and eventually when she felt the urge to chew, she found the chew toys, instead of the front door.
Before you ask, yes. I am totally equating my habitual experience with social media to that of a teething puppy. As mentioned in the preface, do what works for you. There's a phrase that circles around dog training groups on social media and likely elsewhere, "correct, then redirect". Correct the dog to let it know that what it's doing is wrong, and redirect it to what it should be doing instead. Not to go too far on a tangent about a dog, but I learned a great deal about communication, boundaries, and respect, while training that dog. Especial the value of clearly stating limitations and expectations in a way that others understand.
Redirecting my attention
Anyways, back to my story. I realized that my previous attempts had failed because I was not redirection my attention or energy. I recognized that I had an outlet for this attention. Rather than closing social media, and leaving myself up to my own devices to figure out what to do next, I created a shortcut that would redirect me to the technical forum. In other words, when I attempted to open a social media app the app would close, and I would be sent directly to front page of the technical forum. This shortcut ended up being immensely successful. Scrolling through some abstract or emotionally charged topic turned into trying to understand some technical concept. The majority of the content was related to some concept that I had encountered in the professional realm that I could benefit from understanding further. This may have been some technical topic, organizational philosophy, or some tool/product. I was able to correlate the information I was taking in to the advancement of my professional skill set, in some form.
Months passed, and I felt pretty good about my decision. At first, I did not notice how this created a disconnect between me and my friends and family. During the time I first set out on kicking my habitual use of social media, there was an upcoming election brewing on the horizon, and the algorithmic powers that be acknowledged how bent out of shape I and others got about opposing view points. Most of my friends echoed what I was already thinking or sharing. As for my family, about half echoed my sentiment, and the other half fiercely disagreed. Either way I looked, there was no personal connection, just some unified fight for what's "good". Often disregarding the individual, and responding to the societal event or situation directly through this individual.
Because of that, it took me some months to realize that I had completely disconnected from my family, and to a lesser extent my friends. During this time I did keep in sporadic contact with some of my friends. It's possible I was subconsciously offsetting my lack of social interaction on social media, but I found myself making stronger attempts to connect with friends outside of social media. I was probably more socially active at this point in my life than I'd been in a long time. The holidays at the end of the year rolled around, and I realized that the only communication I had had with much of my family was a "Happy Holidays" text. Many years ago this would have been the norm, but relative to my experience on social media this was different.
At this point, I realized that I had completely broke the social media habit. But what I did not break, was the habitual behavior of endlessly searching for more information. Not better information, not information that will help me reach an explicit goal, just more. More interesting, more thought provoking, more educational, just.. more. While I acknowledged that I would likely never stop seeking new information, I also acknowledged that I had developed an unhealthy habit. The opposite extreme of meaningless information, was a surplus of meaningful information. Neither of the two extremes were what I was ultimately looking for.
At a certain point one of my kids had lost privileges to their phone, and what ensued was a pretty strong taste of reality. I witnessed the difficult process of breaking the unhealthy habit of being preoccupied with something "more". That is to say, I saw in my kid the struggle that I was experiencing internally. After talking over this experience with my wife, a cooperative effort was underway to remind our kid of how many alternatives there are to an electronic device. Suddenly a flood gate of creative expression opened, and in countless ways. Drawings, paintings, surprisingly elaborate short stories, etc. Privileges were restored (in way more moderation this time), and a balance was had again.
I'm getting on with the story, I promise. They say the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. I made a bit more of a concerted effort to distance myself from distractions on my phone in general. I found myself picking up a pen and writing in one of my many notebooks, something I had not done in years.
Now after some time has passed, I'm starting to think about this decision retrospectively. I've been inactive on social media for long enough that I'm starting to notice the benefits and impediments that this decision has created. My shortcut to redirect my attention has been removed, and I have logged into social media a few times for very specific purposes. Logging in again for the first time was an interesting experience. I found that the first few scrolls were quite enjoyable. I saw some posts and comments from family members and friends which I seldom saw in my previous experiences. In a matter of moments I took in a plethora of updates on my friends and family, completely nuanced in the difference between what I saw of them last and what I was seeing then. I responded to some of these with a few reactions and a one-liner here or there, and moved on with my day.
The experience was different this time in many ways, but most notably was that this information provided some value to me. Rather than an endless stream of engaging banter I was presented with in the past. It was still the fire-hose of information compared to what I had experienced with the garden-hose information diet that my experiment had lead me into, but it felt meaningful. What I noticed was that I missed my friends and family, and while their social media presence is only to some extent a representation of who they are, it brought me joy to be presented with so many updates from so many of them in a short period of time.
As noticeably better of an experience as this was, it did not last. Only moments later, and I found a mediocre experience yet again. While I was presented with topics of discussion that I would previously feel compelled to share my thoughts on, I let them pass. Possibly the act of commenting on a topic as it passes my screen was no longer part of my habitual routine of scrolling through information. In any case I found myself closing the social media app in search for something else to do.
I found that something else to be the projects, ideas, or goals that I've been working on sporadically over the years. Some of these are quite small like this blog, and others are a bit more involved like takling financial debt. I cannot say that I have reached any state of completion on any of these, but what I will say with great certainty is that think i previously felt I could never find time for now feel absolutely feasible.
Before finishing, I should mention that I cannot attribute this solely to my social media sabbatical. Along with this deliberate change in behavior of how I use social media, I also sought out to make some other significant changes in my life. I personally have found that difficulties in focus correlate directly to the number of distractions available, but you your experience may be different. My use in social media was one small change that I wanted to make in my life, and I have succeeded in that. This was a small and potentially minimally impactful change, yet the effect was a lasting moment of empowerment to take on the next something else that I've been putting off for who knows how long.
Thank you for reading this post.