Why do it?
A little while ago, I published this blog post about how I can’t seem to read for pleasure anymore. Since then, I’ve been trying to push myself into reading – whether by incorporating audiobooks into my life, or just forcing myself to read the way one my force down a mouthful of medicine.
Neither of these is particularly pleasant. The audiobooks are good for nonfiction, because it feels like I’m in a lecture and I can leave them on in the background while I do other things – thus splitting my attention and giving me something to occupy my mind during the boring bits. But when it comes to fiction, I find myself wanting to skip through to the climax so that I can get it out of the way. I once read the seventh Harry Potter book in one day. Now, I find it excruciating to read a paragraph.
While researching reasons why I might be having trouble reading, I came across this YouTube video by Better Ideas. I’m not sure how much genuine research has gone into this video, but what he said resonated with my own experience so I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Here’s a quote from the start of the video:
During certain periods of my life I have a very difficult time focusing on pretty much anything important or difficult. During these periods, it seems almost impossible to break out of the social media limbo, where you’re just constantly switching between tabs, refreshing pages, kind of waiting for something interesting to happen… You’re kind of waiting to be entertained. But if you actually have to apply yourself it’s extremely difficult, borderline painful to do so.
This is a very apt description of exactly what is going on in my head at the moment.
Social media is, at its core, an ad-distribution software that is designed to control our interest as long as it can, as well as motivate us to return as often as possible. It is easy to whip out your phone and get a quick hit of dopamine from seeing an interesting post or a notification* – much easier than, say, standing in line at the shops waiting to checkout with nothing but your own thoughts. Our online world is designed to be as pleasurable as humanly possible.
What Better Ideas does is argue that social media has reprogrammed our brains to seek the stimuli of apps and notifications because it’s easier for our brains to receive the reward of something interesting or entertaining, as opposed to deep-focused work (which can also be rewarding but takes significantly more effort).
Better Ideas explains it in this way:
So the long-term solution to be able to focus on boring things, is to reprogram our brain to remember that these things are actually pleasurable, and really good for us, and integral for our survival… it’s something I noticed during the quarantine, why it was so hard for me to find my work ethic again. It’s because all that time inside made me an internet addict. I spent so much time looking at screens that my baseline of dopamine and stimulation was so high that the more boring things became almost painful in comparison.
In order to get my brain back to its best space, I think I need to see what happens if I devote time to intentional distancing from those spaces.
Before we get any further, a big disclaimer: I AM NOT HATING ON SOCIAL MEDIA.
In this house, we do not wag our fingers at people for liking things, and we certainly don’t consider ourselves morally superior than others because of those likes.
I just think that Better Ideas’s video, and the potential that I might in fact be addicted to the internet, explains why I want to skip to the end of books. I want the experience of the climax (the most interesting/exciting part) without the hours it would ordinarily take me to get there. It explains why I spend several minutes before I begin work in the morning scrolling through YouTube looking for the ‘perfect’ video to have on in the background. If I’m getting interesting content from the video, then I can allow my brain to split its focus between that and the less-rewarding work tasks I have to do. It means I do a poorer job, but at least I can muscle my way through.
What I want is to pull back on social media enough so that I can re-learn how to sit with my thoughts, engage with more deep-work, and hopefully come back to the online space with a more mindful and intentional approach.
I also want to make it clear that I’m not doing this to ‘be more productive’, as many folks who quit social media (and then talk about it at length on the internet) seem to think is the only benefit to logging off.
Nearly every ‘social media detox’ video and article I found on my quest to figure out the best way to approach this problem started from the assumption that I wanted to become a more productive worker.
Capitalism, surprisingly, isn’t my core motivation.
I don’t want to remove the social media stimuli just so that I can replace it with labour, and I don’t want to fall into the toxic-productivity, hustle-culture mindset that burned me out back when I was working sixty-hours a week in the Netherlands.
I want to take the time I spend on social media and just… do other stuff. I want to read for pleasure. I want to take up guitar again, and spend more time painting, or even go on longer walks with my dog. I want to focus for 3-4 hours on a Dungeons & Dragons session without scrolling through Pinterest to *get in the mood* for the story. The only ‘productive’ thing I want to do is work on myself.
As the great philosopher, Hank Green, once said:
You will always struggle with not feeling productive until you accept that your own joy can be something you produce
How to Plan it
I don’t want to quit cold turkey.
If social media is an addiction, then quitting cold turkey ought to have the same pros and cons as it would for any other addiction. I’ve unfortunately had some experience in quitting other things cold turkey**, and since the point of this little experiment is to increase my own joy, I know that a harsh and sudden cut off would not benefit me.
