I took a complete social media hiatus in December. For the first time since I created my accounts back in high school, I completely shut everything down for a month and unplugged. Today I want to reflect and share what I took away from that experience.
Why I did it, and what I got rid of
My need for a break from social media has been a long time coming. What it took for me to decide to actually do it was awareness that I was addicted to it and I wasn’t using it productively.
Social media had become a complete burden on my psyche. Not only was I always thinking about it, but the negativity I experienced across many of the platforms carried over into my day-to-day life. I also poured hours into consuming and never created anything. Social media can be an amazing place to be creative and contribute to a community, I wasn’t doing that.
I became jealous of others’ success as I watched them grow their audience and live seemingly amazing lives. I found myself wishing I could live like Casey Neistat, or travel to places my favorite travel Instagrammers went. This envy bred discontent and unhappiness. Many evenings after work would be completely spent on social media. My fiancee and I would make dinner and I’d sit down, plug in headphones, and spend the rest of the night on my laptop doing absolutely nothing, living vicariously through online creators.
Needless to say, I needed a break. So for the entire month of December, I eliminated:
I ended up blocking these sites completely for the entire month using the block site Chrome extension on my laptop and by deleting the apps from my phone.
I was anxious going into December, and the while the first few days had their share of oddities, the experience was extremely positive from the beginning.
Two interesting transitions I dealt with were my now very short attention span and a lack of stimulation.
I planned to read more books throughout the month and found myself sitting down to read the first few days with a complete inability to focus. Books take more cognitive effort to engage with. You have to focus, think more, remember, connect. I eventually got better at it, but I also found I was extremely sensitive to distractions while reading.
No social media presented a distinct lack in stimulation I wasn’t prepared for. This led to me instinctively pull out my phone looking for apps that weren’t there, contributed to my short attention span, and caused a lot of restlessness throughout the first week. This was the most unsettling part of the month.
What didn’t go well
Dealing with my attention span and lack of stimulation weren’t comfortable, but I don’t view it as a bad part of the experience. It taught me the impact social media had on my habits and behavior.
Some things didn’t go well at all though.
I didn’t create anything. I didn’t write, podcast, shoot photos, or any of my usual creative pursuits. Going in, I thought I’d be chock full of inspiration and time to create, instead I took a complete break.
I found other time wasters, mainly email, Instapaper, and Netflix. I read articles and refreshed my inbox like I would with social media. Looking back, this is better than refreshing Twitter, but it showed my need for a constant stream of new information. I craved notifications and ‘content.’ My fiancee and I spent a lot more time watching Netflix than we usually do, and while sharing a show is more engaging than being on our phones, it isn’t quality time.
I barely read more books. I completed about one, finishing one I started in November and getting halfway through another. Maybe my expectations were unrealistic, but one of my goals was to spend more time reading books not just articles, so I consider it a negative.
Lastly, I meant to spend a lot of time in focused reflection about the year — what went well and didn’t, and what I want to do in 2017. Reflection happened, just not to the extent I had wished.
What went well
As unproductive as all that sounds, I must reiterate this was an extremely positive experience. Here’s why.
I didn’t miss social media at all. Seriously, not a bit. The only part I wished I still had was the ability to talk with people I follow and don’t see in day-to-day life. However, even though it was a bummer, I realized just how little I truly used these networks to connect and interact. I barely ever instigated real conversations on Twitter, I mostly just read their articles, hit ‘like’, or followed silently. Yes, I learn from their content, but if I can subscribe to their newsletters and get the same information, what’s the point of following them on social media? I learned a lot about how I actually use social media during the month, and it showed me the reality of my use as opposed to the narrative I told myself.
Also, being off social media greatly reduced my daily mental burden. Twitter and Facebook especially are full of hot takes, arguments, and memes. Very few productive conversations are being had, and those productive conversations are simply happening and being forgotten once a new one appears.
The amount of time in my day increased significantly. I’m not happy with how I used it, but it was clearly there.
I built stronger awareness of myself and my habits. The book I did finish was called Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products (full review here), and I can’t think of a better book to read while on a social media break. This wasn’t on purpose, but it ended up being very poignant timing. Hooked’s title is self-explanatory, Nir Eyal talks all about how products form habits in their users, and how you can build such a product yourself.
As I explored my personal feelings and habits around my social media use, Hooked showed me how it was engineered and what was going on in my head. Sometimes frightening, always interesting, and in the end thought provoking, Hooked helped me further understand my behavior as a user and marketer.
My biggest misconception
I thought getting rid of social media would sincerely change my life. I expected my productivity to skyrocket, my priorities to straighten, happiness to blossom.
It didn’t. I learned social media is just one piece of the pie, and while getting rid of it absolutely helped, it wasn’t a switch I could flip and fix everything about myself I don’t like.
This was both disappointing and reassuring. It showed me while social media is an issue for me, it isn’t so large that getting rid of it fixes everything. In a sense I wanted it to fix everything, because who doesn’t want fixing all your problems to be as easy as deleting apps and blocking sites on Chrome?
Final Thoughts – Where to go from here
After one month without social media, I feel this detox of sorts was the beginning of a larger process. December brought me a sense of awareness about my habits that allowed me to look more objectively at how I use technology. It seems trivial now, but it took serious internal struggle to get myself to willingly turn it all off.
If you are like me and thought about unplugging from it all for a while, do it. Take a month off. I promise you won’t miss anything vital.
In the first week of 2017 I returned to social media. Part of me didn’t want to go back at all. But I’ve decided to try and return to see if I can make practical changes to use the sites productively. This includes heavily decreasing time spent browsing, and increasing time spent interacting. I think it’ll also require me to focus more on curating what I see and who I follow to get rid of the fluff. I’m still working this out, but here are a few ideas:
- Ban all social media usage except for a certain time of day.
- Fully ban Facebook, YouTube, and Reddit.
- Heavy pruning of Twitter feed, or using Twitter Lists seriously. Every time I’ve tried to create a Twitter List I haven’t stuck to it, but it could be a good way to curate what I see.
- Don’t go to social media for breaking news.
If you have other ideas, please share!
Interestingly, my fiancee observed it didn’t seem like I spent less time on my phone overall. This leads me to wonder if 30 days was enough? What if I went longer, or tried to break my dependence on my phone in general as opposed to just social media? I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to take this further.
In the 10 days since returning I don’t feel the tug to refresh as much as I used to, but I feel it returning which is why I’m thinking about adopting constraints for use. The awareness is refreshing, and proving to myself I don’t need to rely on social media provided a much-needed confidence boost.
I don’t think social media is inherently bad, but I think it has developed a culture and habits that are extremely unhealthy, and most of us don’t have the awareness or ability to control our participation in it.
Taking a month off helped me clearly understand my dependency, and ultimately empowered me to take steps to fix the problem. I consider this experiment a huge win, and highly recommend you try it for yourself.