Instead, I’m going to taper my social media use over the course of about 10 weeks. This will involve slowly adjusting down and gradually developing a higher tolerance for long periods without it. I’m hoping that this will be a lot less demanding than the ’30-day Social Media Detoxes’ that are often celebrated as the best way to break the habit.
First, I need to understand how I use social media.
What specific ‘benefits’ do I think I’m getting and how do these benefits relate to the amount of time/focus I spend on these apps. For example, one of the big motivators for me is to avoid feeling bored and to see things I like. My Instagram explore page is almost entirely reels of puppies doing various cute things. This is a huge benefit and something I need to take into account when I’m planning tasks to replace the feeling I get when I use the app.
There’s also the question of how I physically use the apps. Do I scroll mindlessly down the feeds because each post offers me a little pop of interest? Do I get distracted easily while I’m using them, or can they occupy my attention until something (usually my dog) demands that I return to the present? Do I look at the screen constantly while I’m on them, or can I look away and still be entertained?
I found that my social media usage tends to fall into three categories. Once I realised that, I took all of my accounts and divided them into three tiers:
Tier One: Near-constant scrolling through posts, enjoying the content, seeing things that interest me and liking them, occasionally sharing my own content (knowing that other people will find it interesting too or at least pretend to)
Tier Two: Checking in on friends and family (or colleagues), making sure that no one is posting a cry for help or anything that I need to follow up on – either through DM or text
Tier Three: Background/ambient noise while I do other tasks, occasional focused attention on subscribed accounts
I decided to use different strategies for tapering off my time on the apps depending on what tier they were in because I know that my mind will respond differently to losing them. Tier One is the most used and preferred apps, so these are going to be tapered more gradually, while Tier Three can be adjusted only when it comes to the subscribed accounts (I think ambient noise is helpful to keep my mind from hyper-focusing on other noises like traffic and the neighbours, so I want to keep that).
How to do it
To begin: Put the phone in a different room at night, before I go to bed.
Week 1: Everyday = Check Tier One at lunchtime and dinner. Check Tier Two before lunch. Use Tier Three only to listen to ambient sounds until dinner time (then I can watch subscribed accounts).
Week 2: ^^ same, plus Screenfree Sunday (podcasts and audiobooks ONLY).
Week 3: Everyday = Check Tier One at lunchtime. Use Tier Three only to listen to ambient sounds until dinner time, when I can watch subscribed accounts. Monday, Wednesday, Friday = Check Tier Two before lunch. Screenfree Sunday
Week 4: ^^ same
Week 5: Monday, Wednesday, Friday = Check Tier One at lunchtime. Tuesday, Thursday = Check Tier Two before lunch. Everyday = Use Tier Three only to listen to ambient sounds until dinner time, when I can watch subscribed accounts. Screenfree Sunday
Week 6: ^^ same
Week 7: Tuesday, Thursday = Check Tier One at lunchtime. Everyday = Use Tier Three only to listen to ambient sounds until dinner time, when I can watch subscribed accounts. Saturday = Check Tier One & Two before lunch. Screenfree Sunday
Week 8: ^^ same
Week 9: Tuesday, Thursday = Check Tier One at lunchtime. Everyday = Use Tier Three only to listen to ambient sounds until dinner time, when I can watch subscribed accounts. Saturday = Check Tier One & Two before lunch. Screenfree Sunday
Week 10: ^^ same
So there you have it – a ten week social media taper. You’re welcome to try it yourself and let me know how you go, or if there are any changes that you think you would make depending on your own social media usage. This is a very personalised plan, so I imagine someone else might need more time, more tiers, or even less space between changes depending on their own needs.
As you can see, there are a lot of fortnightly changes rather than weekly ones. That’s because I find a week to be too short a time to develop (or break) a habit. I wanted two weeks for each stage so that I will feel less like I’m losing something when I switch.
After the ten weeks, I’ll decide what the next step will be – whether my social media usage will be a once a week thing (on weekends, maybe?) or whether the approach in Week 9 is enough for me to be confident that I’m being more intentional with my usage.
Hopefully by then I’ll see some improvement in my concentration but if not… well… another experiment might be necessary.
PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂
*After a while, apparently, your brain is trained to expect a hit of dopamine from going on these sites, to the point when even if nothing interesting is happening you still want to go and check – just on the off chance that you will get that reward.
** I once came off of an antidepressant called Lexapro cold turkey ON THE ADVICE OF MY DOCTOR and enjoyed two weeks of withdrawal symptoms including nausea, vertigo, and literal hallucinations brought on from not sleeping for three days straight. 0/10 do not recommend coming off SSRIs cold turkey. Worst experience of my life.